Feeding the Fire: The Lost History and Uncertain Future of Mankind's Energy Addiction

Feeding the Fire: The Lost History and Uncertain Future of Mankind's Energy Addiction

by Mark Eberhart

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From the first spark created by human hands thousands of years ago, mankind has grown dependent on nature’s vast stores of energy to build, explore, and experiment. Our expanding knowledge and technologies have come from the felling of forests to the harnessing of wind and water, from the burning of coal and oil to tapping the energy of the atom. Energy does…  See more details below


From the first spark created by human hands thousands of years ago, mankind has grown dependent on nature’s vast stores of energy to build, explore, and experiment. Our expanding knowledge and technologies have come from the felling of forests to the harnessing of wind and water, from the burning of coal and oil to tapping the energy of the atom. Energy does more than heat our homes and fill our gas tanks; it fuels our imaginations. Our future is inextricably linked to energy, and in this groundbreaking book, Mark Eberhart examines our historic quest for power and tackles the brutal realization that there are limits to the energy Earth can provide.

In Western society, we treat energy as a given—the background noise of modern life. But as worldwide energy demand grows, supplies are, at best, holding steady—and at worst, shrinking. The implications of our dependence are enormous. And while there is evidence that great cultures of the past—the Maya, Anasazi, Easter Islanders—collapsed when their energy resources were exhausted, Eberhart argues that we have the responsibility and the ability to develop renewable energy sources now.

Eberhart leads us on a tour through the history of energy, how it was formed and how it evolved, and reveals how we became energy-dependent creatures. With an unblinking eye, he takes a close look at the consequences of our energy appetite, and, most important, imagines a secure energy future that we can all play a part in achieving.

Enlightening, bold, and practical, Feeding the Fire weaves together history, science, and current affairs to create an important and compelling thesis about humanity’s energy needs—and draws a hard line on the imperative need to avert the catastrophe that looms if we continue on our present course.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

The ancient Mayan city of Tikal died out, and London nearly met the same fate in the Middle Ages, because they exhausted their local energy sources. All humankind faces a similar situation today, says Eberhart (Why Things Break), but perhaps Americans have enough imagination to come up with alternative energy sources in time to save civilization and the planet. Unlike other commentators on the energy crisis, he steps back to consider the basic science—all the way back to the laws of thermodynamics and the principle of entropy. This discussion is enlivened by the chemistry professor's friendly tone and his gleeful recounting of early childhood experiments in creating explosives, but some readers may be understandably impatient to learn how all this background can be applied to the contemporary situation. When Eberhart, at the Colorado School of Mines, finally gets to that subject, his solution is admittedly broad. He suggests that the U.S. needs to create an "energy-industrial complex" to fully supply its needs by 2035, but offers little in the way of specific proposals beyond building more electric cars and providing economic incentives for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from factories. The science is fine, but more history and policy would have helped. (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
A trivia-rich yet coherent long view of what energy is, what physical laws govern it and why we should be using it less and better. Lance Armstrong can burn as much energy as a handheld hair dryer, writes Eberhart (Chemistry/Colorado School of Mines; Why Things Break, 2003), whereas a brain will use about as much as a refrigerator bulb whether we're thinking hard or barely sentient. That fact, he counsels genially, should not keep us from devoting much thought to how we humans are going to unpaint ourselves from the corner we're in vis-a-vis fossil fuels. In a conceit that grows a little tiresome with repetition, Eberhart pitches a "thinking man's energy diet" that involves a crash course in the laws of thermodynamics and the geology of petroleum, coal and other energy resources, all explicated clearly and even memorably. One well-put formulation, for instance, is Eberhart's notion of "survival of the thermodynamically more efficient," which works for humans as well as cheetahs, kudus and assorted other critters of the veldt. That done, he examines the rise of the oil industry, which, he reminds us, is only a century and a half old, and of the internal combustion engine, which may owe its worldwide dominance to a fateful decision made a century ago by none other than Winston Churchill. Today, as a consequence, the world's people use nearly 80 million barrels of oil a day. Swiping at the Bush administration along the way, Eberhart argues in closing that in order to counteract the baleful effects of our addiction to irreplaceable fossil fuels, we "must regain a sense of confidence in our abilities to imagine and direct the future"-brainpower again, in other words, helped along by windpower, solar energy and the odd nuclear generating station put to work driving electric and not gas motors. Nourishing food for thought, if less meaty than Vaclav Smil's kindred, superior Energies (1998).

