Smart Enough to Chart Our Energy Future?

Unlike Maine Governor Paul LePage, I believe that when it comes to energy policy you can “fix stupid,” assuming we know who specifically needs to be fixed.  The reality is that Maine’s energy challenges are not as simple as the governor would have us believe; they are part of a much larger national and global complex of physical, social, and economic issues.  The first step to getting smart about energy is understanding how we got to where we are today.

Alfred Crosby explores this in his compelling history of the human use of energy – Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity’s Unappeasable Appetite for Energy (Norton, 2006).  Toward the end of this superb survey he concludes, “We of the first years of the twenty-first century have access to more energy than we have the experience to wield intelligently.”

Crosby is not the only historian to tell the story of how humans have used increasing amounts of energy through history, but his is the best place to start if you want to learn history’s lessons for energy policy.  This is the story of humanity’s “movement up the great chain of energy,” in the words of another historian, Ian Morris.

The beauty of Crosby’s book is that he reminds us of basic facts we know (or should know) but forget because our lives have become separated from the physical realities of that energy we use.  We are “children of the sun” and rely on the flows of energy from the sun for virtually all the work and play of our lives.  This reality is central to understanding the growth of human societies and the challenges that face us in the future.

At their roots, fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas), hydroelectric power, solar collectors, and wind power all are different forms of the sun’s energy transformed to meet our needs.  The only exceptions to the sun’s role in modern energy use are either trivial in terms of energy production (geothermal and tidal power) or deemed by many people to be too dangerous for us to pursue (nuclear fission).  The hope that we might mimic the sun and harness the power potential of fusion power is still far from being realized.

Crosby is a great story teller and he details how humans have continued to find ways to tap into the flows of the sun’s energy to get more food and increase the numbers of our species.  The first breakthrough was the use of fire, which made more food available to hunter/gatherers simply because more of the plants they found could be made digestible through cooking.  Nevertheless there still could not be many humans on the planet simply because it was hard to find enough edible plants and plant-eating animals.  Crosby reminds us of what we might have forgotten from our high school biology classes.  Those plants literally convert the sun’s energy into food through the miraculous process of photosynthesis.

The next big breakthrough, about 12,000 years ago, was domesticating plants and animals to capture the sun’s energy more efficiently.  Our ancestors transitioned from hunter/gatherers to farmers.  They became skilled at concentrating solar energy into plant and animal species using less land and thereby “plugging into the sun.” As humans became better farmers we captured more energy and our numbers grew, slowly and fitfully until about 1700.

The next big step happened in the 18th Century when humans (particularly in Scotland, England, and Wales) discovered that plants and marine organisms had captured the sun’s energy millions of years ago.  Those plants and marine organisms became the concentrated energy we call fossil fuels.  Crosby explains, “Humanity always wants more power in smaller units of volume and weight, and of portability.”  His description of the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath is cursory but effective in showing how here too the sun’s role is central.  The only difference was that industrial society figured how to use ancient solar energy that had been concentrated over time into wonderfully useful fuels.  Human society mushroomed to the over seven billion of us crowding the planet today.

We are at the point for most Americans where energy is not something that we have to think much about.  The gas station has gas to fill the tanks of our car.  The lights come on when we throw the switch.  Homes are heated or cooled.  Food is in the stores or at the farmers’ market.  What Crosby makes clear is that we do need to think more about this, first by understanding how we got to where we are.  Despite what technological optimists tell us, there are not easy renewable energy resources just waiting for us to cut through some political barriers to adopt them.  There is nothing on the horizon with the easy portability and energy density that made fossil fuels so effective at getting the sun’s energy to power our abundant lives.

When I was younger, I remember the first energy technology promise of my lifetime, that of the nuclear power industry.  Electricity from nuclear power was going to be  “too cheap to meter.”  Since then, we have heard one false promise after another about technological solutions to energy problems.  Too many of these were accepted at the time because we did not collectively understand the history of our use of the sun’s bounty.  Crosby’s book is a good place to start to get that understanding back.  It would be a good read for the Governor so that he could start to fix stupid.


Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.