Monday, March 21, 2011

From Fire to oil

To look at the history of humanity through an energy lens is as interesting as looking at it through an economic, a political or a socio-biological lens. We can describe the whole history of human kind as the consecutive conquest of new forms of energy sources and technologies that made the usage of them efficient and effective. The arrowhead and the dagger of stone made it possible for us to hunt large game, to use the energy of our arms better. The fire let us get energy out of wood which made metallurgy and pottery possible as well as settlement in colder areas. Farming meant taming the photosynthesis (a form of solar energy) to meet human needs. Animals were domesticated not only for food but also for transport and power in agriculture. The use of wind for sailing dramatically extended our reach, new areas could be settled and trade allowed settlement in places which could not be settled before. For each new form of energy, there is a technological process to control and target the energy form in a better way. We increase the heat of fire with bellows; for the horses, we develop harness, wagons, saddles, reigns, spurs and bridles, each one of them essential to “harness” the energy. Technology can with this perspective largely be seen as a process to “direct” energy.

In the infancy of industrialization, we learned how to convert water and wind power to mechanical power, and thereafter we learned to use fossil fuels. For each of these steps, humans have taken bigger proportions of the planets energy sources into their use. And for each step the population and the consumption level has jumped. Also, our societal structures can be interpreted in the perspective of energy. The agrarian revolution led to a society where some, a few rulers, could appropriate the energy of the masses for their own purposes, through slavery, serfdom or forced labour. Also within the family, women have provided their human energy for the service of men to some extent. With more and cheaper external energy sources, the interest in forced labour is substantially reduced and it prevails mainly in sectors where energy and mechanization doesn’t play much role, i.e. in service occupations, including prostitution. Another way of looking at the same development is ”the landed gentry who owned large solar-collecting estates were replaced at the top of the financial and social ladder by the new industrialists who directed new production systems using the more concentrated energies of coal and then oil”(Hall and Klitgaard 2006).

For more details on the steps in the transformation from fire to oil, read this posting

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