How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Friday, October 2, 2009

Energy - Part I

Energy – The Power of Life and Death

Fire is the manifestation of pure energy. It is simultaneously nurturing and destructive. Fire can keep us warm, cook our food, generate our electricity and propel our machines, but it can also consume, destroy and render to ashes all that cross its path.

Energy, fire and the deities that have historically attended the flame are often associated with the life force itself. The energy that illuminates life separates the living from the inert. The Celtic goddess Brigid, also known as Mother Goddess, is the revered deity of light, motherhood, justice, creativity and metallurgy. As the life force energy animates the living, so the fires applied to ore transform rock into shining metal. Brigid was so revered she crossed from the pagan mythos into Christianity as she was adopted into sainthood. As Saint Brigid, the ancient goddess served as midwife to Mary and protected the baby Jesus from harm by anointing his head with three drops of illuminating and protective dew of the sun itself. As humans harness and apply the powers of energy to their own ends, we employ the crafts of the gods. When the first hominid took a burning branch home and placed it in his hearth, we left the ranks of animals and joined the realm of the divine.

The human requirement for energy is almost as old as our species itself. Born pathetic, hairless and weak with only smarts to our benefit, the human species quickly devised strategies to deal with its inadequacies. Tools such as spears, were developed to compensate for lack of stealth, speed and strength, and to make up for the lack of a genuinely luxurious pelt, man utilized energy. For much of our species’ history, the energy we used was in the form of fire produced from wood or animal dung.

Cursed with a very high metabolism that spews heat in all directions and no insulative covering, humans and their ancestral hominids fared well as long as they remained in continental Africa, but once they began the migration northwards into Eurasia, staying warm became a prerequisite for survival. Fire came at different times to various groups. Originally, it was probably carried to settlement areas from burning trees struck by lightening. Later, man learned to generate the flames himself.

From an environmental standpoint, early man’s exploitation of fire had only a negligible impact. With population numbers of less than one million souls at any given time in the pre-historic period, harvested fuel wood quickly regenerated from the vast wilderness, and although the burning of wood results in the production of greenhouse gasses, the excess CO2 generated would have been quickly assimilated by masses of competing plants.

As man’s civilizations advanced, so did his need for energy. The Iron Age created a need for massive quantities of fuel for the smelting of ore. The industrial revolution ushered in the age of coal. The era of Edison’s light bulb electrified the world, and transportation once provided by horsepower fueled by fodder and sunshine was replaced by combustion engines hungry for fossil fuels. Today, humans consume energy for transportation, heating, clothes washing and drying, refrigeration, air conditioning, vacuuming, entertainment, communications, cooking, etc. In fact, there are very few facets of the modern life that do not involve some kind of energy input.

A History of Fossil Fuel
About three hundred million years ago, long before our ancestors were burning wood to cook and stay warm and long before dinosaurs ruled, a Paleozoic hot, swampy earth was the birthplace of the oil, coal and natural gas that fuels our lives today. On the land, towering forests of leafy green plants lived and died. Materials from the dead plants collected in swamps and were covered by water and sediments. Over thousands and then millions of years the overlying sediments formed into rock pressing down on the dead plant matter squeezing out water and concentrating carbon into coal.

In the oceans, a similar process took place as algae and microscopic plants and animals settled to the bottom of the sea and were covered over by sediments. Over millions of years, the microscopic flora and fauna formed crude oil and natural gas.

The main ingredient of interest in fossil fuels from an energetic standpoint is carbon. When combustion takes place, carbon combines with oxygen in an exothermic reaction to form carbon dioxide. The byproduct of the reaction that is of interest to us humans is the same byproduct we have been making use of for thousands of years, heat.

The heat from the burning of coal is used to make steam to turn turbines to make electricity in our power plants. In our automobiles, heat from the combustion of gasoline is used to expand air in a chamber and create motion. In our home, we often capture heat directly from the combustion of natural gas and heating oil to cook our food and to provide heating.

For most of man’s history, wood was the preferred fuel. Readily available and easy to use, wood was initially used for basic heating and cooking. Later wood was used in the industrial applications of the smelting of iron and manufacturing of brick, glass, salt and other consumer goods. Energy crises ensued as man’s population and energy demands increased and his need for wood outstripped the resource’s ability to replenish itself.

Viewed as inferior due to its dirtiness, coal was utilized initially out of necessity as wood supplies became scarce, particularly in Great Britain. But coal did have advantages. Ounce per ounce, a unit of coal could yield up to five times the amount of energy as wood, and thus allowed for an exponential expansion of industry that would have been impossible in a wood-based energy economy.

Ironically, it was the quest for coal itself that drove the invention of the first coal powered engine. As demand for coal became greater, easily accessible coal was harder to come by, forcing mines deeper and deeper into the earth in search of the precious resource. Mine flooding became problematic. In response, Thomas Newcomen created a coal powered engine that could pump water from a 160 foot mineshaft heralding in a new era of easily accessible energy and the first fossil fuel powered engines.

As man’s needs for energy increased during the industrial revolution, he turned to the energetic powerhouse of fossil fuels to fulfill his energetic needs, and fossil fuels have been an industrial and economic windfall raising our global civilizations and economies to previously unknown heights. The rise of the British Empire on the heels of the industrialization of the 17th and 18th centuries was fueled by cheap and abundant coal. Our own American rise of empire almost exactly coincides with the development of deep oil well drilling technologies and consequent exploitation of American oil.

While fossil fuels have driven our industry and prosperity, they have a darker side that has inadvertently unleashed a Pandora’s Box of environmental woes upon the earth in the process. The same qualities that make coal, crude oil and natural gas a superb source of cheap and concentrated energy also makes them a concentrated source of carbon-dioxide and other environmental contaminants that now threaten the planet with climate change and may threaten the very existence of life itself.

As humans harnessed the powers of life and destruction, we historically ignored the dark side of our actions and over time have transformed the face of the earth to her detriment. Mountain tops have been removed in the quest for coal, pristine landscapes have been despoiled for our lust for black gold, and our atmosphere is choking on our excesses. Like our gods, we hold the power in our hands. We have the technological capacity to reverse our destructive trends today. We will have to choose if our divine fires will replenish life or render the earth to a pile of ashes.

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