Volume 7, Number 155, Page 1
27 March 2007

In this issue

The History and Future of World Energy

by Loren Cobb

The media these days are flooded with stories about energy: hybrid cars, renewable energy, peak oil, fossil fuels and global warming, progress in wind power, biofuels, population pressures... it goes on and on. Unfortunately, no story that I have yet seen places all of these dramatic changes in historical perspective. This letter attempts to fill this gap.

Figure 1. Click the picture to create a future based on your own assumptions.

The figure near this paragraph displays the history of world energy production going back to 1850, with each major type of energy shown in a different color. Population growth is shown as a black line. In addition to the past 155 years of history, I have projected future trends in energy use and population growth forwards from 2005 out to the year 2100, using the best theories that I have been able to find so far.

The energy projections shown here do not take into account any actions that might be taken to avoid global warming by reducing the use of fossil fuels, for example with cap-and-trade market mechanisms or a carbon tax. I hope to show how these curves will be affected by such actions in a future letter.

One thing jumps out immediately from this graph: despite the depletion of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) during the 21st century, these sources of energy will be largely replaced by a combination of biomass, nuclear, wind, and solar energy sources. In fact, if my underlying assumptions and theories are roughly correct, energy consumption per person will actually increase.

Create your own Future History!

The trends shown in the figure above are strongly sensitive to the assumptions that I made about each form of energy. You may have your own ideas about what will happen, and if you are anything like me then you are just itching to see what will happen if different assumptions are followed. Thanks to a little programming razzle-dazzle, you can indulge this wish right now — simply click on the figure (or here), and you will be taken to Page 2 of this letter, which has a live graph that changes as you adjust its parameters. Meanwhile, I will carry on here with a discussion of world energy and environment in historical perspective.

Energy and the Environment, 1850-2007

Our grandparents and great-grandparents who lived in the era from 1850–1950 were well aware that the world was undergoing radical change. Railroads, airplanes, cars, electricity, radio, and modern medicine: all of these transformed the world from a sparsely populated collection of villages to an intertwined set of powerful and truculent nation-states, ready to go to war in a heartbeat. But looking at the graph above, it is plain that by 1950 things were only just getting started. The hundred years between 1850 and 1950 might even be called the calm before the storm, so huge were the changes that came along in the next half century (nuclear power, antibiotics, electronics, plastics, space travel...).

The energy that powered the economy of the world of 1850 ran largely on wood (for heating), oats (for horses), wind (for sailing ships), and river water (for water-wheels). Coal had made an appearance, but it was only slowly displacing other sources of energy for factories and shipping. Gasoline-powered automobiles appeared about 1900, but coal remained the dominant source of energy from 1900 until the mid 1960s.

The use of biomass — wood, sugar, corn — as an energy source has not diminished since 1850. Nor have coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear power. Instead, all of these increased along an exponential path, driven by technological innovations and demand from an exploding population. Despite astonishing rates of increase in world population — rates never seen on Earth before or since — these rates were actually exceeded by increases in energy production; this, combined with our steadily improving efficiency of energy use, resulted in an enormous increase in the productive work that could be accomplished per person around the world.

The consequences for the environment of an exploding population and an even more intense explosion in energy use have not been pretty.

Pittsburgh at Night, by Aaron Harry Gorson, circa 1915.

In its industrial heyday in the years 1850 to 1925, citizens of the city of Pittsburgh, for example, enjoyed sunshine and a blue sky on only a handful of days every year. The rest of the time the city was enshrouded in a thick dark cloud of coal smoke from steel-producing blast furnaces in the center of town. Children came down with rickets from lack of sunshine, and adults died of chronic respiratory diseases.

In 1866, a visiting journalist described the view of Pittsburgh at night as "Hell with the lid taken off."

A curious psychological blindness seems to affect those who make money from industries that damage the environment and injure the health of children. "That smoke? It's the smell of money!" is a typical response to challenge. The people of industrial Pittsburgh were proud of their steel-making city, and literally chased out of town anyone who questioned the quality of their air or water — at the same time that they and their children were dying of emphysema and dysentery at scandalous rates.

In the case of Pittsburgh, this blindness slowly began to lift in the 1920s. It may not be a coincidence that cities and industries began to clean up and control their waste products at just the same time as working men and women were beginning to make some headway in their long struggle for the right to strike against abusive employers. It was as though prosperity had crossed a magic threshold that finally allowed enough people to see and admit to the suffering all around them, and to do something about it.

