Paleotechnology and the 21st Century
Good energy science is important because there can be no life without energy. The first human foray into the energy field took place somewhere in the Lower to Middle Paleolithic period when stone age Homo erectus discovered fire and figured out how to use it for warmth, lighting and cooking. For more than a million years since then humankind’s energy-related efforts were almost exclusively limited to developing more and more energy-dense fuels and more and more efficient ways of burning them. The exceptions were a limited use of water power, and wind mills, both used principally to mill grains and later to power early forms of industrial production.
The human emphasis on fire is odd, since the rest of living nature doesn’t burn anything at all to satisfy its energy needs. Plants, from tiny algae to the mightiest trees, collect plentifully available solar energy and use it to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugars and starches through photosynthesis. Animals feed on the plants and use the energy stored in them to create nature’s most amazing, decentralized energy-management system, built on autonomously functioning cells in combination with extensive networks of collaboration, all doing the work of living, recycling all materials involved, leaving no waste behind.
One wonders if man’s exclusive focus on fire for energy is not a consequence of the human penchant to be distracted by side issues, such as controlling exploitable human, material and energy resources; concentrating power in hierarchic structures that consistently fail to serve universal human needs; and the mindless accumulation of money, possessions and waste. Could it be due to the fact that while combustion-based energy is easily weaponized, — an explosion is accelerated burning —, renewable forms of energy are not?
It was back in 1921 that Albert Einstein received his Nobel prize in physics, for having discovered the law of photoelectricity, yet most of the world is still stuck on burning fuels for energy. This paleotechnlogy is fast destroying our life-supporting climate, jeopardizing food production from agriculture to fisheries, damaging our forests, creating mega-droughts, mega-downpours, floods, and more. India had its hottest day on record (above 125ºF) yesterday. Our worship of fire is destroying Maine’s economy as well, by siphoning off billions of dollars spent annually on imported fuels — from oil to natural gas — instead of investing them in permanent improvements and creating non-exportable, clean-energy jobs in the process.
Discovering fire some million years ago by our Homo erectus ancestors was a giant leap in human evolution. So were Einstein’s monumental discoveries about energy and matter. The Maine PUC tells us that a solar generated kilowatt-hour is worth far more than conventionally generated power. Yet in 2016 Maine lags behind all of New England in energy policy.
Maine’s state motto is “Dirigo” – I lead. How so if our energy choices reflect the dated thinking of Homo moronicus rather than of Homo sapiens? Clearly, in this 21st Century, we must choose the power of the Sun over the caveman’s fire.