How Did We Get Into This Situation?

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In the 1800's, with breathtaking speed, humanity took a leap of faith into parts unknown, places it could not even imagine.  Four rapid-fire revolutions occurred bringing unprecedented changes that continue to affect every aspect of our lives—how we eat, how we work, how we play, what we own, how we travel, how we relate to each other, and the dangers we face. Any one of these revolutions would have increased global energy use dramatically.

 The Industrial Revolution: Coal

It all began innocently enough. Coal mining in the1700s was an onerous occupation. Deep in the ground, it was dirty and dangerous, and wet, as caves flooded and miners had to slog through water.

In 1712 an Englishman by the name of Thomas Newcomen invented a steam-driven pump to remove the water. It ran by using coal to boil water and forcing steam into a cylinder which moved a piston. Clever, crude, and inefficient—it did the job.

Fifty years later a congenial young man, engineer, and scientific instrument maker was asked to repair one of Newcomen’s pumps. Recognizing the inefficiency of the system, he set out to improve upon it.

James Watt ultimately came up with a far more efficient engine which could be used for more than just pumping. By attaching a series of levers to the moving piston, he could make a wheel rotate. Once coal could be effectively used to make things go around, the industrial revolution was launched.

By the turn of the century manufacturing was moving out of homes and into large factories filled with steam powered machinery. All kinds of goods from textiles, to machine parts, to furniture, could be built faster and far cheaper than by hand. Trains, ships, and agricultural tools became powered by steam engines, run on coal.

Coal was beginning to be used in unprecedented quantities, unimaginable even a few decades earlier.  Coal smoke, including particulates and CO2, was being emitted into the air, darkening cities; a new substance called Smog (Smoke + fog) hung in the air. London was famous for its “pea-soup” smogs—the most serious of which was in 1952 when 12,000 people are estimated to have died.

A consumer culture, so artfully represented in Any Warhol’s art, was born, beginning in England and Europe and, over time, spreading around the world. The consumption of larger and larger quantities of stuff, made cheap by manufacturing has brought with it a tremendous increase in the use of coal. Innovation in manufacturing has continued unabated, with increasing fossil fuels use. Travel became cheaper, more comfortable, more affordable, and more frequently used.

The Second Wave: Oil

In the mid-1800s a technique was developed to extract kerosene from crude oil. Kerosene rapidly replaced whale oil, which was expensive and didn’t burn as well, to light homes. Within a few decades the industry exploded with the main player being John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.

Just when it looked like the oil industry was unstoppable, Edison’s electric lamp threatened its existence. Within a decade, however, the internal combustion engine that ran off of another refined oil product—gasoline—gave rise to Henry Ford’s mass produced automobiles. And oil became the fossil fuel of choice, even eclipsing the amount of coal used.

Number Three: Electrification

Humans have always been fascinated by, and afraid of, lightning. We all know about Benjamin Franklin’s foolish experiment with the kite and a key, he was lucky to live through it. But he did establish that lightning was the same thing as the electricity being observed within various laboratories at the time. Until the middle of the 19thcentury, it was primarily an interesting play thing for the gentrified scientists. Try as they might, they had problems coming up with a practical use for the stuff.

In 1879 Thomas Edison literally brought electricity home with his carbon filament light bulb. Electricity became useful and practical.

Today we use electricity for everything from cruise ships to tooth brushes, leaf blowers to elevators. We heat, make ice, and light up our cities to the point that many of us rarely see a truly star-filled night. Humans use electricity for unending entertainment and can’t imagine a world without a constant supply.  Tom Edison was a smart guy, but there is no way he could have foretold how his little light bulb would affect human culture and society.

Electricity is generated around the world, for the most part, from the energy contained in coal. Vast quantities of coal are combusted releasing enormous amounts of chemical potential energy and equally enormous quantities of CO2 enter the atmosphere.

The movement to a fossil fuel society has not been cheap. Drilling, mining, transportation—including pipelines, ships, trains, and trucking—refinement, gas stations and newer enhanced techniques of extraction (fracking etc.) represent an investment of trillions of dollars at today’s rate by both the private and public sectors over the last 150 years.

Industrialization and electrification is now so ubiquitous that it is hard to imagine meeting our needs with things produced any other way.

Germs—The Fourth Revolution

James Watt, in the 19thcentury, had two wives, the first dying in childbirth at a young age.  With her he had 5 children.  His second marriage yielded 2 children.  Of his 7 children, 3 lived to adulthood. To lose the majority of one’s children, even for the relatively well-off, was not unusual. Neither was death in childbirth.

There was one more major social transformation to come that, even more than industrialization and electrification, has increased worldwide use of fossil fuels - the germ theory of disease.

Louis Pasteur, in the 1860s, was the first to convincingly demonstrate germ theory of disease, and
inspired a health revolution. Now we could fight back against maladies that had plagued mankind since before Lucy walked on two legs. Average life expectancy has doubled since 1850. Better distribution of food and the industrial revolution itself can account for some of this increase.   But most of it can be credited to effective vaccines, antibiotics, and control of disease vectors that came from an understanding of microbiological causes of disease.

This has curtailed nature’s abilities to keep our population in check.  Suddenly we have unprecedented population growth. World population was 1.2 billion in 1850.  Today, 117 years later it is 7.5 billion people, 6 times as many, and it continues to grow.

Further, people in nations who have not enjoyed the benefits of our energy gluttony are lining up to join in. More people, wanting the stuff, conveniences, and transportation offered by the industrial revolution, means increased demands for energy.