Energy Transitions are Nothing New: A Lesson from Enviro-History
Much of the recent global conversation around climate change focuses on something called “the energy transition”. At its simplest, an energy transition refers to how a society moves from using one source of energy to another. In the 21st century, this means transitioning from using fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas for energy to more renewable sources of energy like solar, wind and hydroelectric power. While this energy transition isn’t without its challenges, it also isn’t unprecedented. In fact, there are have been many energy transitions throughout history.
Energy Transitions in the Past
We’ve got several thousand years of history to cover so let’s make this quick:
For the earliest humans, the primary sources of energy were fire and human labour. People had no choice but to rely on fire for heat and light and human muscles for basically everything else. However, over time, humans began to develop new ways to harness energy. We discovered new sources of energy, like animal labour and animal fat for light, and invented new technologies, like the windmill and water wheel. For thousands of years, energy transitions happened slowly, over centuries, but this all changed with the Industrial Revolution.
Beginning in mid-18th century, the Industrial Revolution utterly transformed how society harnesses and uses energy. In just a few decades, the world transitioned from primarily using fire wood for energy to fossil fuels like coal and oil. On top of this, new technologies like the combustion engine increased not only the supply of accessible energy but also society’s demand for it.
To quickly sum up, energy transitions are common throughout human history and the rate at which society is transitioning is only accelerating. This is where we find ourselves in the 21st century.
[As a quick side note, the transition from wood to fossil fuels was once considered the environmentally-friendly choice. The video down below, from the great YouTube channel It’s Okay to be Smart, explores this. Check it out!]
The Current Energy Transition
Just like in the past, the world is currently undergoing another energy transition: the move from fossil fuels to renewable energy. While this current transition is rooted in a long history, as discussed in the previous paragraph, the change to renewables isn’t without its unique challenges, ones that we as a civilization have never faced before.
Most importantly, this is the first energy transition that isn’t happening (entirely) on its own. While past energy transitions have happened more-or-less organically, as new energy sources became available, the threat of climate change is so pressing that we have to, for lack of a better term, “force” this latest transition. That’s not to say that this energy transition is unnatural; renewable energy technologies are getting better and cheaper all the time and, more importantly, we would have to change eventually anyway because fossil fuels are a limited resource. But because climate change is such an existential threat, we need to accelerate the current energy transition. We as citizens of a warming planet need to push our governments to implement policies that bolster the movement to renewables; subsidies for renewable energy projects and carbon pricing are two proven strategies.
Along with the issue of accelerating the transition, the move-away from fossil fuels also poses other unique challenges. I have already written about many of these challenges here on The Green Medium before, so I’ll just include a list of links if you’re interested in reading further. Some of the challenges include:
the intermittency problem (how do we always have power when renewable energy isn’t always available)
Don’t let this list of issues discourage you however! All of these challenges are manageable and scientists are working right now to remedy them.
It is undeniable that we are currently living through another energy transition; history certainly proves that! This current move towards solar, wind, etc. exists in a long legacy of previous energy transitions and, while this transition poses its own unique challenges, history also shows us that we as a society have done it before. History has so much to teach us, but only if we choose to listen.
This concludes my three-part series on environmental history, as well as my time writing for The Green Medium. Thank you so much for reading and I hope you learned something! Cheers!
[Cover image taken from Pexels, a free photo stock website]