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Energy Resources and Our Past (Part I)

What was one prominent American saying about the United States’ reliance on fossil fuels — all the way back in 1957?

May 1, 2007

What was one prominent American saying about the United States' reliance on fossil fuels — all the way back in 1957?

While the United States is still coming to terms with global warming, there are some real surprises. Take a look at this Globalist Document, written by Admiral Hyman Rickover half a century ago. All the way back in 1957, he warned of the need to develop alternative fuel sources. In many ways, his appeal is still an unfulfilled agenda.

We live in what historians may some day call the Fossil Fuel Age. Today coal, oil and natural gas supply 93% of the world’s energy, while water power accounts for only 1% with the labor of men and domestic animals accounting for the remaining 6%.

This is a startling reversal of corresponding figures for 1850 — only a century ago. Then, fossil fuels supplied just 5% of the world’s energy, and men and animals 94%. Five-sixths of all the coal, oil and gas consumed since the beginning of the Fossil Fuel Age has been burned up in the last 55 years.

These fuels have been known to man for more than 3,000 years. In parts of China, coal was used for domestic heating and cooking, and natural gas for lighting as early as 1000 B.C. The Babylonians burned asphalt a thousand years earlier. But these early uses were sporadic and of no economic significance.

Fossil fuels did not become a major source of energy until machines running on coal, gas or oil were invented. Wood, for example, was the most important fuel until 1880, when it was replaced by coal. Coal, in turn, has only recently been surpassed by oil in this country.

Once in full swing, fossil fuel consumption has accelerated at phenomenal rates. All the fossil fuels used before 1900 would not last five years at today’s rates of consumption. Nowhere are these rates higher and growing faster than in the United States.

Our country, with only 6% of the world’s population, uses one-third of the world’s energy. This proportion would be even greater except that we use energy more efficiently than other countries. Each American has at his disposal, each year, energy equivalent to that obtainable from eight tons of coal. This is six times the world’s per capita energy consumption.

Though not quite so spectacular, corresponding figures for other highly industrialized countries also show above-average consumption figures. The United Kingdom, for example, uses more than three times as much energy as the world average.

With high energy consumption goes a high standard of living. Thus the enormous fossil energy which we in this country control feeds machines which make each of us master of an army of mechanical slaves. Man’s muscle power is rated at 35 watts continuously, or one-twentieth horsepower.

Machines therefore furnish every American industrial worker with energy equivalent to that of 244 men, while at least 2,000 men push his automobile along the road, and his family is supplied with 33 faithful household helpers. Each locomotive engineer controls energy equivalent to that of 100,000 men — and each jet pilot of 700,000 men.

Truly, the humblest American enjoys the services of more slaves than were once owned by the richest nobles, and lives better than most ancient kings. In retrospect, and despite wars, revolutions and disasters, the hundred years just gone by may well seem like a Golden Age.

Whether this Golden Age will continue depends entirely upon our ability to keep energy supplies in balance with the needs of our growing population. Before I go into this question, let me review briefly the role of energy resources in the rise and fall of civilizations.

Possession of surplus energy is, of course, a requisite for any kind of civilization, for if man possesses merely the energy of his own muscles, he must expend all his strength — mental and physical — to obtain the bare necessities of life.

Surplus energy provides the material foundation for civilized living — a comfortable and tasteful home instead of a bare shelter — attractive clothing instead of mere covering to keep warm, appetizing food instead of anything that suffices to appease hunger.

Surplus energy provides the freedom from toil without which there can be no art, music, literature or learning. There is no need to belabor the point.

What lifted man — one of the weaker mammals — above the animal world was that he could devise, with his brain, ways to increase the energy at his disposal, and use the leisure so gained to cultivate his mind and spirit. Where man must rely solely on the energy of his own body, he can sustain only the most meager existence.

It is a sobering thought that the impoverished people of Asia, who today seldom go to sleep with their hunger completely satisfied, were once far more civilized and lived much better than the people of the West. And not so very long ago, either.

