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Energy as the Master Resource: Where Left, Right, and Center Agree

“A reliable and affordable supply of energy is absolutely critical to maintaining and expanding economic prosperity where such prosperity already exists and to creating it where it does not.”

- John Holdren, “Memorandum to the President: The Energy-Climate Challenge,” in Donald Kennedy and John Riggs, eds., U.S. Policy and the Global Environment: Memos to the President (Washington, D.C.: The Aspen Institute, 2000), p. 21.

Julian Simon (1932–98) is an inspiration to many of us here at MasterResource. Indeed, this blog is named for Simon’s characterization of energy as the master resource. In honor of Simon, I have reproduced some quotations from the vast literature on that theme.

The primal importance of energy is recognized across the political spectrum as the views of John Holdren, Paul Ehrlich, and Amory Lovins attest. Affordable, reliable energy is thus the starting point for public policy debate. And oil, gas, and coal are the backbone of energy plenty, as even politicians are realizing now that government-forced energy transformation (energy rationing) is under debate.

“The future belongs to the efficient,” it has been said. And the foreseeable future belongs to the carbon-based energies.

Here are some quotations, beginning with Julian Simon’s classic.

“Energy is the master resource, because energy enables us to convert one material into another. As natural scientists continue to learn more about the transformation of materials from one form to another with the aid of energy, energy will be even more important. . . . For example, low energy costs would enable people to create enormous quantities of useful land. The cost of energy is the prime reason that water desalination now is too expensive for general use; reduction in energy cost would make water desalination feasible, and irrigated farming would follow in many areas that are now deserts. And if energy were much cheaper, it would be feasible to transport sweet water from areas of surplus to arid areas far away. Another example: If energy costs were low enough, all kinds of raw materials could be mined from the sea.”

- Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 162.

“Energy will do anything that can be done in the world.”

- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), quoted in Vaclav Smil, Energy: A beginner’s Guide (Oxford: One World, 2006), epigraph.

“Every event in history can occur only insofar as there is available whatever amount of energy (i.e., work) is necessary to carry it out. We can think thoughts wildly, but if we do not have the wherewithal to convert them into action, they will remain [just] thoughts.”

- Richard Adam, Paradoxical Harvest (1982), quoted in Vaclav Smil, Energy in World History(Boulder, CO: Westview, 1994), epigraph.

“Coal, in truth, stands not beside but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material energy of the country—the universal aid—the factor in everything we do. With coal almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back in the laborious poverty of early times.”

- William Stanley Jevons, The Coal Question (London: Macmillan, 1865), p. viii.

“Coal is everything to us. Without coal, our factories will become idle, our foundries and workshops be still as the grave; the locomotive will rust in the shed, and the rail be buried in the weeds. Our streets will be dark, our houses uninhabitable. Our rivers will forget the paddlewheel, and we shall again be separated by days from France, by months for the United States. The post will lengthen its periods and protract its dates. A thousand special arts and manufacturers, one by one, then in a crowd, will fly the empty soil, as boon companies are said to disappear when the cask is dry. We shall miss our grand dependence, as a man misses his companion, his fortune, or a limb, every hour and at every turn reminded of the irreparable loss. Wise England will then be the silly virgin without the oil in her lamp.”

- Anonymous, The Times, April 19, 1866, p. 10; reprinted in Sandra Peart, ed., W. S. Jevons: Critical Responses, 4 vol. (New York: Routledge, 2003), vol. 4, p. 196.

“As medical science, by deferring death, has allowed many more people to live on the earth, so the energy of fossil fuels, by deferring physical scarcity, has kept those people alive.”

- Amory Lovins, World Energy Strategies: Facts, Issues, and Options (New York: Friends of the Earth International, 1975), p. 3.

“Man was not man until he could use fire, a chemical energy with a thousand uses; he was not civilized until he had learned through domestication to appropriate the ‘foreign’ energy of animals and through agriculture to harness better the ‘free’ energy of solar radiation and the chemical energies of light, water, and soil.”

- Erich Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), p 55.

In its widest sense on its material side, history is the story of man’s increasing ability to control energy. By energy we mean the capacity for doing work, for causing—not controlling—movement, for making things go or making things stop, whether they be trains or watches or mills or men. In order that anything may be done, energy is required.”

