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Energy & Creative Destruction: Fossil Fuels Triumphant

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- January 4, 2012

Creative destruction , a term popularized by Joseph Schumpeter, is the market process whereby bad is eliminated, the better replaces the good, and past performance gives way to new strategies and victors. No firm is forever, and financial loss is a characteristic of capitalism, as is the more used term profit.

Energy is the story of creative destruction. Coal gas and later coal oil replaced a variety of animal and vegetable oils, including whale oil, camphene oil, and stearin oil. Crude (mineral) oil then displaced manufactured (coal) oil, just as later natural gas would displace manufactured (coal) gas.

Coal itself displaced primitive biomass (burned plants and wood) and other forms of renewable energy, such as falling water and wind. Fossil fuel was a concentrated, continuous-burn industrial-grade energy.

The intensity of fossil energy can be understood as a stock of the sun’s work over the ages, not a dilute flow from the sun (solar, wind)–or a low-density mass from limited years of sunshine (biomass).