This week’s posts have been on the theme ‘The 300-Year Party’. The posts describe how we learned to extract fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas — in bulk 300 years ago. They literally fueled the industrial revolution and the modern way of living. The posts are:
In order to understand the nature of our current dilemma, including climate change, it is useful to consider how the development of our society that is based on the use of fossil fuels came about.
In the year 1712 a Baptist preacher named Thomas Newcomen developed a steam-powered engine for pumping water out of the mines in Cornwall, England. Newcomen’s engine was powered by coal, the über-commodity of the 19th century; it was coal that put the ‘Great’ in ‘Great Britain’.
Newcomen and those who followed him did not develop these early engines merely because it seemed like a good idea. Model steam engines such as the aelophile, an early form of a steam turbine, had been invented two thousand years earlier, but had never been commercialized. The aelophile was merely a toy — the people of that time did not perceive a need for a new source of energy, so they never bothered to develop this primitive steam turbine. The engineers of Newcomen’s time developed the industrial steam engine because they had to — they needed to respond to the predicament of what could be referred to as ‘Peak Forests’.
Our use of so much ‘buried sunlight’ led to unprecedented economic growth and material abundance. This, in turn, led to the creation of a new human faith system — one that is shared by people all over the world. Regardless of where they live or what their religious beliefs may be, most people believe in non-stop material progress. Our faith is in what can be called the ‘Church of Progress’. Such a faith system would have been incomprehensible to the people living prior to the 300-year party — the people of biblical times.