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Energy And History

March 2023
4min read

Two centuries ago William Blake said with some prescience, “Energy is spirit, and the spirit is within us. ”

You ask: What can history teach us about energy? It can teach us that inattention to its problems contributed to the fall of civilizations. Plato describes in Critias how Attica had already become ”… a mere relic of the original country … all the rich, soft soil has moulted away, leaving a country of skin and bones.” The Greeks (and the Romans, Carthaginians, and so on) cut down their trees for firewood and made barren much of the Mediterranean littoral. In North Africa (the ancient granary of Rome) the Arab is not only the child of the desert but also in part its father.

How did we get into our present troubles? Bit by bit. Beyond absurdity, this is stuff for the theater of the bizarre. It is not so much a question of villainy as of myopia.

Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s a number of people, among them M. King Hubbard of the U.S. Geological Survey, pointed out how our domestic oil and gas would come into short supply in the early 1970’s; few paid attention, and such thoughts were even suppressed with sprightly vigor. The Office of Coal Research (in the U.S. Department of the Interior) was funded so poorly that it could attract neither attention, nor ideas, nor competent staff. The draft of President Nixon’s 1971 energy message had a section strongly advocating what we now call energy conservation, but it was struck out by the White House staff.

That same year, a number of automotive vice-presidents were told in Detroit that they were on the way to being three-time losers—the first time regarding auto safety when they sent lawyers to Washington instead of engineers to the laboratory, the second time regarding pollution when they did the same, and now in failing to see the coming energy crunch and prepare in time. Not to worry, they responded, the American public would never fall out of love with the automobile. When Honda came out with its stratified charge CVCC engine—and even modified a Chevrolet V-8 engine to meet all proposed U.S. emission standards—General Motors had not one single similar project in its research laboratory.

In 1974 in a conference on transportation held in the U.S. House of Representatives’ Cannon Building, when the Secretary of Transportation Claude Brinegar was asked why the federal government showed no leadership in getting the United States into smaller, more energy-efficient cars, he replied that the administration was not going to infringe upon the free choice of the people.

In 1972 the President’s Office of Science and Technology convened a prestigious panel to study energy, believing it was all technology, and laid down these three ground rules: natural gas was not to be questioned; the fission breeder program was not to be questioned; environmental and societal problems were not interesting. Even at that late date, the Office of Coal Research proved incapable of writing anything for the panel, even when directly ordered to do so, and others had to do it for them.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s the Atomic Energy Commission, searching for a method for disposing of nuclear wastes, had thought of storing them permanently in thick geologic salt formations, an idea with considerable merit. However, bit by bit they settled on using an abandoned salt mine near Lyons, Kansas, less than two miles away from solution-mining operations proceeding in the same salt bed. The AEC ordered the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to proceed on an inadequate budget, ignoring all but a narrowly defined set of technical issues. When the project achieved notoriety in 1971, critics with the instincts and charity of chickens pecked it to death and have continued to do so with every attempted revival.

In the 1960’s and early 1970’s the same AEC so rigidly structured its program to develop nuclear breeder reactors that the whole project shattered under attack by nuclear critics, and technical dominance passed from the United States to France and Japan.

I will refrain from discussing the history of the nuclear debate in any detail; it would take too long, but I have characterized it as proceeding with the intelligence, grace, and charity of a duel in the dark with chain saws.

There are lots of historical precedents for this sort of selective inattention and overrigidity. In A.D. 1302, the papal bull Unam Sanctum , issued under the aegis of Pope Boniface VIII in response to various contemporary political and social problems, stated in part that a necessary condition for the salvation of all human creatures was that they be subject to the pontiff of Rome, thereby inaugurating a series of Church-versus-State conflicts that persist to the present day.

But if people are clever enough and think hard enough, they can triumph over such problems. In the latter half of the sixteenth century, the English, believing warships could be built that carried not armies for close combat when the ships grappled but long-range cannon that could sink the enemy at a distance, gambled their future and made ships that sat lower in the water and sailed closer to the wind. In 1588 they defeated the Spanish Armada, losing only one hundred men, and replaced Spanish hegemony with English.

One also can find close parallels to many features of the nuclear debate in history. Read especially the first chapter of Georgius Agricola’s De Re Metallica , written in 1530, for a superb environmental impact statement on the pros and cons of mining, of high versus low technology, on dominion vis-à-vis stewardship over this ball of Creation on which we live. In one passage, the author quotes from Pliny: “Iron is used not only in hand-to-hand fighting, but also to form winged missiles of war: sometimes for hurling engines, sometimes for lances, sometimes even for arrows. I look upon it as the most deadly fruit of human ingenuity. For to bring Death to men more Quickly we have given wings to iron and taught it to fly.”

Then Agricola replies by writing of the benefits of metals, ploughs, and so forth, and concludes: “In the first place, then, those who speak ill of the metals and refuse to make use of them, do not see that they accuse and condemn as wicked the Creator himself. …”

I have no intent to confuse iron with uranium and plutonium, but only to point out how such arguments have gone on for millenia. Such attitudes of ascribing moral qualities to the chemical elements should have disappeared in the Middle Ages. All those irrational arguments are bad theology. Energy is neither a good nor a bad thing in itself; the good and bad lie in us; having been given free will, we can use it to propel ourselves toward heaven or hell. Blake was right.

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