It was the stories brought back by Marco Polo of the marvelous civilization in China which turned Europe’s eyes to the riches of the East, and induced adventurous sailors to brave the high seas in their small vessels searching for a direct route to the fabulous Orient. The “wealth of the Indies” is a phrase still used, but whatever wealth may be there, it certainly is not evident in the lives of the people today.

Asia failed to keep technological pace with the needs of her growing populations and sank into such poverty that in many places man has become again the primary source of energy, since other energy converters have become too expensive. This must be obvious to the most casual observer. What this means is quite simply a reversion to a more primitive stage of civilization with all that it implies for human dignity and happiness.

Anyone who has watched a sweating Chinese farm worker strain at his heavily laden wheelbarrow, creaking along a cobblestone road, or who has flinched as he drives past an endless procession of human beasts of burden moving to market in Java — the slender women bent under mountainous loads heaped on their heads.

Anyone who has seen statistics translated into flesh and bone, realizes the degradation of man’s stature when his muscle power becomes the only energy source he can afford. Civilization must wither when human beings are so degraded.

It may well be that it was unwillingness to depend on slave labor for their energy needs which turned the minds of medieval Europeans to search for alternate sources of energy, thus sparking the Power Revolution of the Middle Ages which, in turn, paved the way for the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.

When slavery disappeared in the West, engineering advanced. Men began to harness the power of nature by utilizing water and wind as energy sources. The sailing ship, in particular, which replaced the slave-driven galley of antiquity, was vastly improved by medieval shipbuilders and became the first machine enabling man to control large amounts of inanimate energy.

I think no further elaboration is needed to demonstrate the significance of energy resources for our own future. Our civilization rests upon a technological base which requires enormous quantities of fossil fuels.

What assurance do we then have that our energy needs will continue to be supplied by fossil fuels? The answer is — in the long run — none.

The earth is finite. Fossil fuels are not renewable. In this respect, our energy base differs from that of all earlier civilizations. They could have maintained their energy supply by careful cultivation. We cannot. Fuel that has been burned is gone forever. Fuel is even more evanescent than metals.

Metals, too, are non-renewable resources threatened with ultimate extinction, but something can be salvaged from scrap. Fuel leaves no scrap and there is nothing man can do to rebuild exhausted fossil fuel reserves. They were created by solar energy 500 million years ago and took eons to grow to their present volume.

In the face of the basic fact that fossil fuel reserves are finite, the exact length of time these reserves will last is important in only one respect: The longer they last, the more time we have to invent ways of living off renewable or substitute energy sources and to adjust our economy to the vast changes which we can expect from such a shift.

Fossil fuels resemble capital in the bank. A prudent and responsible parent will use his capital sparingly in order to pass on to his children as much as possible of his inheritance.

A selfish and irresponsible parent will squander it in riotous living and care not one whit how his offspring will fare. Current estimates of fossil fuel reserves vary to an astonishing degree.

In part, this is because the results differ greatly if cost of extraction is disregarded or if in calculating how long reserves will last, population growth is not taken into consideration. Or, equally important, not enough weight is given to increased fuel consumption required to process inferior or substitute metals.

We are rapidly approaching the time when exhaustion of better-grade metals will force us to turn to poorer grades requiring in most cases greater expenditure of energy per unit of metal.

But the most significant distinction between optimistic and pessimistic fuel reserve statistics is that the optimists generally speak of the immediate future — the next twenty-five years or so — while the pessimists think in terms of a century from now.

New energy sources or lower living standards

A century or even two is a short span in the history of great people. It seems sensible to me to take a long view, even if this involves facing unpleasant facts.

For it is an unpleasant fact that according to our best estimates, total fossil fuel reserves recoverable at not over twice today’s unit cost are likely to run out at some time between the years 2000 and 2050, if present standards of living and population growth rates are taken into account.

Oil and natural gas will disappear first, coal last. There will be coal left in the earth, of course. But it will be so difficult to mine that energy costs would rise to economically intolerable heights, so that it would then become necessary either to discover new energy sources or to lower standards of living drastically.

Editor’s Note: This Globalist Document is adapted from a speech given by Rear Admiral Hyman G. Rickover to the Annual Scientific Assembly of the Minnesota State Medical Association on May 14, 1957.

You can read Part II of this feature here