False Paradigm - Renewable and Nonrenewable Energy

What follows is what one of my old editors used to term a "think piece", by which he meant a stimulus to further thought.

The Conventional Wisdom

We are going to have to begin a transition from nonrenewable to renewable forms of energy. We have all read this injunction hundreds of times, and I've repeated it in print myself at least a few dozen times. And it seems to make perfect sense. What is nonrenewable will eventually run out. What is renewable will be replenished. Why would you want to bet the future of an industrial society on what is nonrenewable and will be gone? You wouldn't, would you? So you go with the renewable resources, ensuring that you will never want. Plus you'll be carbon neutral into the bargain.

I read it and I said it. I subscribed completely to the conventional wisdom. But now I'm beginning to doubt it.

Lately I've been reading and thinking about energy transitions, changes in either the way that humans used existing sources or the introduction of new sources and the obsolescence of the old. Most of those transitions have involved supposedly renewable sources, often a change from one "renewable" to another, but sometimes a change from a renewable to a nonrenewable and sometimes the other way around.

In the past such changes have occurred generally for one of two reasons. The prior resource had become depleted or otherwise compromised, and/or the new resources have offered greater concentrations of energy. Sometimes both reasons would be present.

The First Energy Revolution and Why It Failed

Where to begin…. I would maintain that the first readily discernible energy revolution after the initial exploitation of fire by hominids even before emergence of homo sapiens occurred in Mesopotamia over five thousand years ago. That transition involved an energy source that hominids have been exploiting for probably well over a million years and perhaps two millions. That resource was firewood.

So what's so different and so revolutionary about the Sumerian use of wood? Two things.

First of all, the Sumerians had little wood available to them in the region that they first developed. Their first sizable city which we call Al Ubaid was located on a coastal plain abutting the Persian Gulf in a relatively treeless region, though one rich in alluvial soil and extraordinarily well watered by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. There was, incidentally, also plenty of sunshine and a long growing season.

So how did a culture with few timber resources of its own manage to revolutionize the use of wood as fuel? By developing transportation systems that could deliver huge amounts of timber to its cities and towns and by inventing bronze axes and saws that could easily reduce tree limbs and trunks to chips and logs of manageable sizes. The Sumerians appear to have invented ships and large barges and they also seemed to have invented wheeled transport and paved roads. Moreover, they were among the earliest users of bronze. Other cultures may have anticipated them in some of these areas, but we lack definitive evidence of that.

By bringing in wood by the ton the Sumerians supplied themselves with fuel for smelting vast amounts of copper and casting vast amounts of bronze, creating a positive feedback loop. More bronze, more tools, more wood, and yet more bronze. They also used this abundant imported fuel source for mass producing pottery on pottery wheels, which they probably invented as well, and in baking bricks for producing large permanent structures, possibly the world's first monumental architecture. Wood was also used to fire great bread ovens allowing for the mass production of processed food and liquor which the Sumerians also seem to have invented. Because of the vast amount of wood at their disposal, the Sumerians can be said to have been the first humans truly to have mastered fire. And, interestingly, they were certainly not energy independent, and seemingly none the worse for their dependence on foreign energy sources.

Just as wood was used in a fundamentally new way as fuel as an adjunct to mass production of pottery, masonry, and metals, it was also used in radically new ways by the Sumerians as a structural material. The Bronze Age was really the wood age and the stone age and the brick age. The Sumerians built the world's first large wooden vehicles, namely, ships and wagons, and also built complex wooden furniture and furnishings such as chairs, beds, tables, chests, and doors that would have been almost impossible to fashion with stone tools. Bronze also gave them ability to construct in stone on a massive scale though that too had to be imported.

Here we are reminded of how thousands of years hence, our modern material culture used petroleum first as a form of fuel and then as a structural material in the form of plastics and other synthetic petrochemicals.

Beyond that, the Sumerians also appear to have been among the first if not the first culture to produce charcoal, which represents a minor energy revolution in its own right. Charcoal, which consists largely of carbon, is capable of producing a much hotter fire than is the case with wood in its native form and is necessary for working either bronze or iron. Charcoal was a new type of fuel, a processed fuel and one that lay at the foundation of Sumerian material civilization.

