Energy, in the forms of mass, light, and heat, has been around since the beginning. In fact, it was the beginning, and with conservation of energy, will always be, according to Émilie du Châtelet, who, while completing a translation of Newton’s Principia into French, a work of natural philosophy which combines Newtonian physics with Leibnizian metaphysics, contributed the concept of the postulate of an additional conservation law for total energy.
Humans benefit at every level of existence, from the basic physiological needs like cooking and warmth, to safety and security needs, like lighting and fending off predators. Family and social structures require the security of dependable energy supplies, and even our highest spiritual and transcendent aspirations, all require some form of energy.
Failure is Not an Option
Original energy has not changed in all this time, but our ways of experiencing and harnessing it has, and how we’ve gone about this process has scribed our footprint on the planet. At the level of cultures and societies as a whole, and in terms of sustainability, those of us who have successfully established a dependable supply are still here, and those of us who haven’t, are not. While books have been written discussing aspects of societal failure, such as Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking Press 2005) and Questioning Collapse (Cambridge University Press, 2010) [i] both sides of the argument might agree that without energy societies cannot exist.
It’s the Economy
Narrowing our view to an economic perspective, and casting our viewpoint across the western world’s progress from the stone age to the information age, the Epic Arc of Energy emerges. The progression of energy sourcing underlying and enabling these socio-economic stages scribes the arc as we have moved from hunter-gatherers to capitalists. We adopt a highly generalized socio-economic timeline from Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave (Bantam Books 1980) . Toffler maps The First Wave onto the shift from hunter-gatherer to agrarian, the Second Wave to the shift from agrarian to industrial, and The Third Wave that maps the shift from industrial to information, and we append thereto the cognitive computing era as Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things spring from the information age, and rapidly accelerate the rate of technical, economic, and social change.
Through the Ages
Roughly, taking a sourcing view on our viewpoint, we can map solar, wood and geothermal to the hunter gatherer age, add in hydro and wind to the agrarian age, identify coal and methane as a drivers of the industrial age, and lay on oil to get to the information age. Now, as we move into the AI and IoT age, we are leveraging them for higher efficiencies and energy innovation to initiate the current transition to sustainable carbon-based and carbonless sources.
Coming Full Circle
Essentially, our energy sourcing is coming full circle, from a carbonless mix of solar and geothermal during our hunter-gather stage, to an amalgam of carbonless solar, geothermal, and wind along with carbon-based wood, coal, oil, and gas as we moved through the Stone, Bronze, and Iron ages and through the agricultural and industrial revolutions, and now in the midst of the information age and enabled by the data economy, we are progressing back on through our energy sourcing cycle to a mix of non-renewable oil and coal and renewable carbon-based bio-fuel, with carbonless solar, wind, and geothermal, and possibly even back to a majority carbonless renewable sourcing mix.
Decentralized or Centralized
When we consider a spectrum from decentralized to centralized, where a decentralized source is primary to the consumer, then it is readily available to individuals and families. At the other end of a centralization spectrum, where the source is completely controlled and made available only through economic exchange, the consumer accesses the energy as a good in exchange for value in an economic transaction.
To Be or Not to Be
We are now, then, at a tipping point. Will man remain sovereign over the source of energy for his basic existence, controlling decentralized energy near farms, homes, and neighborhoods, or will he lose independence, and rely on tightly controlled, centralized distribution of energy for survival going through the TwentyFirst Century.