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Sustainability Matters 3: The Rise of Technology


The Rise of Technology

Over time, humans learned to convert moving water and wind into other forms of usable energy.  Human powered machines to move water were developed as early as 4,000 years ago, and the first water mills were developed somewhere around 400 B.C.  

There are reports about the use of wind by Heron of Alexanderia in the first century A.D., while others suggest that windmills were inspired by Tibetan prayer wheels. There are stories from the seventh century of wind-powered grain mills, but the first documented use of wind was for both grain mills and water pumps by the Persians in A.D. 500-900 and by the Chinese in A.D. 1200. The first windmill manufactured in the United States was designed by Daniel Halladay, who began designing and building windmills in 1854 in his Connecticut machine shop.

During the Industrial Revolution, access to flowing water and its use in generating energy was the driving force in the development of cities. We will discuss the development of both of these technologies in later posts.

In addition to the energy found in wind and water, humans learned other ways to use these resources.  Evidence of the use of boiling water to produce mechanical energy goes back about 2,000 years, but the first practical steam-powered device was not made until 1606 in Spain.

“A Spanish mining administrator named Jerónimo de Ayanz is thought to have been the first person to solve the problem of flooded mines. In 1606, de Ayanz registered the first patent for a machine that used steam power to propel water from silver mines. In Guadalcanal, Seville”
Steam Engine and the Industrial Revolution  

There were a variety of refinements over the next 100+ years, culminating with the development by James Watt in 1776 of an engine that produced continuous, rotary motion.  The fixed steam engine was an important factor in the expansion of the Industrial Revolution because factories no longer had to be located along rivers.  By the 1880’s, steam engines producing 10,000 horsepower were being built.  Steam engines were also modified to move boats and locomotives, which opened the way for mechanized transport to replace wind, animal, and foot power.

Though new to humans on an industrial scale, coal and its fossil fuel brethren were very old – as old as the hills, and as it turns out, long known to humans.

There is evidence that the Romans in England used coal as far back as A.D. 100-200.  In North America, the Hopi Indians used coal in the 1300’s.  Coal was rediscovered by Europeans in 1673.  The first commercial coal mines in North America were started in Virginia in the 1740’s.  Humans also learned to harness the power of oil as early as 4,000 years ago.  Herodotus (450 B.C.) reported that asphalt was used in the construction of walls and towers of Babylon.

Uses of Energy, Materials and Changing Techniques


The development of electricity and the means for generating and transmitting it completed the Industrial Revolution and opened the doors for the high-tech world of today. From the first use of fire until the present time, availability of energy coupled with human ingenuity has been the foundation of advancing civilization.   

The ultimate purpose of energy production and use remains unchanged: the provision of convenient and affordable energy services for human needs.”  Energy Primer, Grubler et al.


Energy services are possible of a myriad of uses humans would have for energy. 

Demand for energy services is growing worldwide. The energy demands of developed nations continue to grow, as do the energy demands of the large and fast growing populations of developing countries.  Clearly, if we are to continue on our path of development, history would suggest we need to have an ever-increasing source(s) of reliable, high quality energy.

Energy Quality is a human term representing the characteristics of that energy source as they relate to human usage. One of those is the density of the energy source, how many BTU’s per unit does it contain.  For example, coal has more btu’s per weight than wood, so it delivers more energy.   Density is not the only factor that goes into energy quality. Coal has slightly higher energy density than oil, but because of oil’s other characteristics, like ease of use and transportability, it is said to be a higher energy quality source than coal.   


Sustainability is the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.  In simpler terms, it is the ability to continue a practice without running out of material or fouling the environment in the process or as a result of that practice.

We are faced with a dilemma.  As the human population grows and develops, we demand more and more energy.   From an economic point of view, energy is a commodity, which we extract from natural resources. We put pressure on environmental systems when we pump, mine, transport, refine and consume our limited, non-renewable resources at an ever-increasing pace.  This not only includes energy, but also almost every other resource that humans use, from aluminum to water to zinc.  

Can we support development indefinitely?  “Is what we are doing sustainable?” My plan for this blog will examine what it means to be sustainable from an ecological, resource economics, political, and social perspective and examine why our increasing demand for non-renewable energy sources to fuel our economy and growth is not sustainable.  