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The Thinking man’s diet

At twelve, I was convinced I had stumbled upon the ultimate diet, and it was going to make me rich. I was a skinny kid who spent most of my adolescence combining Hostess Twinkies, instant pudding, heavy cream, lots of eggs, and cans of sweetened condensed milk in various high-caloric proportions in a tireless effort to bulk myself up—while the rest of my family struggled with their weight.

My stepfather swore by The Drinking Man’s Diet, the invention of Robert Cameron (aka Jeffrey Roberts), a San Francisco bon vivant and entrepreneur who marketed a “fun” diet in a fifty-page pamphlet that sold for one dollar in 1964. Predating Atkins by nine years, Cameron advocated healthy weight loss by reducing one’s consumption of carbohydrates, leaving dieters free to dine on porterhouse steaks, lobsters languishing in garlic butter, and salads smothered in Roquefort dressing. Cameron’s real genius was in recognizing that distilled spirits like vodka, gin, and whiskey contain only trace amounts of carbohydrates. Hence, there was no reason to abstain from a brandy after that Chateaubriand. In short, Cameron preached that it was possible to lose weight while eating, drinking, and making merry. So appealing was this message that in only two years’ time The Drinking Man’s Diet had been released in thirteen languages and sold 2.4 million copies. Cameron was set for life. At this writing, the still svelte ninety- something’s diet book is still in print.

If Cameron could get rich by inventing a diet, why couldn’t I? In addition to a diet simply working, it seemed a catchy name was essential to success. I would call mine The Thinking Man’s Diet.

Somewhere—I can’t remember where—I had learned that our brains consume more energy than our skeletal muscles. It was obvious: Think more and lose weight. I pictured a daily regimen where calisthenics were replaced with solving algebra problems, jogging with games of chess, and pumping iron with deciphering the daily crossword puzzle. And if you ate that dish of triple-chocolate-fudge ice cream after dinner, a few jumbles or geometric proofs before bed would serve as penance. This wonderful fact also seemed to explain why I was so skinny—I just thought too much, which is exactly what my grandmother always said. It was clear, at least to me, that The Thinking Man’s Diet could make millions.

But there was a glitch in my master plan. Specifically, the relative energy consumption of brains versus muscles is with respect to the basal metabolic rate, or BMR. For persons totally at rest, their brains consume energy faster than their muscles. Working muscles, however, are a different story.

The skeletal muscles of a typical 75 kg (165 lb) adult male make up about 40 percent of his body mass. This resting muscle consumes slightly less energy than a 15-watt refrigerator bulb. But put only some of these muscles to work pedaling a bicycle and a moderately conditioned rider will burn energy at the same rate as five 100-watt lightbulbs. A world-class rider can use energy at the same rate as a handheld hair dryer, 2,000 watts.

So, if algebra were to substitute for calisthenics, a thinking brain would need to use much more energy than one at rest. Here was the flaw in my get-rich-quick diet plan: Once again, consider a 75 kg adult male whose brain will account for approximately 2 percent of his body mass, roughly 1.5 kg. While sleeping, this brain will be using slightly more than 15 watts. Wake our subject and confront him with a calculus exam, and his brain will still require 15 watts of power. Have him solve the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, take an IQ test, or learn and explain the General Theory of Relativity, and how much power will his brain use? You got it.

Our brain is the only organ that consumes energy at a nearly constant rate, while all other organs respond to the demands placed upon them. Our hearts, which account for only one-half of one percent of our body mass, use a whopping 10 watts of power while resting. Ask the heart to supply blood to the muscles of our cyclist, and its power requirements will increase. The same is true of our kidneys, liver, organs of the gastrointestinal tract, and lungs—all use energy in proportion to the work they are being required to do. Except for our brains.

Alas, there was to be no Thinking Man’s Diet. There was to be no pamphlet—not in any language, let alone in thirteen of them.

The adage “You can do anything you put your mind to” had to be nonsense. With a constant power supply, our brains must function like a car with a broken accelerator—the driver can neither speed up nor slow down. Is this true? Are we limited in what we can do with our brains? We can check by measuring the rate at which brainwork accumulates. If our brains are like that car with the broken accelerator, brainwork will accumulate at a constant rate.

However, before we can start our bookkeeping, we need a more tangible definition. What exactly is the product of the working brain?

For most organs, this is an uncomplicated question. The work done by the heart is measured by the quantity of blood it pumps. The work done by the gut is related to the amount of food digested. And the work done by the lungs is associated with the volume of air inhaled. When it comes to the brain, though, the issue is not as obvious.

