Posts Tagged ‘Edwin Drake’

Industrialization and the Anthropocene

August 19, 2018

Before proceeding further mention must be made of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. Somehow Christian makes no mention of this invention. Nevertheless, it was central to the advancement of mankind. The remainder of this post is taken from “Origin Story: A Big History of Everything” by David Christian.” Christian writes, “Pressure to find new sources of energy would eventually conjure up the mega-innovations that we describe today as the fossil-fuels revolution. These gave humans access to flows of energy much greater than those provided by farming—the energy locked up in fossil fuels, energy that had accumulated not over a few decades, but since the Carboniferous period, more than 360 million years earlier. In seams of coal, oil, and gas lay several hundred million years’ worth of buried sunlight in solid, liquid, and gaseous forms. To get a sense of the energies locked up in fossil fuels, imagine carrying a car full of passengers over your head and running very, very fast for several hours, then remind yourself that a few gallons of gasoline pack that much energy and more (because a lot of energy is wasted). Like a gold strike, this energy bonanza created frenzied and often chaotic new forms of change and created and destroyed the fortunes of individuals, counties, and entire regions. Charles Dickens, Frederich Engels, and others saw the terrible price that many paid for these changes. But from the frenzy would emerge an entirely new world.”

James Watt’s steam engine gave a first taste of energy flows so vast that they would transform human societies in just two centuries. Energy from fossil fuels provided a pulse of energy that started the technological equivalent of a global chain reaction. Within 25 years, f500 of he new machines were at work in England, and by the 1830s, coal-fired steam engines were the main source of power in British industry. By 1850, England and Wales were consuming nine times as much energy as Italy, and English entrepreneurs and factories had access to prime movers of colossal power.

England was the first country to benefit from the energy bonanza of fossil fuels. By the middle of the nineteenth century, England produced a fifth of global GDP and about half of global fossil-fuel emissions. Global levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide began to rise from about the middle of the nineteenth century. As early as 1896, the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius recognized both that carbon dioxide was a greenhouse gas and that it was being generated in large enough amounts to start changing global climates. But such fears belonged to the future (Arrhenius actually thought that global warming was a positive development because it might stave off a new ice age), and the use of technology grew and spread.

Edwin Drake made the first serious attempt to drill for oil in the Pennsylvania town of Titusville, beginning in 1857. On August 27, 1859, just before funds ran out, Drake’s drill team struck oil. In 1861, drillers struck the first gusher—an oil well that pumped oil under its own pressure, even producing a fatal explosion when the natural gas pumped up with the oil was ignited. Production increased to three thousand barrels a day. Unfortunately, Edwin Drake died in poverty in 1880 despite the fact that he had helped launch the next chapter of he fossil-fuels revolution.

Christian writes, “In the 20th century, we humans began to transform our surroundings, our societies, and even ourselves. Without really intending to, we have introduced changes so rapid and so massive that our species has become the equivalent of a new geological force. That is why many scholars have begun to argue that planet Earth has entered a new geological age, the Anthropocene epoch, or ‘the era of humans.” This is the first time in the four-billion-year history of the biosphere that a single biological species has become the dominant force for change. In just a century or two, building on the energy flows and the remarkable innovations of the fossil fuels revolution, we humans have stumbled into the role of planetary pilots without really knowing what instruments we should be looking at, what buttons we should be pressing, or where we are trying to land. This is new territory for humans, and for the entire biosphere.”

Christian writes the Ahthropocene epoch looks like a drama with three main acts so far and a lot more change in the works. Act 1 began in the mid-nineteenth century as fossil-fuels technologies began to transform the entire world. A few countries in the Atlantic regions gained colossal wealth and power and terrifying new weapons of war.

Act 2 of the Anthropocene was exceptionally violent. It began in the late nineteenth century and lasted until the middle of the twentieth century. During this act, the first fossil-fuel powers turned on one another. In the late nineteenth century, the United States, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan began to challenge Britain’s industrial leadership. As rivalries intensified, the major powers tried to protect their markets and sources of supply and keep out competitors. International trade declined. In 1914 rivalry turned into outright war. For thirty years, destructive global wars mobilized the new technologies and the growing wealth and populations of the modern era.

Act 3 included the second half of the 20th century and the early 21st century. From the bloodbaths of the world wars, the United States emerged as the first global superpower. There were no more major international wars during the era of the Cold War. All parties understood that there would be no victors in a nuclear war. The Soviet Union disbanded and lost its puppet regimes and some of its republics. The new Russia has reorganized and is challenging the United States and its allies. It has developed new techniques of warfare, including cyberwarfare. They are conducting cyberwarfare against the United States including interfering in elections and were a major factor in placing Trump in the office of the President of the United States.