I’m a big proponent of clean, renewable, and sustainable energy. Our species will not survive if we continue to use energy in the same way that we do at the same pace at that we do. That’s simply a fact. However, in my thinking about this issue, it never really occurred to me just how “new” energy is to humans. That is, it never really occurred to me just how new our energy sources were.
Take this chart of energy consumption in the United States, for instance.
Americans only started using petroleum as an energy source around the time that Abraham Lincoln was president. That’s almost 150 years ago. Americans have “only” been using petroleum as a source of energy for the last 150 years. That means, potentially, your great-great-grandfather may have lived in a world where using petroleum as an energy source was a “new” thing.
Looking a little further along the chart and we can see that 50 years after petroleum became an energy source that Americans used (albeit scarcely), coal was far and away surpassing our usage of petroleum. About 100 years ago, coal was 12, 13, or 14 times as popular as petroleum as a source of energy. It looks as if even wood was more popular as an energy source.
Now let’s look at the last 50 years. Between the early 1900s and the 1950s, the use petroleum as an energy source skyrocketed! As did the use of natural gas as an energy source. Coal seemed to be on the decline, but still in heavy use. Fast-forwarding a little bit more and we see that petroleum is trending down (in terms of its use) as is coal, but not before coal had a big uptick between the 1950s and the early 2000s. In that timespan, nuclear power also took off as an energy source, but it appears to have leveled off in the 2000s and may even be headed for a downward spike since the 2010s.
More notably is the green line for other renewables. We don’t see its existence until the 1950s and its growth is rather slow and steady. However, in what looks like the early 2000s, it begins to trend up. Who knows — maybe we’re on the cusp of what could be an energy revolution. Maybe “other renewables” will grow in popularity and use as coal or petroleum. Maybe its a bit naive or foolhardy to expect great energy transformation from non-renewables to renewables. Evolution does take time.
My point in sharing this today is to add some perspective on just how far humanity has come in terms of its use of energy. Really, only in the last 50 to 100 years has energy consumption skyrocketed in the way that we know and understand today. Who knows what energy consumption will look like in the years to come.
This article originally appeared on Jeremiah Stanghini and has been republished with permission.