Energy and the Environment, 2007-2100

Despite notable progress on many environmental problems over the last eighty years, the ongoing growth of both population and energy production continues to cause desperate damage to the environment. The global warming problem is just one of many critical issues that will face us in the 21st century, and it may not even be the worst.

Yet there are solid grounds for hope. An extended era of declining population is now clearly on the distant horizon, visible to all who understand the implications of the 40-year decline in fertility rates that has now spread to every continent. At the same time, the entire world is in a ferment of experimentation and development of new energy sources that cause dramatically less pollution than fossil fuels, and of ways and means for conserving energy.

If there is one message that I wish all could take away from a study of Figure 1 and its variations, it is this: analyses of the world's energy problems that pay attention to only one type of energy (e.g. the Peak Oil literature), or which fail to present energy trends in their full historical perspective or in isolation from population, are potentially so misleading as to be worse than useless.

Finally, I want to thank Jack Powelson and Bill Rhoads for contributing letters during the past three months while I was struggling to recover from a bad case of dengue fever, contracted in Costa Rica at the end of last year. I have now mostly recovered, for which I am very thankful.

Sincerely your friend,

Loren Cobb

A History of Wealth & Poverty

The Quaker Economist is the proud publisher of an online eBook entitled A History of Wealth and Poverty: Why Some Nations are Rich and Many Poor, by Jack Powelson.

Originally published in 1994 by the University of Michigan Press as Centuries of Economic Endeavor, this new electronic edition is now available to the public at no cost. Click here to read the book.

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Marvellous approach to the whole issue! Like others, I have a very low threshold for computer frustration, but I was able to test your entire process — including the loading of the Java whatchamacallit.

— Jerry Van Sickle, Boulder, CO.

This is an impressive accomplishment, Loren. I suppose the alternative futures are infinite in number. It would be interesting to manipulate the picture with cost minimization as the criterion, if indeed enough information could be collected.

— Bob Davis, Boulder, CO.

This energy article is particularly well put together, and I have passed it on to many. I have read elsewhere about BlueTec diesels and I have read about hybrids. Why isn't there a big push for BluTec diesel hybrids?

— Ted Todd.

Reply: The wonderful thing about hybrids is that manufacturers can easily substitute other types of power plant for the small gasoline engine. The can use ethanol-, natural gas-, or diesel-burning engines just as easily as gasoline. Which type of power plant they use depends on customer acceptance, economic conditions at the time of manufacture, and the current tax and regulatory environment. When BlueTec diesel technology can compete in this complex market, then it will be used. — Loren

I just read your letter quickly on the types of and hopes for energy: And I would like to insert a couple of comments, for I think I am much your senior in years, being over 90 years old. So I remember quite well how things were in England long ago.

First on the different lighting we had at home in London, you miss mentioning coal gas, by which the main downstairs rooms of every city house were brightly lit, though we had kerosene lamps for upstairs. In the cottages and in the country more generally, we used candlelight to go to bed by. So you can add kerosene (which we called paraffin) for the oil lamps to your list and paraffin wax for the many, many candles.

All the street-lights in London were lit by coal-gas, and the lamplighter walked around every street, turning them on every evening and off every morning, and I well remember "helping" him to wield his pole to turn the toggle switch. Of course, coal after its baking in a coking oven, became the coke, which was favored as a fuel for the kitchen stove, or the house furnace. Even in Detroit, Michigan in the1940s, we used coke, fed through a screw-stoker, in our furnace to heat our house through the winters.

1910 Crossley 4.5 hp engine (credit)

Before the 1860s the chief power source was of course steam, for running factories and vehicles (though people rode horseback or used horse-drawn vehicles), but then there arrived the four-stroke internal combustion engine, invented in about 1862 by Professor Otto in Germany, and developed by the Crossley Brothers in England, which burned coal-gas at the start, then petroleum gas throughout the Near East.

