Energy defines us
You have probably forgotten you are an animal. More specifically, you
are a mammal of the species Homo sapiens. I can state that fact with
confidence because only Homo sapiens read books.
You were born of a mammalian reproductive system, and you will die when
your animal body gives out. Like other animals, you must breathe air,
eat food, and take sleep to stay alive. But you probably don't think of
yourself as an animal, because your life carries on so differently from
the lives of other animals.
If you lived the life of an animal in the wild, you would spend most of
your day searching for food, while keeping up a constant vigilance
against predation, which is, of course, someone else's search for food.
Do you spend your day searching for food? Probably not. Do you fear
becoming food for someone else? Not likely. Why are our lives so
different from that of other animals?
In a word: energy.
That's probably not the word you were expecting. Most would consider our
complex brain to be the most significant feature that distinguishes us
from other animals, followed closely by our hands with grasping thumbs,
and our language skills. Our advanced brain allows us to comprehend our
environment and imagine how to change it. Our brain guides our hands in
making tools that extend our capabilities, and enables our language
skills which let us pass on those capabilities.
These assets are necessary but not sufficient to explain how we ascended
to our current modern life. The crucial difference emerged when we used
these skills to control energy. When we learned to control fire, our
first energy source from outside of our bodies, we permanently parted
ways with the animal lifestyle.
Our continued development has tracked a continuous escalation in our
control of energy. It was energy that built modern society, and it is
energy that runs modern society. Without energy, we
would be just a talkative primate that walks upright on the savannah,
hunting and foraging like other animals.
With energy, we have built homes that provide security and comfort, food
production systems that feed us reliably, and transportation systems
that can carry us anywhere in the world. If all of our energy devices
were taken away, then all this would grind to a halt. All manufacturing
would stop so there would be no goods to buy. All transportation would
halt so we would have to walk or ride a horse. And all food systems from
farming to supermarkets would cease operating, so we would have to
relearn primitive survival techniques. Imagine what you would do if no
food were available in any store. The food is there because of energy.
Energy is the key factor that
separates us from other animals. Our ability to direct the flow
of energy is a unique, defining characteristic of humans. We are the energy-using animal. As the energy-using
animal, we are in a class by ourselves. We don't observe squirrels
building fires to keep warm, or chimpanzees driving around in cars. Only
humans have mastered the skills to manipulate energy to serve our
To be clear, all animals use energy in the form of food. Food contains
chemical energy that powers the bodily functions that keep any animal alive. The human body has a digestive tract
similar to other mammals, through which we derive the energy to power
our hearts, minds and muscles.
But for other animals, food is their only
energy source, and food-powered muscles are their only means of
accomplishing anything. When a wildebeest on the savannah needs to
migrate to find fresh grass, it has no option but to walk there, powered
by its food energy.
Humans have learned to direct external energy
sources—energy that originates from outside of our bodies, in
quantities that far exceed the energy available in food. If we needed
fresh grass, we would use gasoline energy to drive there, or better yet,
have it cut, packaged, and express delivered. Using external energy
multiplies our capabilities beyond muscle energy, enabling us to
manipulate our environment like no other animal.
The advantages humans accrue from energy have evolved into an ongoing
relationship. The human relationship with energy has many facets, but it
can be summarized as follows: We
direct the flow of energy, and in turn, energy grants us great power
over our environment.
Few would doubt that humans have altered our planet, but how many
realize that energy is the dominant factor
behind those changes? Because energy is the agent underlying every
action, every time we use energy we change something around us. The more
energy we use, the bigger the changes we make. Because we have the
ability to control energy, we direct those changes in ways that for the
most part benefit ourselves. That control defines our relationship with
This relationship with energy started before we were fully human, when
our prehuman ancestors learned to control fire to alter their local
environment to survive. As our energy-using skills developed over time,
we were able to safely direct ever larger quantities of external energy
to accomplish ever greater tasks. Modern energy-powered machinery
routinely levels mountain tops and erects skyscrapers. With energy, we
have even shot the Moon, using liquid hydrogen energy to lift a total of
twelve Americans to the surface of the Moon.
With energy supporting us, our species has multiplied and spread over
the surface of Earth. In cold latitudes, we use energy to keep us warm.
In warm latitudes, we use energy to keep us cool. As we spread, we take
over land, clearing it for farms, roads, and cities, and chasing off all
the wild animals. The few wild areas that have not yet been taken over
by humans continue to shrink as our population grows.
