For a million years as we evolved, we humans beings made use of the annual energy supply we received from the sun. It was more than enough. The sun and earth were our primary deities. We lived in balance with nature.
10,000 years ago we invented agriculture and began to organise ourselves in communities and cities. There were less than 10 million of us then. We used the annual energy we received from the sun to grow crops, kept warm in winter using wood and later on produced metals and cement using mined coal. We were very successful. Our population expanded to 1 billion by the year 1800 and we were beginning to change the earth yet we still lived pretty much in balance with nature… and then…
We began to industrialise and stopped relying upon the annual supply of solar energy. A massive growth of coal mining, first by men and children with picks and shovels in deep mines, then by steam driven machines, then surface mining, then whole mountains cut away… expanded and expanded. The coal was exported everywhere to run the new machines and the societies that were built around it.
Each year we used many, many years worth of solar energy that had been stored 400 to 300 million years ago. Our energy use exploded. Our population exploded too. So did pollution.
Then 120 years ago we began to use oil and later gas which were even more energy dense than coal and easier to transport. Our energy use exploded again way beyond levels that could have been imagined just a few decades earlier. It seemed miraculous.
We invented all sorts of things that used the oil and gas — car, planes, power stations, summer holidays, motor bikes, all sorts of stuff made of plastics, packaging, etc. We had wars, shocks and crisis that were all about gaining greedy control of the energy sources.
We invented products with associated advertising that persuaded us to buy stuff we didn’t need or that only Kings and Queens used to be able to afford. We became consumers of everything — it felt good for a while.
Our population grew to 7.8 billion, we took over most of the planet. We pushed the wild animals, birds, insects, forests, meadows, woods, lakes, marshes and rivers into smaller and smaller spaces. Our energy use grew and grew.
The pollution began to accumulate in the atmosphere and oceans, to raise temperatures, to create more extreme weather patterns, to poison natural systems, to melt ice that had formed ages ago, and so on. We had disturbed the balance. You know the story.
In a hundred years we had managed to undo the work of half a million years of the natural carbon cycle. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which had been pretty stable for ten thousand years at 280 parts per million lifted to over 370 ppm by the year 2000. It’s 417 ppm today and still rising.
Some saw the writing on the wall, a crisis was declared, promises were made, some people got scared, some got annoyed, some tried to ignore it all, some got outraged, some got involved, some changed their behaviour. Innovations and inventions came, things that had been called “alternative” became mainstream. Society changed.
People began to realise that it was possible once again to live easily using only the local, annual supply of energy from the sun, without creating pollution. Just by being smart and using innovations and inventions that already existed. It was just a matter of choice and making some changes.
Our energy use and pollution declined rapidly, we stopped making choices that were unsustainable — in fact those choices became unacceptable. Our population stabilised, we cleaned up the atmosphere and the earth. We made room for the rest of the natural world and everyone realised that they were actually a part of it too. People found it hard to make sense of how human beings had been so self damaging in the past.
Nature seemed to become more beautiful. Maybe it always had been, but now everyone could appreciate the magnificent wonder. We began to discover so much more about who we really are.
People and the earth became very, very happy — and lived happily every after.
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