- James Fairgrieve, Geography and World Power (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1921), p. 3.

“Substitution of energy-intensive technologies powered by commercial energy forms for human and animal labor and the attendant productivity gains first led to abolition of slavery, serfdom, and child labor and culminated with the emancipation of women in the West. Thus, societal advances are inextricably linked to growing energy abundance and electrification and increasing personal mobility. Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, life expectancy and literacy correlate closely with primary energy and electricity consumption, as does energy scarcity with poverty and environmental degradation. Electrification with modern, efficient and non-polluting power sources is by far the most effective way to improve environmental quality.”

- Henry Linden, “Operational, Technological and Economic Drivers for Convergence of the Electric Power and Gas Industries,” The Electricity Journal, May 1997, p. 14.

“Virtually all of the benefits that now seem necessary to the ‘American way’ have required vast amounts of energy. Energy, in short, has been our ultimate raw material, for our commitment to economic growth has also been a commitment to the use of steadily increasing amounts of energy necessary to the production of goods and services.”

- John Holdren and Philip Herrera, Energy (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1971), p. 10.

“Energy is necessary for daily survival. Future development crucially depends on its long-term availability in increasing quantities from sources that are dependable, safe, and environmentally sound.”

- The World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 168.

“Seemingly abundant and cheap sources of energy permitted large-scale replacement of human labor in both manufacturing and agricultural production. . . . The availability of ‘cheap’ energy also made possible the development of powerful farm machinery, and abundant oil and gas allowed development of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and other products to boost crop yields (production per acre) considerably above those achieved with traditional methods. Similarly, we can thank fossil energy for facilitating the production of many useful goods and for stimulating unprecedented rapid expansion of economies and of food production. In effect, fossil energy facilitated the population explosion of the twentieth century.”

- Paul and Anne Ehrlich, The Population Explosion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), p. 27.

“Energy . . . is the great enabler for all peoples around the world. It can also be expected to remain primary in future centuries as ocean and space colonization proceed. The sudden disappearance of hydrocarbons—for example, following a ten-year forced phase-out as urged by a popular book sounding the global warming alarm—could snap the support system maintaining current population levels and force a return to ecologically inferior primitive biomass. It would not be energy sustainability but energy holocaust.”

- Robert Bradley Jr., Julian Simon and the Triumph of Energy Sustainability (Washington, DC: American Legislative Exchange Council, 2000), pp. 27-28.

“By providing energy flows of high power density, fossil fuels and electricity made it possible to embark on a large-scale industrialization creating a predominantly urban civilization with unprecedented levels of economic growth reflected in better health, greater social opportunities, higher disposable incomes, expanded transportation and an overwhelming flow of information.”

- Vaclav Smil, Energies (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999), p. 134.

“Energy is the only universal currency: one of its many forms must be transformed to another in order for stars to shine, planets to rotate, plants to grow, and civilizations to evolve. Recognition of this universality was one of the great achievements of nineteenth-century science, but, surprisingly, this recognition has not led to comprehensive, systematic studies that view our world through the power prism of energy.”

- Vaclav Smil, Energies (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999), p. x.

“Energy is the biggest business in the world; there just isn’t any other industry that begins to compare.”

- Lee Raymond, Chairman, ExxonMobil, quoted in Staff Article, “The Slumbering Giants Awake,” The Economist, February 10-16, 2001, p. 6.

“The twentieth century was the first era dominated by fossil fuels and electricity, and their vastly expanded supply, lower cost, increasing flexibility of use, and ease of control created the first high-energy civilization in history. Mechanization and chemization of agriculture have given us a plentiful and varied food supply: more than a four fold increase in crop productivity during the twentieth century has been made possible by a roughly 150-fold increase of fossil fuels and electricity used directly and indirectly in global cropping.”

- Vaclav Smil, “The Energy Question, Again,” Current History, December 2000, p. 408.

“The great dramatic shift to mineral energy is the very basis of technological progress. One could almost concentrate the whole history of economic development into this simple transition: man power to animal power to machine power.”

- Erich Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), p. 58.

“The shift to machine power changed America from a rural agricultural nation to an industrial giant. It also made men’s lives easier and richer. In 1850, the average American worked seventy hours a week. Today he works forty-three. In 1850, our average American produced about 27 cents’ worth of goods in an hour. Today he produces about $1.40 worth in dollars of the same purchasing power.”