Our wonderful mental abilities have enabled us to gradually recognize
the effects of our planetary takeover. As we have studied and catalogued
plant and animal species, we have noticed that the numbers of many wild
species are dropping, sometimes to zero—extinction. So we put in place
species preservation programs, investing time and energy to preserve
wild habitat, and even resorting to controlled breeding when the numbers
get too low. When the numbers get too high, we thin the herd, acting in
place of the predators we most likely eliminated.
We have shifted from being just a resident of Earth to being a manager
of Earth. We effectively control life on Earth, in the sense of which
species live or die. We like to think there are still wild places, but
most are preserves that humans have set aside, circumscribed by
boundaries that we establish, containing populations that we monitor. If
other animals could develop energy-using habits, then they could compete
with us. But they will not have that chance while humans dominate.
All this control derives from energy, massive quantities of energy. The
massive quantities are actually a relatively recent development. Up
until the early 1800s, wood fire and animal muscle provided most of our
energy, and both were self limiting: wood can be harvested only as fast
as a forest can regrow, and animals take up land and food.
The discovery of large caches of stored energy in the ground released us
from those limits. Coal, oil, and natural gas are the fossilized remains
of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago. When they died,
their decay process was somehow interrupted, so part of the energy
stored in their body tissues was preserved and condensed, gradually
becoming the fossil fuels that we use today.
With the development of coal, oil, and natural gas over the last two
hundred years, our energy use became limited only by how fast we could
pull them out of the ground and find new ways to burn them. We replaced
dwindling wood supplies with seemingly unlimited coal in lime kilns to
make cement, and in foundries to make steel. We learned to burn fossil
fuels in boilers to make steam to generate electricity, and we learned
to burn fossil fuels in engines to power cars, trucks, boats, trains,
Each new use added more demand, and so the fossil fuel industries have
grown almost continuously for two hundred years. It is hard to imagine
that today we burn 89 million barrels of oil per
day worldwide, and that oil is just one of three fossil fuels that we burn in massive
quantities. The word "massive" hardly seems adequate to describe our
Our marvelous brains also began to note the effects of all this burning.
Initially we noticed the ugly air pollution that clouded our cities. We
responded by applying technology to clean up the combustion process to
emit fewer pollutants. Cars were fitted with catalytic converters, and
coal plants were fitted with scrubbers. The skies over many large cities
Now we face another side effect that is proving much more difficult to
correct: carbon dioxide. When fossil fuels burn, the carbon in the fuel
combines with oxygen in the air to form carbon dioxide, an odorless,
colorless, nontoxic gas. The carbon in fossil fuels comes from those
ancient plant and animal remains, and it carries the energy that we
seek. Since forming carbon dioxide is necessary to getting at that
energy, there is no simple technology to turn off the carbon dioxide
produced by burning a fossil fuel.
The release of carbon dioxide had previously been considered harmless
because it is chemically inert in the atmosphere, unlike other
pollutants that undergo smog-producing chemical reactions. Carbon
dioxide has always been a natural component of the atmosphere that you
inhale with each breath. Your own body produces it as a natural waste
product, which you exhale with each breath.
The problem comes from the scale of carbon
dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. Worldwide we pump about 100 million
tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every
day. In equivalent volume, we burp a bubble of carbon dioxide 3 miles in diameter every day.1
And unlike other air pollutants, carbon dioxide stays up there, because
carbon dioxide is chemically inert in the atmosphere. The natural
cleansing mechanisms that remove extra carbon dioxide from the
atmosphere work much more slowly than the rate of our additions, so the
carbon dioxide accumulates over the years.
This accumulation is proving to be a problem because of a simple
physical property of carbon dioxide—it absorbs infrared radiation.
Infrared is the same as light but beyond the visible red portion of the
spectrum. An infrared camera shows outlines of warm bodies glowing with
infrared light energy. The Earth's surface warmed by the Sun glows in
the infrared range. The extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere blocks
some of the outgoing infrared energy that would normally escape into
The extra carbon dioxide effectively turns the Earth into a giant
greenhouse, with the atmosphere acting as the greenhouse glass that
retains heat and raises the Earth's temperature. The resulting global
warming melts ice, raises ocean levels, and alters climate patterns. The
evidence is all around us.
But it gets worse. About a fourth of all the carbon dioxide emitted from
fossil fuels over the last two hundred years has been absorbed into the
world's oceans. That seemed to be good news at first, because it slowed
the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But it is proving
to have disastrous consequences for marine life.
