Search for ideal fuel is nothing new

Commentator John Steele Gordon


Kai Ryssdal: Clean coal might have a bright future, but today the hydrocarbon of choice lost some ground. Oil closed down more than five bucks to almost $136 a barrel, off about $9 from its high last week.

OPEC is still doing fine, though. The U.S. Energy Department announced today the oil cartel's profits are going to hit $1.25 trillion this year.

Commentator and economic historian John Steele Gordon says whether it's coal, wind or oil, finding the fuel for our lives is nothing new.

John Steele Gordon: The history of the human consumption of energy has been the searching for and finding of alternative energy sources. Wood was probably the first regular energy source, known and exploited for well over a million years. But when people began to move away from forests, they needed to find a new fuel.

What to do? Well, it turned out that animal dung did the trick. But as civilization grew more complex, a better source of work-doing energy than draft animals was needed. By the third century BC, the Greeks and Romans were using the power of falling water and the Persians invented the windmill about a thousand years later.

In the damp moorlands of Scotland and Ireland, they used peat for fuel. Peat forms in wet areas where vegetable matter only partly decays. Dried out, it burns readily. Coal is nothing more than peat with the addition of millions of years of pressure. When Britain began running out of wood in the 17th century, it exploited its coal resources. Coal was so cheap it helped spark the Industrial Revolution and coal-powered steam engines displaced watermills as a source of factory power.

For lighting, the rich had long used candles while the poor made do with lamps powered by grease or vegetable oils. But when New Englanders industrialized the whaling industry around the turn of the 19th century, whale oil became the first choice for powering lamps. That is until light from coal gas, brighter and cheaper yet, was invented a few years later. But coal gas was practicable only in large cities and whale oil became increasingly expensive as the whales disappeared. Yet another energy crisis was at hand.

The answer was petroleum. Edwin Drake sank the first well in 1859 and a vast new source of cheap energy became available.

Now, rising demand and shrinking cheap sources have put petroleum where whale oil was 150 years ago. What to do? I would suggest relying on humankind's extraordinary capacity to solve technological problems. After all, that approach has worked pretty well for the last million and half years.

Ryssdal: Business historian John Steele Gordon's most recent book is called "An Empire of Wealth."

Log in to post3 Comments

I'm sure Mr. Gordon is smarter than I am, after all you don't get where he is or have books published as he has without having some smarts and that is why I was shocked to hear his history of man's exploitation of energy sources and rather rosy outlook for the future of energy production in the world. I was surprised he did not see our future in the very same history he had just recounted.
He suggests we should rely on humankind’s extraordinary capacity to solve technological problems. I assume he is referring back to his review of man’s exploitation of energy sources through the ages. What he glosses over is that we moved from one limited resource to another burning each nearly out of existence and polluting our environment as we went. The only extraordinary part of it was our ability to invent new ways to find limited resources, harvest them and use them.
We did not apply our abilities to conserving them nor harvesting those very few resources that were renewable. As long as there is something cheaper and easier available that is what we will use. So now coal's time has come again. When the mountains are gone will we turn to the forests? Will we run backwards through our resources until we are using passive solar because that is the only thing left? Will the earth be able to support human and large animal life by then or are we creating another mass extinction event?
This is the point where most people would offer their solution to a problem but it is clear to me based on the history Mr. Gordon laid out what our path likely will be. Humans are like the smoker who only decides to quit after having been diagnosed with cancer. We might survive and we might not but we will be smoking this one down to the filter.

I agree with James' comment. In every field of endeavour technology can only bring us as far as we are able to use it. Consider this reduced time-frame and situation: two archers, same bow, same arrow, elevation, zero wind. One of the archers understands the concept, and can hit a large target at 30 paces. The other archer is an Olympic athelete. Pitted against each other, which one will survive through the best use of their resources? Give the beginner a state-of-the-art bow, and the Olympian will still come out on top. It's not what you use, it's how you use it.

This is the visceral aspect of resource usage that is so hard to convey to the day-to-day public at large. The big difference is that we are pitted against ourselves, ..., for the time being.

I enjoyed your comments. It would be better to hear a comment about finding ways to do the task differently versus just finding lower or alternate energy source. Commuting to Atlanta one sees Thousands of tons of steel being moved to and from Atlanta to transport one person per auto. Reduce demand by car pooling; reduce demand by video presence versus physical presence; reduce demand by moving the meeting to video conference vs physical conference. We seem locked into the past for doing business and energy cost might be opportunity to look to the future.

With Generous Support From...