An essential component of brainwork is connected with actuating the nerves of the voluntary and involuntary muscles. When I reach across the table to grab the last chocolate chip cookie, it is because my brain is sending signals to my arm, shoulder, hand, and fingers. However, in human beings, only a small portion of the brain is involved with this task; the greater part is busy with other activities that are more easily illustrated than explained. So, picture yourself driving a rollover-prone SUV at 75 mph on a straight stretch of interstate. Suddenly, a piece of debris causes the front right tire to blow.

Two things have just occurred: First, you did exactly as I asked. You formed a mental image of an SUV striking a piece of debris. Second, not only did you imagine the SUV as instructed, but you also took the next step unbidden and pictured the vehicle tumbling end-over-end down the interstate. Our imaginations display an almost physical inertia—once the process begins, it must continue. This is what imagination is all about. We have the ability to hold on to real or fictitious ideas and events and explore the multifold possible outcomes that may result. In short, we have the ability to ask and seek answers to the question “What if?” Your response to the SUV situation is the natural result of attempting to envision the consequences of the question I posed, “What if the SUV you are driving has a blowout?”

For the most part, we are unaware of all the What if? questions our minds grapple with on a daily basis. All of us have had at least one of those Eureka! moments, when an idea or solution to a problem seems to pop into our heads. In fact, when this happens our brains have been struggling with the problem for hours, days, perhaps even years, experimenting with one scenario after another. It is only after (finally) settling upon a solution or course of action that the question is shifted from the mental background to consciousness—and, Eureka! Our brains are always questioning, always searching for answers, always imagining. Our brains are like that car with the broken accelerator, always running at full speed.

Yet searching, questioning, and thinking are not brainwork, any more than revving the engine of a parked car is driving. Work is the useful product of an action. Whereas our heart, lungs, and gut do work by maintaining our body, our brain does work when providing the stuff that can nourish another person’s imagination. You don’t have to look far to find examples of brainwork. This book was written to nourish your mind. In turn, I was only able to write it because I had access to a computer, text-editing software, the Internet, and reference books. All of these things served to feed my imagination. And the designers of each of these things drew sustenance from the inventions and ideas of others—from other inventors’ and scientists’ and writers’ brainwork.

Brainwork is self-propagating. Each invention grows our collective imagination. With a more robust imagination, we create even more things, which further nourish our imaginations, and so on. The adage about doing anything you put your mind to appears to be true after all. Which means we are left with a paradox: How can we do more with an apparently constant energy supply?

The solution is obvious. All of the “stuff” that nourishes our imaginations comes with an energy source. The energy to power the computer and text-editing software I mentioned did not come from the 15 watts allocated to my brain. I also did not have to draw from my own brain when looking for information—I did an Internet search that was powered through a worldwide electrical distribution system. And when I could not find what I wanted on the World Wide Web, I did it the old-fashioned way and read books, which had been produced with the aid of electric printing presses and were then distributed to libraries and bookstores with trucks powered by gasoline and diesel engines. In a very real sense, I could do more brainwork because my imagination was able to tap in to a virtually unlimited energy resource—a pipeline of brainwork, so to speak.

Brainwork is the defining product of a civilization. Hence, it is not surprising to see cultures flourish when energy is available and collapse when it dwindles. The United States—blessed with abundant timber, coal, oil, and hydroelectric power—has risen to become one of history’s great civilizations. Our brainwork is unprecedented, including great works of art and literature, architecture and science. We have deciphered the human genome, cured diseases, and journeyed to planets. Yet, the very abundance that made this possible may now be failing.

Forty years ago, we produced the energy we used. Now we are dependent on other countries to provide the fuel demanded by the fires of our imaginations. Though we represent less than 5 percent of the world’s population, we consume 25 percent of its energy production, importing over half of the more than 20 million barrels of oil we consume each day.

Other nations have instigated wars to win freedom from the yoke of energy dependency. December 7, 1941, is remembered most often as the day of the “unprovoked” attack on Pearl Harbor and the beginning of U.S. involvement in World War II. We seldom recall that before this date, America—the world’s largest oil producer of the time—had embargoed oil shipments to the Japanese. The bombing of the U.S. fleet protected Japan’s flank as its forces moved to secure the oil fields of Indonesia. And though our leaders deny that the war in Iraq has anything to do with oil, the United States is occupying the country with the world’s second-largest proven reserves (112 billion barrels) and with undiscovered oil assets estimated at 200 billion barrels.

At the same time our reliance on foreign oil is growing, we have come to recognize that using the energy sources that have fed our imagination for centuries—coal, oil, and gas—may endanger the planet. The evidence for global warming has grown to the point that it is dif- ficult for reasonable people to be dismissive of those alarmed by the prospect of climate change. These people envision a world that is far less hospitable than the one in which we presently live.

