Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity's Unappeasable Appetite for Energy

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Overview

We don’t often recognize the humble activity of cooking for the revolutionary cultural adaptation that it is. But when the hearth fires started burning in the Paleolithic, humankind broadened the exploitation of food and took one of several great leaps forward.All life on earth is dependent on energy from the sun, but one species has evolved to be especially efficient in tapping that supply. This is the story of the human species and its dedicated effort to sustain and elevate itself by making the earth’s stores of energy its own. A story of slow evolutionary change and sharp revolutionary departures, it takes readers from the origins of the species to our current fork in the road. With a winning blend of wit and insight, Alfred W. Crosby reveals the fundamental ways in which humans have transformed the world and themselves in their quest for energy. When they first started, humans found fuel much like other species in the simple harvesting of wild plants and animals. A major turn in the human career came with the domestication of fire, an unprecedented achievement unique to the species. The greatest advantage from this breakthrough came in its application to food. Cooking vastly increased the store of organic matter our ancestors could tap as food, and the range of places they could live. As they spread over the earth, humans became more complicated harvesters, negotiating alliances with several other species—plant and animal—leading to the birth of agriculture and civilizations. For millennia these civilizations tapped sun energy through the burning of recently living biomass—wood, for instance. But humans again took a revolutionary turn in the last two centuries with the systematic burning of fossilized biomass. Fossil fuels have powered our industrial civilization and in turn multiplied our demand for sun energy. Here we are then, on the verge of exceeding what the available sources of sun energy can conventionally afford us, and suffering the ill effects of our seemingly insatiable energy appetite. A found of the field of global history, Crosby gives a book that glows with illuminating power.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Ever since cultivating fire, the human species has depended on tapping new sources of energy for survival, writes global historian Crosby (Germs, Seeds, and Animals: Studies in Ecological History). This enjoyable, humorously anecdotal study provides a succinct overview of our voracious "appetite for energy," most particularly the inventive (and indiscriminate) exploitation of sunshine in its fossilized forms-peat, coal, oil and natural gas. The hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic era depended on muscle power to move through their world, and not much changed, Crosby notes, until the advent of the Industrial Revolution, when the first steam-powered engine was invented in 1712 by ironmonger Thomas Newcomen (James Watt, Crosby says, merely improved on Newcomen's design). Advances in harnessing energy trapped in organic matter followed quickly: whale oil used for lighting was supplanted by coal gas, kerosene distilled from petroleum and finally Thomas Edison's light bulb-itself powered by the electricity generated from coal and oil. This history explores how an ingenious and adaptable humankind found ever more efficient ways to harness "concentrated sun energy." Crosby is optimistic about the Earth's future-with the caveat that that future could be bleak without another energy breakthrough. B&w illus. (Jan.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393931532
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/15/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 769,532
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Alfred W. Crosby is the author of the groundbreaking work The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 and many other acclaimed works in global and environmental history. He is professor emeritus of history, geography, and American studies at the University of Texas in Austin. He and his family live in Nantucket, Massachusetts.

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Table of Contents

1 Fire and cooking 1
2 Agriculture 25
3 The Columbian exchange 45
4 Coal and steam 63
5 Oil and the ICE (internal combustion engine) 85
6 Electricity 101
7 Fission 127
8 Fusion 147
9 The anthropocene 159
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