Sumerians were probably the first people to domesticate draft animal, utilizing both donkeys and oxen and probably employing them both for ploughing and transport. By harnessing animal muscle power and using it efficiently to move wheeled traffic over smooth paved roads and barges over rivers and canals the Sumerians wrought an energy revolution of still another sort.

We don't know if the Sumerians invented sailing craft—they may have had predecessors there—but they probably built the first ocean going sailing ships and they used them to travel as far as India, making them the first mercantile civilization. And in doing so they achieved the distinction of being the first people to harness wind energy in any significant way.

Such ships were made possible by advances in carpentry and in also in textile production that enabled the Sumerians to construct large expanses fabric for use as sails. In addition their ability to mass produce pottery and construct crates provided them with sealed containers without which commerce in bulk and manufactured goods would have been almost impossible.

One could argue further that the agricultural revolution of the Sumerians was really an energy revolution of sorts. The Sumerians were probably the first people to practice irrigation on a massive scale, attaining crop yields of unprecedented magnitudes that could support urban populations numbering in the tens of thousands.

Finally, the Sumerians may have been the first users of fossil fuel, though this is conjectural. They lived in an area where petroleum seepages were commonplace, and were known to have used liquid pyrotechnics in warfare. These might have consisted of raw petroleum mixed with pitch and may have been ancestral to the famous Greek Fire of Medieval times.

Only a few forms of renewable energy used in traditional civilizations were unknown to the Sumerians. They apparently did not use the power of flowing water to operate machinery—that would not occur until Hellenistic era in the last three centuries before Christ—nor did they use the concentrated power of the sun which would be employed in warfare by the Hellenistic scientist, Archimedes, the first instance of what might be called engineered solar energy. Otherwise the energy revolution that made possible pre-industrial civilization was complete some five thousand years ago.

Soon its vulnerabilities would become evident, however. Sumerians, like all early civilizations, denuded an already relatively treeless region of trees and had to travel farther and farther to obtain firewood. Biomass, a supposedly renewable resource, did not prove to be one because the supply was consumed far beyond the capacity of forests to regenerate. Similarly, the Sumerians depleted the soil, the source of the calories that sustained large populations of their cities and their vast herds of draft animals which supplied much of the muscle power on which the civilization depended. Sumerian irrigation practices leached salt from the subsoil and poisoned the topsoil, and, within a few hundred years of its founding, each of the thriving cities of the Sumerians was abandoned. The region of southern Mesopotamia that the Sumerian civilization had claimed became a wilderness of marshes. The supposedly renewable energy resources upon which the Sumerians depended proved to be nonrenewable.

Wood, the Nonrenewable Resource

All pre-industrial civilizations depended upon wood as their primary fuel source, as did one industrial civilization, the United States in the early nineteenth century. In almost all instances where this was the case, wood as a fuel source proved to be fundamentally nonrenewable. The Chinese, the Mayans, the English, the Dutch, the Greeks, and the Romans all cut down forests much faster than they could regenerate. Only in India and Southeast Asia was the biosphere equal to the depredations of man, and today in Malaysia and Indonesia the forests are falling fast. At the beginning of the Christian era large parts of the Mediterranean lands were still covered with primeval pine forests while the Islands of Britain and Ireland were green with millions of oak trees. These would all disappear over time.

Human induced treelessness in England and Holland prompted the first widespread usage of fossil fuels—coal in England and peat in Holland. Other nations were not so fortunate and endured protracted fuel shortages after they had destroyed their native forests. Some imported lumber from abroad, but foreign sources would not prove inexhaustible either.

Soil, the Nonrenewable Resource

The Sumerians were arguably the first people to destroy their soil but they were scarcely unique in that respect. Their successors, the Akkadians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians, established civilizations progressively farther north in the Fertile Crescent and repeated the mistakes of the Sumerians in their own lands, poisoning the rich alluvial soil of the river valleys with salt. It was no accident that the Assyrians became the world's first imperial power, subduing their neighbors and appropriating their resources. Their own growing poverty virtually compelled them to do so.

Soil depletion occurred in many places in the world. The Mayan civilization succumbed to it in the New World and it was widespread in the United States up until the mid-twentieth century when dust storms arising from poor soil management threatened American agriculture and the proponents of scientific agronomy and soil conservation finally gained a hearing in the American farm community.