Confronted with energy dependency and global climate change, our course forward should be obvious; however, with energy as the key resource allowing us to exercise our imaginations, it is not surprising we are ambivalent as to how to proceed. We have developed a Jekyll and Hyde mentality. On one hand, like Dr. Jekyll, we strive to be responsible; on the other, like Mr. Hyde, we seek immediate gratification regardless of cost or consequences.

Dr. Jekyll has led us to consider energy in a more thoughtful way. Where not so long ago we concerned ourselves with the form of the energy we used, now it’s how the energy is made that is more important. Hence, we speak of solar, geothermal, wind, hydroelectric, chemical, or nuclear energy. Of these, solar and wind are forms of renewable energy, which are considered to be good energy or “green” energy, indicating that no harm was done to the environment during its production. Hydroelectricity is a renewable resource that may be considered bad energy if it is generated in dams that interfere with salmon migrations, destroys stretches of whitewater, or obliterates mountain goat habitats. Since the accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, nuclear energy has been firmly ensconced in the “bad” category, though geothermal energy, which is also a form of nuclear energy, is considered good. Chemical energy, commonly generated by burning something, can be good or bad depending on what is being burned. Coal-derived energy is bad, for example, whereas energy derived from ethanol is good. Ethanol is a form of biomass energy. It does not alter the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and therefore does not cause global warming. Though wood is also a form of biomass, the energy derived from wood burning is bad because it pumps smoke and other noxious substances into the air.

Mr. Hyde venerates energy consumption and makes his most important energy decisions based on power. Power is a measure of how fast energy is used. A modest car, when speeding away from a stoplight, is consuming energy as fast as a herd of 200 horses thundering across the open range. A stock H2 Hummer generates a paltry 316 hp compared with its cousin, the Viper, which churns out 500 hp. Its energy doesn’t come from grass, however. One pours gasoline right down the throat of the V-10 engine powering this extraordinary auto. Both the Viper and the more common cars on the road, such as light trucks and SUVs, consume energy far faster than what is required for Mr. Hyde to simply get to and from work. But in his imagination, he sees himself whipping around the oval at Daytona or barreling up a 30 percent grade to some off-road Shangri-la.

In many ways, the ambivalence we suffer while trying to plan our energy future is no different from the hesitation people experience when starting a diet. Potential dieters want to be healthier, stronger, and more attractive but worry about giving up the foods they enjoy. What is needed is an energy diet like Cameron’s drinking diet— one that will let us enjoy all the world has to offer without undue deprivation.

There has never been a better time to formulate such a diet, for we have spent centuries studying energy. We have at our disposal the brainwork of thousands; some from scientists who discovered the natural laws that control energy and its use. Others built on this brainwork, enabling us to build efficient machines and, more important, routes toward their improvement. We know how to extract energy from the wind, water, sea, and air. And we have come to appreciate the complexities of the environment and our interaction with it. We can imagine and make real a renewable and sustainable energy future if we can only gather the determination.

Like any good diet, motivation to persist must come from envisioning an energy future in which the United States will be politically and economically more secure, where our nation will be more competitive, improve its world image, and boost the standard of living for its citizens. And, most important, where we will be able to feed the fire of our imaginations without threatening our existence.

The diet I propose will be built on sound scientific footing. Though it will be scientific, it will not be abstruse. In fact, the background people will need to make sound energy decisions is astonishingly straightforward. It requires a consciousness of the two great laws of nature—the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics—to which we are all subject. These laws cannot be broken—hence many tend to be unaware of their existence. This is a problem, for when politicians or bureaucrats are oblivious to nature’s laws, nothing prevents them from formulating policies that have no possibility of achieving the desired result.

For our energy diet, becoming conscious of nature’s laws is a little like recognizing the difference between carbohydrates and protein. It’s a good starting point, but much more is required. We need to explore energy in detail—how it was formed and how it evolves. We will also strive to understand how we became energy-dependent creatures, and how this hunger has been satisfied for thousands of years. We will take a close look at the consequences of our energy appetite. Finally, we will put it all together to imagine a secure and renewable energy future and formulate a “diet” to achieve this end. Let me suggest: The Thinking Man’s Energy Diet.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Meet the Author

Mark E. Eberhart received his doctorate in materials science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is currently a professor of chemistry and geochemistry at the Colorado School of Mines. He is the author of Why Things Break: Understanding the World by the Way It Comes Apart.

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