A Book Review

A few years back, during a visit to a village in the north of England, a relative pointed out the difference in two adjoining brick buildings. One was dark, as though stained with soot. The other was brighter.

He noted that not long ago, all the buildings in England looked like the dirty one. It was only a few decades ago, after all, that most of the country burned coal. The famed “London fog” wasn’t fog, but smog, caused by the burning of coal. Now that the U.K. has switched to cleaner sources of power the fog is gone, and people can scrub their brick buildings, too.

The story of humanity is a story of advancement. Ever-more efficient and effective energy sources are a key to that, as Richard Rhodes explains in his book, Energy.

He starts in Shakespearean times. Humankind relied on wood to provide housing, heat and energy. But we were quickly clearing the forests near major population centers. Would people hit a wall and run out of power? No, because humans discovered coal, which provided more power when burned.

“A shortage of wood had driven the English to take up burning coal,” Rhodes writes. “Digging ever deeper for coal, they found their mines flooding, driving them to invent engines to pump out the water.” As he notes, this process “changed almost everything, first in England, later in America and throughout the world.”

Necessity drove invention. The earliest steam-powered machines could be said to have been invented to feed themselves; the goal was often to remove water from mines so people could dig out coal. Soon enough the coal was powering locomotives to deliver itself from mine to city. But as they became more efficient, they did more with less, freeing people up to do more. Energy production drove a virtuous cycle.

Of course, humans didn’t stop with coal. Americans moved on to oil, often derived from nature, to light lamps and drive back the night. Entire fleets of ships went whaling to obtain burnable oil, to the point that the massive sea-going mammals were endangered. By the 1860s Americans had also developed methods to obtain oil from coal. Rhodes notes we produced between 7 and 9 million gallons a year by the time of the Civil War.

Of course, Rhodes devotes several chapters to the development of petroleum.

It was first refined into kerosene for lamps, but was soon found to be a highly effective fuel for driving an internal combustion engine. That, in turn, helped make today’s clean environment possible. Cars, you see, are much friendlier to the environment than horses were.

“The volume of water and feed that city horses consumed was matched by their daily output of urine and manure,” Rhodes writes. “A working horse produced about a gallon of urine daily and thirty to fifty pounds of manure. That volume filled the New York streets daily with about four million pounds and a hundred thousand gallons of redolent excreta that had to be cleared away.” Replacing horse power with horsepower made the streets cleaner, removed disease-carrying waste, and made it easier to clean our water and sewage systems.

Of course, reducing the output of manure reduced the availability of fertilizer, so Rhodes explains how humanity took advantage of bird guano from far-flung islands. I’d only add that we also learned how to use natural gas as a source of nitrogen, a breakthrough discovered when humans were trying to develop high explosives. Today, it’s allowed an explosive growth in the number of people the planet can feed.

Rhodes also devotes some time to discussing the benefits of nuclear power. It delivers an uninterrupted supply of energy (unlike solar or wind power, which vary depending on the weather) with zero carbon emissions. One holdup to the adoption of nuclear power has been what to do about the waste. Rhodes doubts that will be a problem in the future, though.

“The notion that such waste must be successfully protected from exposure for hundreds of thousands of years is counter to how humans handle every other kind of toxic material we produce,” he writes. Technologies improve over time, “and our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have better ways of dealing with our detritus than we do.”

That’s a hopeful notion, and one is tempted to say, “they’d better,” since we are leaving almost all of it in storage near the plants where it is produced. But Rhodes’ confidence in the future is well-grounded in his research of the past. Humans keep finding better and cleaner sources of energy. Every time humans were presented with a problem, they solved it. They’ll probably solve the problems of nuclear waste and global warming, as well.

One thing seems certain: we’re not going to improve the environment by giving things up. For one thing, it’s unfair to people who are now living without dependable energy sources to simply tell them, “yea, live without air conditioning, light, indoor plumbing, etc.” For another it assumes people are willing to give things up. They aren’t. Even Al Gore travels first class.

Rhodes ends with a note of confidence. “Far from threatening civilization, science, technology, and the prosperity they create will sustain us as well in the centuries to come. They are the only institutions human beings have yet devised that consistently learn from their mistakes,” he concludes.

Our children will be smarter than we are. Thank goodness.

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