If you accept the reasoning that a civilization must be able to access and use high quality energy in order to develop, and the means by which our civilization has done that to date is not sustainable, then you must come to the conclusion that our civilization itself is at risk by continuing down this path.  

I presume that if asked, most people would place a high value on the idea that the world should be a place where those in the future inherit a livable, peaceful planet in which they can experience the world’s beauty and have the opportunity to live a fulfilling, healthy life.    

It is my premise that if humans are going to survive in a highly technological society, then we must adapt our methods of acquiring and using matter and energy in a way that makes them sustainable for the long run.

An Ecological Analogy

There is a very fascinating process that can be observed in nature called succession.  Any time there is open habitat, a set of adaptable species will move in and colonize it.

An example of a new habitat is a seamount, an underwater volcano which grows taller than sea level and becomes an island. New habitat is may also be formed from a destructive event such as fire, flood, or volcano.

On bare rock, colonizing species include mosses and lichens that live and die on the rock.  In the process of their lives, they secrete chemicals that begin to break the rock down, allowing plants to obtain sustenance.  As time goes by, the remnants of these plants and rocks mix together and become soil.  This process changes the environment!  Now a whole new set of plants, animals that eat those plants, and decomposers that break down those dead plants and animals, live on what was barren rock only a relatively short time ago.

The first plant colonizers grow, change the environment, and are subsequently outcompeted by grasses and associated ecological life forms. The grass ecosystem grows and builds more soil until it is changed enough so that small trees and shrubs can inhabit the area.  Small trees grow tall, casting shade into what was once a clear, sunlit area.  This changes the environment further and attracts other sets of plants and animals that thrive and outcompete the previous inhabitants.  The cycle of new colonizing species, both plant and animal, advances the continually changing environment.      

In my neck of the central New Hampshire woods, those trees are likely to include pine and other coniferous (cone bearing) and evergreen trees. 

Pine needles are notoriously acidic – I have been trying to grow a lawn under pine trees for over 20 years with minimal luck (I confess I don’t douse it with chemicals) – so once again, the environmental conditions undergo change, which if I stopped mowing the grass, a constant temptation, different plants that love more acidic soil would gradually replace the old.

There will come a point in the process when the habitat’s collective living patterns do not change the environment enough to allow for this continued succession to progress. Ecologists call this state of equilibrium a climax community.  Left untouched by humans or a cataclysmic event, the climax community’s existence does not change the environment enough to allow a new community to replace it.  The conditions of the environment become such that the same community, the same set of organisms, living in the same way, can coexist, fueled by a constant daily input of energy from the sun, until there is a disrupting event. 

The key difference between the early stages of succession and the climax community stage is that the latter sustains itself.  In all the pre-climax community stages, each set of organisms changes the environment enough so that a new set of living things can outcompete the old.

Could there be a human analogy to a climax community?  What would it look like? Would it allow for the continuation of human civilization at a technological level without the continued increase in per-capita energy consumption shown in Figure 1-1 above.

Sustainability comes down to the use of matter and energy.  We have already mentioned energy is the ability to do work, and for practical purposes, we can define work as moving matter.  Therefore from the outset we connect matter and energy.  Whether it is moving a rock from here to there to make a wall, or combining nutrients to make a chemical which will activate when you have a thought, it’s all matter being acted upon by energy.  Neither the rock wall nor the biochemical processes can exist without energy. When we speak of sustainability, we are really talking about how humans use matter and energy, and to really understand that, we must first understand how matter and energy function in nature. 

To that end, my next few posts will examine what we know about energy in the natural world and compare that with how humans use energy. We will first look at what we know about energy use in the nonliving world, and then we will look at how living things use energy.

Stay Warm and Healthy!

See you next week!

In addition to clean energy, another passion of mine is photography. The intent of my photography is to showcase the natural world and remind us of our intimate connection with nature.

It is my hope that you will enjoy this photograph and that it will inspire you to take positive action to help protect our environment.

Vultures near Kruger National Park
South Africa
Photo: Wes Golomb

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