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Our Age of Energy

Will future historians characterize the twentieth century as the age of energy?  There is much reason to assert the affirmative.

For most of human history, life was miserable. Until the 1900’s, average life expectancy topped out at about 35. There was no such thing as economic growth. Humans subsisted on what they could till, herd, pick from bushes, hunt, or fish.

The world witnessed unbelievable social, economic and geographic growth in the twentieth century. The world has shown remarkable growth in social (population) and economic (wealth) this century. Also it has grown technologically (developed the computer and nuclear power) and geographically (mobility). Our political advances (democratic form of government overcoming communistic form of government) also come about indirectly due to the energy sector.

Why has the world advanced so much this century? My thesis is that most of the advances came about because of the utilization of natural resources (energy) and in particular, hydrocarbons (coal, oil and natural gas). Of course incentives to allow the ultimate resource to mine the master resource are crucial, which brings in capitalism on the supply and demand sides.

Does the Age of Energy deserves classification in a similar historical context as the Renaissance, Reformation, and the Enlightenment eras?

Renaissance, Reformation, and the Enlightenment

The Renaissance took place in Europe during the late 14th century to the 16th century. The Renaissance witnessed a renewed interest in classical Greek scholarship, the exploration of new continents, the acceptance of the Copernican model of the universe and the introduction of paper, the printing press, the compass, and gunpowder. These lead to advances in art, literature and architecture.

The Reformation was a 16th century religious revolution, creating a third branch of Christianity: Protestantism. This was in addition to the Western (Roman Catholic) church and the Eastern Orthodox, which had officially split in 1054.

The Enlightenment movement took place in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe. Essentially, it was a group of philosophers that formulated new thoughts on social progress through rational restructuring of society and confidence in science and the benevolence of human nature. The movement rejected the doctrine of original sin. The first encyclopedia was assembled. The American and French revolutions took place during this era. Many students of government believe the enlightenment era was instrumental in the formulation of the governing documents of the United States.


“Promethean growth” from “the slow-rolling Industrial Revolution,” argued Deepak Lal in Poverty and Progress, “harness[ed] a new source of energy to fuel the economy–fossil fuels.” He explains:

Unlike land, the traditional source of all the energy utilized–mechanical, heat, protoindustrial–which, being limited, was subject to diminishing returns as the population expanded. The unlimited energy stored in fossil fuels allowed first the western end of Eurasia and then its new outposts in the Americas to escape from this age-old constraint on intensive growth.

Lal concludes: “The rise in per capital incomes this permitted enabled these economies to banish the scourge of structural poverty” [p. 17].

Our Century of Energy

The Age of Energy has marked the twentieth century. This epic era saw the population of the world triple; the world’s GNP increased ten fold; and man’s mobility centuplicate, including landing a man on the moon. This Age of Energy will be the supercharger for the coming millennium.

The world and society developed beyond most everyone’s wildest expectations during the 20th century. Using the seven influences in our Assumption Generator, we will define some advances here, and connect them with the use of energy.

Social: The world population grew from 1.7 billion to 5.8 billion in this century. The life expectancy increased from 33 years to 66 years also in this century. The huge increase in population was due a lot to the increased longevity of mankind. Better water and food, disposition of waste, health care, mobility, heating and cooking all added to the increase in life expectancy.

Economic: While good economic measurements still do not exist today, world GNP is estimated to have grown from $3 trillion at the beginning of the century to over $30 trillion currently, a ten fold increase. One-fifth of that GNP is in the United States, which correlates closely with the U.S. share of energy consumption. Economic growth and energy consumption growth have always had a close relationship.

Political: The United States became a superpower in this decade, mostly by the use of energy. The Cold War (Capitalism vs. Socialism; and Democracy vs. Communism) was won with energy playing a major role. The availability of energy played a key role in both World Wars during this century.

Technology: Nuclear power was developed in this century. The improved finding and production of hydrocarbons has been enhanced to the point where it is unlikely that we will run out of petroleum supply any time soon. The Atlantic (May issue) cover story says the World will never run out of oil!

Logistics: Real advances in mobility have centuplicated (improved by a factor of 100 times) this century. The world effectively shrank this century. Many industrialized nations have mobilized their people with individual automobiles and public roadways.

Developed air travel so that a person with a credit card can travel to almost any place in the world within 24-hours; and physically put a man on the moon, and now have regular space travel. Conducted a modern day ‘Crusade’ by transporting 500,000 fully equipped troops from the Western Hemisphere to the Middle East for a 100-hour war and had them home for Easter.

Most of this mobility is due to liberal energy use and the internal combustion (reciprocating and jet) engine.

Ecological: The one uncertain influence today deals with ecology. Is global warming or climate change a threat to our way of life and society? All sides are jockeying politically on the United States position pertaining to the government’s stance in Kyoto, Japan in December. The ecology scientists are not in agreement on the cause or effects of global warming.

In general, environmentalists are anti-energy consumption. They claim energy consumption is detrimental to one’s life, but the macro facts are not on their side, with life expectancy doubling this century, mostly due to the use of hydrocarbons.

Natural Resources: There is poor data on historical world energy consumption. Current world energy consumption is 370 quadrillion BTUs per year.

For perspective, the United States consumed 9 quadrillion BTU/yr. in 1900 and today uses 90 quadrillion BTU/yr., an increase of tenfold. This allowed the United States to become a world super power, economically and militarily. The rest of the world did not increase energy consumption at this rate.

The United States developed their petroleum resources before other nations because we allow individuals the rights to private property, including mineral rights.


Various reasons can be claimed for the great advances in society during this century, but no one can dispute that ours is truly the Age of Energy. The finding and utilization of hydrocarbons was the epic event that defined this century at the close of the present millennium. And expect this age to accelerate in the 21st Century.


Dale W. Steffes, P.E., has been a consultant to the energy industry for the last 40 years, advising more than 150 clients, including OPEC countries, multinationals, U.S. domestic producers, and gas and electric utilities.

Mr. Steffes has degrees in Mechanical Engineering, Business Administration, and Theology and lives in Houston, Texas.


1 Bill Peacock { 07.05.13 at 6:53 am }

Love the piece, lot’s of good thoughts. Increased energy use indeed benefited mankind significantly in the 20th Century. But I might name it instead The Age of Capital. The growth in capital is what made the increased energy use possible–no new capital, no rapid growth in energy use. You can certainly see how important the increased use of energy was since mankind chose to devote so much of the new capital to energy. But it was still the capital that made it possible. Capital accumulation was also perhaps the most important accomplishment of the Renaissance. So I’m all on board with the importance of energy, but I’ll stick with the Age of Capital. Let’s hope that the 21st Century is known as teh time when we get most of the despotic governments in the Third World out of the way and the Age of Capital takes hold throughout the entire world.

2 rbradley { 07.08.13 at 11:16 am }

Following up on Bill’s comment, the age of capital is a good, broader title, and to be broader still, it is the age of ‘enough capitalism’ to increase capital greatly.

But just imagine where we could be today without the world wars, etc.

3 Eric_G { 07.08.13 at 2:13 pm }

I would argue that the major political change was not democracy vs communism. Instead the overwhelming political change in the age of energy was the move to highly centralized government, no matter if it were democratically elected or otherwise. This change also is due to the mass distribution of information, another revolution that wasn’t possible before cheap energy.

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