5.16 Energy Sources: What is Energy?

Author: Yang Zhou

Date Submitted: April, 29th, 2022

ABSTRACT: Energy contributes to civilization’s growth. Humans have advanced through the gathering epoch, agricultural epoch, pre-industrial epoch, and industrial epoch, each phase promoting and advancing energy use. Energy historian Vaclav Smil explains the relationship between energy and economic growth in his recent book, Energy and Civilization, with a simple yet powerful phrase: energy is the only universal currency. Energy in the form of electric power, nuclear power, and a variety of renewable energy sources is becoming more integrated into human society’s activities, such as transportation, construction, smelting, and even all aspects of human life. As the social economy becomes more complex, the demand for more and more efficient energy input increases. As every improvement in the way energy flows has resulted in cultural and economic improvements, the impact of introducing a new mode of energy conversion of control energy becomes increasingly significant; proper control will enable excellent motive power to exert greater efficiency. A critical issue that people must analyze, face, and resolve swiftly is how to reconcile economic progress with energy source and loss. 


There may be cultural and linguistic hurdles to the entire human community’s development, but the only thing that does not cause barriers is energy. Many historical developments are a series of limited uses of some sort of energy outcomes in a specific technique, the many types of energy conversion and contact with one another, becoming the most likely to be overlooked in the evolution of civilization, but it is the most powerful force. 

“Energy is the only universal currency.” Smil makes a point at the opening of the book, taking a stand and pushing it forward. Life on Earth would be impossible without photosynthesis, which converts solar energy into plant matter. Richard Adams contends, according to Smil, that while history is unpredictable, it must have a structure or organization that corresponds to its energy content. Humans, in other words, rely on energy transformation for survival and increasing energy flow for civilization. 

Humans got the majority of their energy from outside sources during the gathering and hunting period, relying on their own physical strength. Through the use of fire and the invention of culinary methods, people became aware of the benefits of energy. Agriculture began around 3500 BC in the Two Rivers to ensure a long-term source of energy, and was followed by agriculture in the Indus Basin and the Yangtze River valley in China. The agricultural system demands a lot of labor by employing modern technology to construct and maintain water infrastructure, so work has been applied, wind, water, and the remainder of the grain is stored through redistribution. The human class began to diverge. As a result, the energy system of the time spawned the formation of the state, as well as the economy and institutions that support roads, money, markets, trade, city life, and bureaucracy. 

During the ancient and agrarian centuries, humans and the environment coexisted in relative peace. For thousands of years, the driving force and fuel required to support human society remained unchanged, but their role was completely realized thanks to human intelligence’s remarkable inventiveness. The Chinese water wheel, for example, was a basic lever operated by running water that was invented in the early 14th century, as were the horizontal warping wheel, treadle, vertical water wheel, sailing boat, heating and lighting, and even the modern bicycle. 

The velocity of material flow in the entire society increased after entering the era of industrial civilization, and biomass fuels and livestock labor were swiftly replaced by fossil fuels. This is referred to as “the great transformation” by Smil. Coal extraction and the use of the steam engine gave rise to printing, industry, navigation, and rail transportation. Oil and the internal combustion engine began the power revolution. New communication, energy, and transportation technologies made globalization possible. Watt’s steam engine, Diesel’s I.C.E., Faraday’s electromagnetic induction, Edison’s electric lamp, and Tesla’s dynamo, to name a few… Chemical fertilizers, the rise of mechanized processes, and the intensification of animal husbandry all necessitated the use of fossil fuels to drive rapid expansion in the twentieth century. When coal-based industrialization spread over the world, industrial electrification became a truly revolutionary leap. The steel industry’s energy needs fueled a dramatic shift in modern production, and electrification gave rise to a swarm of highly specialized enterprises. The economic, social, and environmental implications of the vehicle are among the world’s most significant developments today. People and goods have traveled much less time and distance thanks to international air travel and steamships. Telecommunications technology that is inexpensive, dependable, and really global is also possible with the application of energy technology. 

Using Britain’s first Industrial Revolution as an example, the book asserts that since the first industrial revolution, the acquisition and use of fossil fuels has essentially governed the rise and fall of great nations. Britain became the cradle of the industrial revolution and an empire on which the sun never sets, thanks to its vast coal resources and the invention of coal-efficient machinery such as the steam engine. During the Second Industrial Revolution, the use of oil and gas transformed the American Century. One of the key variables impacting geopolitics in the twenty-first century will be the planet’s eventual decarbonization. 

Since the era of fossil energy, human society has seen massive alterations, with GDP increasing by roughly 100 times and fossil energy consumption increasing by around 50 times annually. The discovery, extraction, and use of fossil energy, which nature gradually formed, stored, and left to us over hundreds of millions of years, is unquestionably the driving force behind humanity’s incredible achievement. 

As industrial civilization has advanced on a global scale, the mutual link or law between fossil energy use and economic growth has become one of the most important themes in economic research. While humans have developed severe disharmony between nature and civilization in order to achieve a comfortable way of life, in how to find the earth’s resources, development, utilization, and consumption of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas), an undeniable fact is that human civilization is always accompanied by industrial civilization to upgrade and improve, It’s just that human energy civilization has become more savage. 

People have never given energy as much thought as they do now in the twenty-first century. When humanity is confronted with yet another energy iteration, it means that a new energy period is on the horizon. What obstacles will the future generation of energy provide to humans? Energy iteration lacks reason. Will the energy world of the future be more beautiful than the one we have now?


“Energy Consumption by Source.” Our World in Data, ourworldindata.org, https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/energy-consumption-by-source-and-region?stackMode=absolute. Accessed 29 Apr. 2022.

 Smil, Vaclav. Energy and Civilization: A history. 2017.


Yang Zhou is currently in her third year of Fashion Communication program at Ryerson University, now she works as PR assistant of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, China.

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