The amount of sunlight hitting Earth’s surface each year can supply nearly 36,000 times the amount of energy currently provided by total world oil consumption. Every minute enough of the Sun’s energy reaches the Earth’s surface to meet the world’s energy demands for a whole year. Combine this powerful energy source (the very source of life for our planet) with other readily available energy sources like wind, moving water and heat from within the Earth (geothermal heat), it almost seems incredulous that our human population depends on the burning of fossil fuels to meet nearly all of its energy demands. And this picture doesn’t look like it will change very much in the near future. Why fossil fuels?
The fossil fuels we largely depend on today are coal, oil and natural gas. They are called non-renewable energy sources. But if you think about it, that description is actually another way of saying we use them faster than they form. Over 100,000 times faster to be exact! So how did we ever decide this would be the primary energy resource to power human development and progress? It all goes back to human mastery of fire to provide warmth, light and a means of preparing more palatable and easily digestible foods.
To the early humans, fire was the equivalent of having a little sun with them wherever they needed or wanted to go. With this energy available at anytime and anyplace, humans could begin to spread about the world and thrive, regardless of the climate or amount of sunlight available. It provided the power for humans to begin their mastery of Earth as a species, less vulnerable to extinction than all other animal species, yet with a greater ability to bring about change — for good or bad.
It was wood — a renewable biomass energy source — that was unquestionably the first fuel used for fire. Although the fossil fuel coal had been used as a fuel since 1,000 B.C., it wasn’t until the arrival of the Industrial Revolution from the mid -1700s through the 1800s that coal began to replace biomass as the primary source of energy. The Industrial Revolution also marks the beginning of an era when the world human population started to explode. Indelibly tied together, both energy consumption and population growth have experienced exponential growth with few exceptions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. As the population increased, energy demands increased with greater intensity. Naturally, as the population grew and industry advanced, the demand for energy increased exponentially.
By Eric McLamb