Now, as we are entering a period when biofuels are being promoted as the solution to our transportation fuel problems, we are about to impose a burden on the world's soils and upon its accumulated biomass which will be approximately double the already considerable burden placed upon those resources by intensive agriculture in the service of the food industry. Soil depletion, deforestation, the draining of vital aquifers and water courses, and habitat destruction are not problems of the past. They are ongoing problems that have been partially alleviated through temporary fixes, many of which require massive infusions of fossil fuel sources.

Thus we may find that biomass and biofuel fuel are not truly renewable. It's all a matter of how they are produced.

Other examples abound. Fuel for illumination was provided for a time by marine mammals. That time was short. The populations of most of the larger species of whales had been seriously reduced by the middle nineteenth century. Whales did not prove to be renewable, or at any rate did not renew themselves very quickly when slaughtered by the millions.

Nonrenewable Water

After wind, water was the first renewable energy source. The later Greeks and the Roman built water mills for grinding grain and even constructed primitive water powered factory machinery. During the high middle ages water powered sawmills would appear in northwestern Europe, and the eighteenth century industrial revolution in England would be largely water powered (steam engines would not predominate until well into the nineteenth century). The first large alternating current electric plant in the United States would use the waters of Niagara Falls to run its generators and would power streetcar lines and factories all over New York.

Others would follow all over the world and many would wreak irreversible environmental devastation. The Aswan Dam in Egypt, one of the largest hydroelectric projects ever undertaken, destroyed one of the world's treasures, the remarkable high yield sustainable agricultural system of the Nile Delta which had been feeding millions around the Mediterranean for six millennia. Water that had previously gone to irrigation is now stored in a massive reservoirs to operate turbine generators and the world's most remarkable agricultural ecosystem is essentially dead.

Elsewhere, in many places, water has been taken from the land and placed behind damns to provide a "head" for electrical generation. The water is not lost, but it is lost to the land so that agriculture, fisheries, and game that were once renewable become nonrenewable in the service of so-called renewable energy.

Renewable Wind and Solar?

No one expects wind and solar energy installations to exhibit quite the problems of biomass or hydroelectric power sources, but they will not be without their environmental impacts. Both, being intermittent, make poor and inefficient use of dedicated electrical transmission facilities, and, if they grow sufficiently large, will probably demand what is known as pumped hydroelectric a palliative for intermittency that requires the construction of vast, environmentally destructive hydroelectric projects involving the diversion of water from natural watercourses and its storage in artificial reservoirs.

Renewables and the Carbon Cycle

The big promise of the renewables is that they will be carbon neutral. In theory this is possible, but the reality may be otherwise. Most renewable energy generators involve energy intensive manufacturing processes which in turn involve the consumption of fossil fuels and the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The monoculture agricultural practices that are likely to be increasingly employed in biofuel production degrade the soil and its ability to serve as a carbon sink. They also encourage deforestation, often executed by starting forest fires, which results in huge releases of CO2. Recently a number of scientists have drawn attention to these problems, but, inasmuch as biofuel has now become big business, their objections go up against the outcries of special interests commanding a bigger megaphone.

Is it possible to institute a renewable energy regime that is truly renewable and not just a theoretical construct intended to justify ultimately unsustainable practices? I don't know. Probably not with six billion people on earth, all clamoring for an American standard of living.


I'm happy that there are many good people like yourself thinking and giving consideration to all these matters. It only takes about 50 cents worth of cornflakes to produce the gametes to produce the embryo that grows into another human being. After that, all is easy. The government will take care of the mother and baby in the hospital. The WIC program keeps feeding them, and being poor has certain advantages in health care. One has plenty of time to make and take care of more babies when not working. Once they are through with babysitting in public school, then the males can obtain leftover petroburners, seek out fertile females and begin the whole cycle again. Charitable, Christian government is a wondrous thing for these people. But the earth and the people from parts of the earth that have winters; savers and sustainable existence people, have somehow locked themselves into the slavery of supporting the equatorial people, and their Malthusian collapse cycle of existence. Isn't wonderful having 14 year old vagina's in charge? The day before it all falls down will be like September 10th, 2001, in the World Trade Center.