There was also a very important second power source — water power. Unfortunately both wind and solar sources are intermittent. My great-grandfather built a mill for cutting and turning cotton spools in Scotland, using water-power, employing 60 men, back around 1820. The mill building was built in a narrow valley, down which a small stream flowed over a waterfall with about a 60 ft. fall, and the diverted water drove an over-shot wheel of over 40 ft. diameter. So even that small stream, about 3 ft. wide, easy to jump over, was useful. Go to New Hampshire or Massachusetts and see the aged cotton and shoe mills all closed along the Merrimack River, or down the course of the Connecticut River, similar mills; they were for a while converted to use electric power, then closed. But the river power remains largely unused, except for small electric generating plants.

I can show you a field of about two acres up in Cumbria, primarily a sheep-meadow, through which a little brook flows, and I learned that a hundred years ago there were four mills operating there. Each was really just a shed; in one one of the villagers had set up a grindwheel, driven by the stream, and he would sharpen all the carving knives and kitchen knives that were brought to him; in another, the village flour-miller had a stone grind-wheel driven by this little stream through a wheel, and was prepared to grind a sack of oats to make porridge for anyone in the village; in another one of the sheds there was a shoemaker, and I forget the fourth. Of course, the stream did not run satisfactorily every day, but enough! And there was no electricity nor any electric motor to turn to in those days. Beside that, the shoemaker needed time off to tend to his vegetable garden or dig his potatoes for dinner. He had no roto-tiller, and to cut his grass lawn, he needed a scythe, such as I learned to use when I was a boy, back in the 1920s. Funny how some people like electric-driven toothbrushes, today!

— Erskine Crossley, North Branford, CT (part-time Friend, part-time Congregationalist).

Reply: Thank you for the eloquent and evocative memoire. I found an entire article on Crossley Brothers in Wikipedia, from which I extracted this picture of one of their early engines. — Loren.

Thanks for this letter. Anything that educates Friends on the dramatic slowing and reversal of population growth is most welcome. I still see projections from Friends that assume a continuation of trends seen in the previous century. I guess, too, that indicating the strength of energy innovation and production from all sources might allow us to stop nagging people about energy use on the assumption that there is only a fixed amount available.

— Janet Minshall.

A great article, but with one fundamental disconnect from reality. The article makes it seem as if increased energy consumption is fuelled by population growth, ... but it is the exponential growth of energy consumption by the wealthiest nations, making up only 25% of the world population, that is responsible for well over two-thirds of this consumption. The author falls into the trap of blaming overpopulation for energy growth — and by implication laying it at the feet of the poor — while distracting us from the obscene over-consumption of the rich North.

While there are indeed sound gender-based reasons for population growth interventions, the impact on the planet is not one of them in any meaningful global way.

The issue of equitable use of the global commons is critical to our understanding, and must form the basis of any future energy or other resources analysis. If we follow this argument, China could "afford" to double greenhouse gas emissions and not reach equity, but the USA would have to reduce emissions by about 60% to achieve equity.

I am certain that Loren Cobb has our well-being at heart, but I suggest that it would be prudent to consider the above in any analysis, now or in the future. Kindest regards,

— Muna Lakhani, Institute for Zero Waste in Africa (IZWA), South Africa.

Reply: Although it wasn't clear in the text, the "exploding population" that I referred to above was the population of North America and Europe, which did indeed explode in the era 1850–1950. This necessarily contributed to an enormous thirst for energy, though industrialization was an even bigger contributor. I was not trying to blame population growth in Asia and Africa for post-1950 energy use in North America. I apologize for having given that impression.

The primary point of this essay was that fossil fuels will be replaced with clean alternatives — as the graph shows — and that, contrary to the Peak Oil literature, this replacement will not cause a worldwide energy famine.

I agree with you that the USA will have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions drastically. Fortunately, I believe that the plummeting costs of solar and wind power will hasten the transition away from fossil fuels, in all nations. The only question in my mind — and it is a big one — is whether this transition will happen soon enough for the planetary environment. — Loren

Found on the Web

"I read every issue of Forbes, in order to get an idea of the world-view of the prototypical 'Rich Person' ... For the same reason, but in search of information about a very different world-view, I read The Quaker Economist, and am often astonished at what I find there. Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don't, but I always learn something. Unlike Forbes, it's free." — Ozarque, 8 Jan 2006.


Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting.

Editor: Loren Cobb, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.

Editorial Board

  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • William G. Rhoads, Germantown (PA) Monthly Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board do not necessarily endorse the contents of any issue of The Quaker Economist.

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