Home > Economics, Environment > Energy Transitions Past and Future

Energy Transitions Past and Future

Cutler Cleveland writes in The Oil Drum:

In Greek mythology, Prometheus defied the will of Zeus by stealing fire and giving it to the mortal race of men in their dark caves. Zeus was enraged by Prometheus’ deceit, so he had Prometheus carried to Mount Caucasus, where an eagle would pick at his liver; it would grow back each day and the eagle would eat it again. Fire transformed mortal life by providing light, warmth, cooking, healing and ultimately the ability to smelt and forge metals, and to bake bricks, ceramics, and lime. Fire became the basis for the Greek culture and ultimately all Western culture. It is no wonder, therefore, that the Greeks attributed fire not to a mortal origin, but to a Titan, one of the godlike giants who were considered to be the personifications of the forces of nature.

If fire was the first Promethean energy technology, then Promethean II was the heat engine, powered first by wood and coal, and then by oil and natural gas. Like fire, heat engines achieve a qualitative conversion of energy (heat into mechanical work), and they sustain a chain reaction process by supplying surplus energy. Surplus energy or (net energy) is the gross energy extracted less the energy used in the extraction process itself. The Promethean nature of fossil fuels is due to the much larger surplus they deliver compared to animate energy converters such as draft animals and human labor.

The changes wrought by fossil fuels exceeded even those produced by the introduction of fire. The rapid expansion of the human population and its material living standard over the past 200 years could not have been produced by direct solar energy and wood being converted by plants, humans and draft animals. Advances in every human sphere — commerce, agriculture, transportation, the military, science and technology, household life, health care, public utilities—were driven directly or indirectly by the changes in society’s underlying energy systems.

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