- Erich Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), p. 58.

“Civilizations resting on the modern resource pattern of inanimate energy-metal-science-capital are highly efficient as systems of physical production and therefore, theoretically at least, they are capable of freeing man from drudgery and of giving him leisure and wealth, the basis of higher spiritual development and the larger life.”

- Erich Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), p. 73.

“Natural resources are the foundation for human life and underpin sustainable development. They provide the raw materials for meeting basic human needs: food and water, clothing and shelter, medicine, tools, energy and communication. They also provide recreational and other non-consumptive services for increasing numbers of people. Beyond these human needs, natural resources play an important role in providing the food, habitat, and reproductive bases for virtually all living resources, and in meeting ecosystem functions like carbon and nitrogen fixation, water catchment and temperature buffering.”

- Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Sustainable Development: Critical Issues (Paris: OECD, 2001), p. 273.

“Kerosene has, in one sense, increased the length of life among the agricultural population. Those who, on account of the dearness or inefficiency of whale oil, were accustomed to go to bed soon after sunset and spend almost half their time in sleep, now occupy a portion of the night in reading and other amusements; and this is more particularly true of the winter seasons.”

- John Draper (1864), quoted in Harold Williamson and Arnold Daum, The American Petroleum Industry: The Age of Illumination(Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1959), p. 320.

“The great forward steps of civilization are at least connected in part to breakthroughs on the energy front. The discovery of fire gave primitive man security and comfort on the ground; the domestication of animals added their greater muscle capacity to his. Later on, the waterwheel opened up a new source of energy to exploitation, greatly increasing the power available to his tasks. Then, in the nineteenth century the industrial revolution was fueled by coal.”

- John Fowler, Energy and the Environment (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975), p. 296.

“Technology and change follow the liberation of energy. The lifestyle of contemporary America was destined by the development of fossil fuels in this seminal era.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 45.

“Reliable and affordable access to modern energy services is an indicator of sustainable development, for without it basic needs cannot be satisfied.”

- World Energy Council, Living in One World (London: World Energy Council, 2001), p. 74.

“After 1820 the world’s economy became increasingly based on work done by nonmuscular energy. By 1950 any society that did not deploy copious energy was doomed to poverty.”

- J. R. McNeil, Something New Under the Sun (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), p. 298.

“Energy is the lifeblood of the world’s economy, the underlying means by which modern societies function. Oil, coal, natural gas, and electricity are needed for virtually every important function in industrial societies—from growing and cooking food, to manufacturing, heating and cooling buildings, and moving people and goods. The interruption of supplies by storms, earthquakes, wars, or other events quickly demonstrates how totally dependent we have become on the energy-consuming machines.”

- James MacKenzie, “Oil as a Finite Resource: When is Global Production Likely to Peak?” World Resources Institute, March 1996, p. 2.

4 comments

1 Andrew { 07.03.09 at 10:15 am }

Nice compilation Rob! So, since everyone seems to agree about the need for affordable energy…why doesn’t that seem to be how the behave in Congress? I know pols are pretty thick, but do they really believe their behavior helps rather than hurts in this regard?

2 Economist's ridiculous claim: 'Oil supplies are running out fast' | GORE LIED { 08.04.09 at 12:46 am }

[...] who are interested in reading more on this subject should visit the Master Resource blog, which was inspired by Simon’s [...]

3 Houston Chronicle Endorses U.S. Offshore Drilling West, East, and Between (BP is ‘back to petroleum,’ not ‘beyond petroleum’) — MasterResource { 09.06.09 at 6:55 pm }

[...] Fair enough–that will help the paper’s sagging circulation. And it is a good argument too–real jobs instead of government-dependent ‘green’ jobs that can lead to boom/bust cycles from political change. And by the way, the coal, oil, and gas ‘bridge’ will be for decades and even centuries so long as the ultimate resource can tap the master resource. [...]

4 Confusion will not end for everyone suddenly and at the same time | Green Power Technology { 08.30.13 at 4:55 pm }

[...] how his confusion distorts his on thinking. Bradley is correct in thinking that (e)nergy is the master resource. Without it, other resources could not be produced or consumed. Oil, gas, and coal could not be [...]

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