A Historical Perspective[From Daniel B. Botkin Powering The Future: A Scientist's Guide to Energy Independence(Pearson FT Press Science. April 2010)]
Our current energy crisis may seem unique, but it has happened to people and civilizations before. All life requires energy, and all human societies require energy. Although we can't see and hold energy, it is the ultimate source of wealth, because with enough energy you can do just about anything you want, and without it you can't do anything at all.
Human societies and civilizations have confronted energy problems for thousands of years. Ancient Greek and Roman societies are a good case in point. The climate of ancient Greece, warmed and tempered by the Mediterranean Sea, was comparatively benign, especially in its energy demands on people. Summers were warm but not too hot, winters cool but not very cold. With the rise of the Greek civilization, people heated their homes in the mild winters with charcoal in heaters that were not especially efficient. The charcoal was made from wood, just as it is today. As Greek civilization rose to its heights, energy use increased greatly, both at a per-capita level and for the entire civilization. By the 5th century B.C., deforestation to provide the wood for charcoal was becoming a problem, and fuel shortages began to occur and become common. Early on in ancient Greece, the old and no longer productive trees in olive groves provided much of the firewood, but as standards of living increased and the population grew, demand outstripped this supply. By the 4th century B.C., the city of Athens had banned the use of olive wood for fuel. Previously obtained locally, firewood became an important and valuable import.
Not surprisingly, around that same time, the Greeks began to build houses that faced south and were designed to capture as much solar energy as possible in the winter but to avoid that much sunlight in the summer. Because the winter sun was lower in the sky, houses could be designed to absorb and store the energy from the sun when it was at a lower angle but less so from the sun at a higher angle. Trees and shrubs helped.
The same thing happened later in ancient Rome, but technology had advanced to the point that homes of the wealthy were centrally heated, and each burned about 275 pounds of wood every hour that the heating system ran. At first they used wood from local forests and groves, but soon the Romans, like the Greeks before them, were importing firewood. And again like the Greeks before them, they eventually turned to the sun. By then, once again, the technology was better; they even had glass windows, which, as we all know, makes it warmer inside by stopping the wind and by trapping heat energy through the greenhouse effect. Access to solar energy became a right protected by law; it became illegal to build something that blocked someone else's sunlight.
Some argue today that we should become energy minimalists and energy misers, that it is sinful and an act against nature to use any more than the absolute minimum amount of energy necessary for bare survival. But looking back, it is relatively straightforward to make the case that civilizations rise when energy is abundant and fall when it becomes scarce. It is possible (although on thinner evidence) to argue that in the few times that democracy has flourished in human civilizations, it has done so only when energy was so abundant as to be easily available to most or all citizens.
As a result, in this book I argue for changes in where and how we get and use energy, but I do not argue that we should become energy minimalists or energy misers. On the contrary, I think we need to learn how to use as much energy as we can find in ways that do not destroy our environment, do not deplete our energy sources, and do not make it unlikely that our civilization will continue and flourish in the future.
The path to such a world is possible but not simple, not answered with a slogan, not solved by a cliché. If you value your standard of living and the way of life that our modern civilization provides, with its abundant and cheap energy, follow me through this book as we examine each energy source and the ways in which some can be combined into viable energy systems for the future.