The History of Energy part one: We have a problem!
Gareth Wyn Jones
In this series of short articles, which update my book I will try and put our current problems in their long-term context and consider how, over many millions of years, the exploitation of energy, more correctly, energy transformations, has changed the face of Earth and our lives and, indeed, ask where might it all be leading us?
Humans are inveterate storytellers, always have and always will be. Nowadays our stories usually reach us on our mobile phones or lap tops, historically they were shared around a fire.
But it is still these stories that colour and drive virtually every aspect of our lives. They can motivate us and help us overcome difficulties or reinforce our worse fears and lead to deep gloom and lethargy.
For a couple of centuries, we’ve been fed and inspired by the story of unending material growth. We call it called ‘progress’ – by which we mean acquiring more and more stuff, enjoying a consistent rise in our living standards in the expectation that this will make us all happier.
Historically it’s a relatively new story but an exceptionally powerful one. Our forebears might have yearned for salvation and a place in heaven and possibly for personal worldly success and power.
But continuing, unceasing ‘progress’ as we imagine it today was not on the agenda – not part of human story telling. Now it’s what we expect and think we deserve!
However in last decades in many countries such as the USA and UK including Wales, all this ‘progress’ has stalled. Only the very rich are enjoying ‘growth’ and ‘progress’. Many, perhaps most, are stagnating. For many young people their lives are actually much harder than for earlier generations.
So is the dream dying? Our usual reaction is to put our faith in some new leader or a different political party who will, in all probability, be promising to renew, even enhance growth and that we (be it the Welsh, English or British) will soon become ‘world leaders’.
But it’s worth asking ourselves, at a much more profound level, can these stories we tell ourselves be true. They are fed to us, continually, by politicians from right and left and by the media but are they really credible?
The UK Government, especially post-Brexit, has seemed singularly inept, but there are far deeper questions, only tangentially related to the government of the day in London or Cardiff.
Can we and our children, as citizens of Planet Earth living in Wales, expect to enjoy everlasting material growth? Are there the resources available on this planet to deliver plenty for over 8 billion of us? Or maybe, do we see ourselves as exceptionally deserving cases although we are living together on “Spaceship Earth”?
Will, and indeed can, our scientific and technological expertise and our amazing human inventiveness and enterprise always come up with solutions? Or, may be, we are facing a real turning point in human history?
Quite apart from the easy and often false promises of conventional politics, could we be, in reality, reaching an impasse, a tipping point?
Even worse, is it possible that the continual growth stories we swallow wholesale, are positively dangerous, even disastrous for us as individuals, for our children and grandchildren and for humanity generally?
Should we be heeding global warming as a canary in the mine warning us of the disasters ahead?
On the other hand poverty is endemic globally and, sadly, all too common in Wales. It is not surprising that many in the West, despite the evidence of stagnation over the last 30 to 40 years, put their faith in economic growth.
They see it, with good reason, as the only way to improve their lives, and those of their children. Even less surprising is the insistence of the less developed world on their right to greater prosperity and more of this earth’s resources.
These contrasting pictures highlight a cruel and unforgiving dilemma. One that has, in my judgement, the potential to destroy our civilization. It hides a set of issues scarcely acknowledged or discussed; not part of the political discourse.
Cost of living
Ironically the truly horrific war in Ukraine has had one positive impact. It has brought home our critical dependence on energy. It is forcing us and the rest of Europe to rapidly and drastically reduce oil and gas imports from the aggressor Russia.
The war is causing European countries to decarbonise their economies at a rate not contemplated even when facing all the scientific evidence of impending catastrophic climate change and global heating and Greta Thunberg.
The threat to Ukrainian grain exports also highlighted humanity’s dependence on grains as a major source of the energy in our diets and that of our animals.
All this has contributed to the current cost of living crisis, and to people suffering, possibly dying, of cold in modern Britain. Without cheap and plentiful energy, or possibly revolutionary ways of coupling energy to work, the economy stalls.
Is there, even remotely, a silver lining? Clearly we must start with an honest appraisal of where we stand and where we are likely heading.
Let us therefore start thinking seriously about energy and its many roles and impacts.
While Putin’s war has had an immediacy which even Greta Thunberg’s brave advocacy failed to produce, it has, by default, highlighted the inadequacy of our responses to climate change and global warming.
One remarkable aspect of the underlying physics is that both the chemical energy in grain and in oil and gas and the energy we can capture from the sun’s radiation or from winds and tides, are all encompassed and quantitively interrelated to each other in this one term, “energy”.
Few now actually deny that our society’s dependence on energy from burning of fossil fuels, initially coal, latterly oil and gas, and that the CO2 so released, is the prime cause of global warming.
This is also behind the climate disasters visited on so many communities around the world – the searing heat waves, the horrendous fires, the devastating floods and drought and storms.
But, and it’s a very big but, we depend on huge quantities of energy to sustain our society and our life styles. Despite all the talk, 80% of this still comes from burning fossil fuels.
As is well known, we need 2,500 to 3,000 food calories in our daily diet but our life-style requires perhaps 8 times as much energy, daily, to warm our homes and workplaces, to run our cars and move goods, to go shopping or on holiday, and is embedded in the goods we buy and the entertainments we enjoy (including powering the web) etc., etc.
Gareth Wyn Jones is Professor Emeritus of plant biology and bioscience at Bangor University.
Read all the installments of The History of Energy here.
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.