Is This Mankind’s Golden Age?

Mankind has been on a roll for the past hundred and fifty years. We’ve gone from candle light to LED light, from the horse to the airliner, from the quill pen inked ledger to flash drive memory. So the sky is the limit, right? Wrong.

Why? Energy. Energy has defined mankind’s past, present, and will define its future.

Per capita energy consumption in the western world was about constant from 200 B.C. to 1800 A.D. Then it climbed by a factor three by 1900. Today the average person uses eight times more energy than Thomas Jefferson. This increase in usage coincides with the birth and growth of the oil and gas industry.  Sixty-three percent of US energy consumption comes from oil and natural gas, twenty percent from coal, eight percent is nuclear, and the remaining eight percent comes from renewable resources.

The explosion of knowledge, inventions, our standard of living, and even the growth in the world’s population over the past hundred years would have been impossible without oil and gas. The world’s population stood at a billion in 1800. It was still under two billion in 1900, but then three billion in 1960, and in now seven billion and climbing.

It’s been a great party but the punch bowl is close to empty. You can quibble about when fossil fuels will be gone but you can’t deny that their exhaustion is inevitable over the next few hundred years. At that time the world’s population won’t be sustainable unless technology somehow bails us out. I wouldn’t bet on that.

It’s more likely that there will be devastating wars over the last dregs of fossil fuels.  At the same time civilization will be under stress from global warming. Enough food production to sustain the Earth’s population will be problematic. Not enough food and too many people means famine.

Sometime after the end of fossil fuels a global cooling will likely develop as the Earth resumes its normal rhythm and an ice age begins. The Earth’s human population will have to fall even further.

In two thousand years there will be maybe a billion people on Earth. They’ll have electronic, information, and medical technologies far beyond ours, but per capita energy consumption will be far below today’s modern era. (I first accidentally typed modern err. Hmm. Perhaps ‘err’ is more fitting.) As a result civilization will have stagnated. This world is the backdrop to my science fiction novel, Truth-Teller Rebellion.

Further reading: Look up Paola Malanima’s Energy Consumption and Energy Crisis in the Roman World on the web. It’s short and makes the case that the Roman Empire’s decline was in part due to its own energy crisis. He is an Italian economic historian.

Future blog topics: What about nuclear and fusion energy? What would be the impact of an ice age?

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