Energy = Modern Civilization²

By: Lykke E. Andersen*

The World’s most famous equation is undoubtedly Einstein’s E=mc2, and while it stipulates that the total amount of energy in the Universe is constant and cannot be created nor destroyed, only transformed, I will argue that the harnessing of energy for human purposes is what has made the exponential growth of our civilization possible.

For most of human history, humans had little more than their own muscle energy available to them and, with that, they could just barely subsist. The first small addition to human muscle power came from the discovery of fire and the burning of wood and animal dung; which provided a useful source of heat to expand human activity into the colder and darker hours of the night, as well as to colder regions of the planet. Next came animal domestication, about 12,000 years ago, when humans learned to harness the power of oxen and horses to plough their fields and drive up crop yields. Subsequent energy inventions include the harnessing of wind power for sailing across oceans, and the construction of water-mills for grinding grain and pumping water (Smil, 1994).

By far the biggest advance, however, occurred when we learned to unlock the potential of fossil fuels in the late 1700s through steam engines. The energy intensity of coal, oil and natural gas completely dwarfed anything mankind had ever used before, rendering water-mills and wind-mills obsolete. Some historians regard this moment as the most important in human history since the domestication of animals (Smil, 1994).

Another great advance occurred when we learned how to convert mechanical energy into electrical energy. By 1872, Thomas Edison had invented the light bulb, and in 1882 he led the development of the World’s first commercial power plant, running on coal. Electrification subsequently proceeded at an astonishing pace, and by now only the poorest households in the World do not have access to this productivity enhancing technology.

According to the World Bank’s World Development Indicators about 85% of the World’s households now have access to electrical energy, and the 15% that don’t are among the World’s absolutely poorest households. Getting these last 15% of households out of extreme poverty and into the age of modern energy should be an absolute priority. Modern energy is the most basic requirement and none of the other Sustainable Development Goals will be reachable if we don’t comply with this one.

Since fossil fuel energy has made human civilization possible, it can also be blamed for pretty much all our problems, including pollution, global warming, inequality, wars, traffic accidents and obesity. Thus, as soon as we have secured access to modern energy for everybody on the planet, we do need to find alternatives to fossil fuels, both because the stock of fossil fuels is limited and because it creates a lot of contamination when we burn them.

Fortunately, Einstein’s famous equation also holds the solution to this problem. The equation posits that tiny amounts of mass, m, can be converted into huge amounts of energy, E, as the factor of transformation, c2, is enormous. The symbol c represents the speed of light, which is about 1080 million kilometers per hour, so c2 is an incredibly large number.

This is the key to fusion power – nature’s preferred way to power the universe. Within our sun, and every other star in the universe, tiny hydrogen atoms are being converted into huge amounts of energy through fusion. If we can replicate that technology on Earth, we will have virtually unlimited energy available, with little contamination and little risk. The fuel for a fusion power plant is simply seawater, which pound for pound holds 10 million times more energy than gasoline. Thus, a glass of water is equal to the energy content of 500,000 barrels of petroleum (Kaku, 2011).

Admittedly, fusion requires extremely high temperatures and pressure, which is difficult to generate on Earth. But given the huge potential benefits, billions of dollars are being invested in fusion energy research, and promising results are finally beginning to appear. In France, for example, the International Thermonuclear Reactor (ITER) is experimenting with a huge doughnut shaped magnetic field to create the conditions necessary for nuclear fusion, and physicists are cautiously confident that it will soon be possible to achieve fusion, obtaining an energy output at least 10 times larger than the energy input, at a cost of roughly 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, thus making it competitive with fossil fuel energy (Kaku, 2011).

In the meantime, let’s focus on getting cheap energy to the 1.1 billion people who still do not have access to any form of electricity, and thus cannot benefit from the basic productivity enhancing inventions like light bulbs, refrigerators, washing machines, computers and Internet.


Kaku, M. (2011). Physics of the future: How science will shape human destiny and our daily lives by the year 2100. New York: Random House.

Smil, V. (1994). Energy in World History. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

* The author is a Senior Researcher at INESAD, Ph.D. in Economics,   

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fundación INESAD.


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