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Sustainability Matters 1: Energy consumption’s effect on humans

What is Energy?
It’s the ability to move matter, the power to do work that produces light, heat, or motion, or the fuel or electricity used for power.

What does it mean to be ubiquitous? 

It’s being present, or seeming to be present, everywhere at the same time; omnipresent, universal, pervasive, all-over, wall-to-wall.

Energy is ubiquitous in our lives. There is nothing like energy. From the moment we are born we are as the song goes….

Every breath you take

Every move you make
Every bond you break

Every step you take
I’ll be watching you

                                      — Sting

All of these activities, even Sting’s obsessive “watching”, take energy. Everything you think about, everything you do, requires energy. Even our language is deeply affected by energy. Verbs, the action words in every sentence we speak, write or think, represent the use of energy.

All doing requires energy. 

Plants convert sunlight to sugar, the energy source for all living things including humans. This natural process, carried on in all ecosystems from the poles to the equator, energizes all life on the planet. Unless we’re counting calories, we don’t think much about this biological energy that we use. It’s an unspoken and often unknown part of our lives, but it is ubiquitous nonetheless.

For millions of years plants have converted sunlight to glucose, a form of sugar. Glucose is the biological way plants store energy for times when the sun doesn’t shine. It is also the energy currency that supports all life on the planet.

As long as the sun shines and plants convert sunlight to energy, the process continues both unimpeded and sustainably.

This process called photosynthesis, evolved over eons, and humans and all other life adapted to it to power our biological needs. The energy of the sun, converted by biological processes to glucose, stored sunlight, what we call food, was our only energy source of energy until humans discovered fire. Wood contains recently stored solar energy, and fire releases that energy.

Human control of fire was the first big step toward using biologically-stored energy to provide us with non-biological work such as cooking, illumination, warmth, and protection.

As human civilization has evolved from burning wood to burning fossil fuels, the amount of energy we use has continued to increase. Each successive civilization since the advent of fire has used more energy than the previous ones.

The biggest changes in our energy consumption patterns have occurred in the last century since we learned to harness the fossilized remains of plants; coal, oil and gas. Our current consumption of these fossil fuels is around ten times our levels in 1900.

Because of fossil fuel usage, the way we live now bears little resemblance to the lives our grandparents lived.

When my grandfather was born, 30 years after the Civil War, most Americans heated with wood and coal and lit their houses with kerosene and candles. Work was accomplished primarily by human hand, domesticated animals, wood, kerosene and, in industrial centers, built around flowing rivers which supplied hydro power.

Since the end of the Civil War, humans have mastered the process of finding, refining, and using fossil fuels to accomplish our work. Fossil fuels, and the energy they provide us, have changed our patterns of living; spurring unprecedented population growth, made us richer, longer-lived, and privy to much more information about the world around us.

In the process, increased energy use has become prevalent in our lives.  The more technically and economically developed a society is, the more energy it needs to survive. Rather than food fueling a living organism’s metabolism, this energy comes from fossil fuels which run our internal combustion engines and electrical motors. Over the last 100 years, much of the world has come to depend upon fossil fuel energy for most everything we do.

The results of this are ubiquitous permeating every corner of our lives.

Along with the benefits of increased energy use, human consumption of fossil fuel has led to endless wars, and contributed to poverty and other negative social, economic, and political disturbances. Perhaps most importantly, it has become clear that our fossil fuel consumption is causing serious ecological problems.

The connection between carbon released from fossil fuels and climate change is now clear and irrefutable. The earth’s atmosphere is warming, that warming has been accelerated by human burning of fossil fuels. As a result, sea levels are rising and putting all world coastal communities, more than a billion people, at risk.

Image 1  Wikimedia: Mahuasarkar25

History tells us that continued advancement and growth of civilizations requires ever-increasing amounts of energy input. Our experience to date suggests such growth destroys our environment and degrades our living conditions.

Must we do this to ourselves in order to get the energy needed to continue growing our technological society?  Is there another alternative to cooking ourselves or going backwards?

This blog explores humans and our relationship with energy and, (as you will see) matter. We will start by examining what humans have learned about energy from a scientific perspective. We will explore the relationship between energy usage and growth of human civilization. Since their commercialization in the late 1800’s, our growing need for fossil fuels has made them a large economic, and political factor in our lives. The bright light they allow us to shine also brings a dark side: pollution, war, inequality and poverty.

It is the premise of this blog that with our current level of technological know-how sustainable energy can provide us with the benefits we’ve grown accustomed to reaping from fossil fuels.

There is ample evidence that such a change would also provide great economic and social benefits. In addition to lower carbon emissions, sustainable energy will spur economic growth, and limit the demand for oil, a contributing factor to most recent wars over the past 100 years.

To understand these conclusions, we must look at the subject first from a scientific, and then a social science, perspective. This order is based on my premise that the laws of energy, physics, biology, and ecology are inviolate.  We can think of these laws, such as gravity or physical states of matter, as ground rules. They cannot be voted on or changed by humans, and we should know that attempts to break these rules usually don’t end well. Understanding nature’s ground rules gives us a solid perspective as to what is physically possible as we evaluate sustainable energy from the social science perspective.

Armed with an understanding of the laws relating to how energy works in the natural world, we’ll see the incredible relationship between energy and the development of human civilization and examine questions raised by the ever-increasing demand for energy which accompanies human economic development. We will also examine the ecological effects of our current consumption patterns later in this blog and specifically look at these patterns from historical, social, economic and political points of view.

This section focuses on the natural laws of energy and matter, how humans use energy and matter, and some of the benefits and side effects of our consumption. Each of these topics are connected and will help build the case that we need to make a serious effort to adopt renewable energy technologies as quickly as we can.

While collecting data for this blog, I took a trip to the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) Education Center in Golden, Colorado. There I encountered an exhibit that boldly proclaimed we currently possess the technology to provide all our energy needs through sustainable energy.  Section 2 presents the evidence that confirms the NREL claim.

Based on what I have learned since my first visit to NREL, I have come to believe that the world has the potential with today’s technology to provide all the energy we can use, and more, with sustainable sources.

Having the technology to provide all our sustainable energy is only the first, and perhaps easiest, step toward its adoption. Section 3 explores how we get from here to there – examining methods by which sustainable technology have been successfully adopted, and some of the results of those installations.

These actions range from community solar installation programs to stockholders putting pressure on companies which are in the nonrenewable fuel business. As I write this, Shell Oil company stockholders are demanding that the company present a plan to move from being a traditional fossil fuel company to a sustainable energy enterprise and Morgan Stanley has announced it will no longer fund fossil fuel projects

If this blog accomplishes its goal, after reading it you too will understand the great benefits from sustainable energy and come to believe, like I do, that a sustainably powered society is not only possible, but offers a brighter future for humankind.

It is my hope that your understanding will lead to specific actions, related both to your personal energy usage as well as your support of leaders who also understand why this energy transformation is so important!

Written by Wes Golomb
Formatted by Stuart Codd

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