The Need for Fuel

Reshma Pattni

Man has ‘wants’ which he likes to regard as ‘needs’.

This was the opening sentence to Carlo Cipolla’s chapter regarding sources of energy. I think this statement is very true and is such an engrained part of many cultures, especially here in the United States of America, that many people fail to truly recognize it.  I want to explore how this idea of humans' perception of "needing" progresses throughout history. 

There is a long history of humans taking advantage of energy sources in order to meet all their wants and needs.  An especially moving article regarding this topic is “The second Great Transition” a chapter in Clive Ponting’s A Green History of the World.  Ponting offers an account of how groups of humans have exhausted several sources of energy that the earth has provided.  As humans depleted the supply of a particular substance, they necessarily were forced to find another to use.  This required getting large groups of people to transfer to another fuel source.  It also required figuring out what fuel works or, hopefully, what works most efficiently, and how to use it.  Producing machines to take advantage of the fuel source was a source of innovation.

            Human power had been a main source of energy in regards to activities like building, farming, or transporting throughout history.  Acting as a source of energy has historically held significant implications for one’s status within a society. One of the more extreme examples of this is the practice of people carrying others on their back or in a rickshaw.  After humans, the next source of energy was animals.  More specifically, animals like horses prompted inventions to make use of these animals more productive.  Harnesses and shoes were designed to increase the efficiency of horses.  Unfortunately, because horses require a lot of food, it can be problematic to keep one if there is not access to a cheap source of oats and hay.

            Human and animals, combined with wind and water, were the main source of power for the majority of our history as homo sapiens.  As Ponting described, the next movement of technology regarding energy was fulfilling people's need for fuel for heat and light.  Tasks like construction, production, or the power of movement would come afterwards.  Initially, in choosing a fuel source, people will use what is closest and most convenient.  In reading through the literature on this topic, it becomes obvious that wood dominated as a fuel for significant amount of time.  Ponting claims, “Wood was overwhelmingly the most important fuel and the growing demand for it led to the steady clearing of forests in every part of the world.”  An important point stated here describes how humans historically reacted to a need for fuel.  The people living during the period when wood was the largest fuel source devastated forests worldwide.  Between clearing forests for farming and using wood for fuel and timber, people ruined large areas of land.  Industry became more important and the demand for wood grew.  Over time, the forests in large parts of the world were depleted, similar to the situation that occurred on Easter Island.  Societies were often forced to import wood and as the demand grew, so did the price which resulted in energy shortages all over the globe.  A point I particularly find interesting is that this situation could have initially been avoided by thinking ahead and replanting forests that were cleared.  Even excluding that, similar to the inhabitants of Easter Island, people knew that resources were getting scarce yet they did not stop consuming.  I think this ties back into the idea that humans have this idea about what their needs are and will fulfill these even if the face of potentially disastrous shortages.

            The wood crisis prompted a transition to using coal which had previously been viewed as an inferior source. By this point, people had become desperate for fuel.  I think that this mindset of needs that must be met, along with the view of coal as inferior, prompted the misuse of coal as a fuel source.  There was an attitude about coal that did not value it, so it could be exploited without much thought.  This change in fuel sources necessarily brought about a change in the industrial technology.  Later the shift to oil as the main source of fuel also inevitably caused technological changes within industry and in other sectors.  For example, Ponting discusses how “one of the most significant energy developments over the last century” was the generation of electricity.  Undeniably, the option of electricity led to many technological advances and I would argue, a significant cultural change.  Looking at the life of the average US citizen includes electricity in numerous forms and uses.  We are incredibly attached to our televisions, clocks, computers, and notably, our lights at anytime the sun does not suffice.  In this way, the influence of culture on technology and the influence of technology on culture feed into and change one another.  

Cipolla, Carlo M., "The Economic History of World Population" The Harvester Press, 1978, pp. 17-54. ISBN 0-85527-735-5

Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. St. Martin's Press, New York, 1991. ISBN 0-312-06989-1, McCabe GF75.P66 1992 pp. 267-294.

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last updated 4/8/06