The carbon dioxide combines with seawater to form carbonic acid, which
makes the ocean water more acidic, according to the Ocean Acidification
Fact Sheet from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration.2 The oceans have no ready
mechanism to neutralize the extra acid, so it accumulates. Shelled
creatures have trouble forming shells in acidified water, because their
shells dissolve as fast as they can make them. Many of the tiny shelled
creatures form the base of marine food pyramids, so the acid threat to
them threatens species at all levels. Ocean acidification is now seen as
"an equally evil twin" to global warming, says Jane Lubchenco, head of
the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.3
Our fossil fuel-based energy systems have grown continuously for so long
that they have now grown very large, so large that their carbon dioxide
emissions have modified the planet in two major ways. In the period from
1800 to 2013, our fossil fuel burning has increased the carbon dioxide
concentration of the entire volume of the Earth's atmosphere, all 12
billion cubic miles, by 43%. During that same period, the carbon
dioxide that was absorbed into the oceans has increased the acidity of
all the world's oceans by 30%.5
Read those percentages again and let their significance sink in. These
are not local changes affecting a few people. These are global
alterations of our air and water, astonishingly large changes
perpetrated by a single species, the energy-using animal. Since air and
water envelop all life on Earth, such changes are altering the patterns
of life on Earth, including the lives of humans.
We have now come to realize that the energy systems that established
human control over life on Earth have unintended consequences that are
spinning out of control. In a sense, we have developed an unhealthy
relationship with energy: the more we use fossil fuels, the more harm we
Yet despite worldwide acknowledgement of the problems, little is being
done to arrest these changes. The first and only global treaty to
restrict carbon dioxide emissions was the Kyoto Protocol adopted in
1997. It expired in 2012, without a replacement. The treaty's purpose
was to reduce the rate of carbon dioxide emissions, but during its
lifetime, that rate accelerated by 41% worldwide. The ineffective Kyoto
Protocol may be extended, but there is nothing to replace it. Attempts
in Durban, South Africa in 2011 and Doha, Qatar in 2012 resulted only in
promises to develop a new treaty by 2015, and if that is successful, to
begin enforcing it in 2020.
If you feel powerless in the face of such international foot dragging,
you are not alone. Fortunately, the top-down approach is not the only
way to correct our course. A bottom-up approach is not only possible, it
is far more likely to succeed, as you will see in later chapters. That's
because carbon dioxide emissions are primarily an energy problem, and
everyone uses energy.
If you live a modern lifestyle, then you are a player in this drama.
When you drive a car, your exhaust contributes carbon dioxide to the
atmosphere. When you turn on a light or use an appliance, the power
plant that generates your electricity will burn a bit more coal or
natural gas and emit a bit more carbon dioxide in your name.
Simply asking people not to drive and not to use electricity to avoid
carbon emissions will not work, because such energy use is necessary,
not optional. Wasteful energy habits can be corrected, but there is
still a baseline requirement for significant amounts of energy to live
as a modern human being.
Yet our energy requirements do not have to tear up the planet. We can
gradually substitute energy sources that are free of carbon emissions.
We have such energy sources today, most of which derive their energy
from the Sun. Solar panels, wind turbines and other renewable energy
sources when combined with energy storage can form a complete energy
system for our future, and emit no carbon dioxide.
It remains an open question whether we will deploy these new improved
energy systems in sufficient quantities to make a difference. Those who
know the most about energy say we must, while those who control
political and economic power say we cannot. If this impasse is not
broken, we will drift into a future not of our choosing, but of our
inertia. If we want to avoid unintended consequences, we need to
establish a set of intended consequences, and
work toward them as a civilization.
The good news is that despite the inability of world governments to
agree on a path forward, the transition to clean solar energy already
proceeds at a rapid pace. The greatest progress is being made by
individuals, businesses, and organizations deciding for themselves to
switch to carbon free energy. You have that choice too. It is actually
easier for you than for big governments and energy corporations.
Why? Because solar energy is all around us. You have direct access to an
exceptional energy source. It is remarkable that we have failed to see
the solution that is falling on our heads every day.
That failure comes primarily from our limited view of energy as a
consumer item, like soap or potatoes. We buy energy, consume it, and
then buy some more. The concept of energy as a consumer item is
relatively recent in our long history as the energy-using animal. It
grew concurrently with the growth of fossil fuels, a form of energy that
can be metered and sold. If we are going to get past fossil fuels, then
we will have to get past the simplistic view of energy as just a
This book will expand your view of energy, and your view of the world
through the lens of energy. We start by re-envisioning our past in terms
of energy to answer the question: How did we become the energy-using
Excerpted from "Power Shift" by Robert Arthur Stayton. Copyright © 2015 by Robert Arthur Stayton. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.