There can be little doubt that most modern human beings have a far better standard of living and are vastly more advanced in terms of technological progress than our early ancestors, but these benefits to mankind have come at an enormous cost to the environment and pose numerous threats to the very existence of the human race itself. An examination of this history of human development and its consequences was the subject of a talk to the Bakewell and District Probus Club by one of its members, David Catton, who introduced his presentation by saying that it was an attempt to understand the realities of the world we humans have created.
Taking energy use as the first of his themes, the speaker showed how we have come to depend so much on fossil fuels, first coal (from the 17th century), followed by oil and natural gas. Although, in more recent times, other sources of energy – such as hydro, geo-thermal, nuclear, wind and solar produced electricity – have all contributed to fulfilling our needs, it remains that over 50% of electricity is still generated by burning fossil fuels, making the target of ‘carbon zero’ a real challenge.
David’s second theme was the subject of food supply. Before the industrial revolution, food was generally produced by labour-intensive means but, with the rapidly expanding world population that has taken place since then, the only way for food production to keep up with demand (alas, not always successfully) has been by mechanisation and the use of fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides; all of which require the input of further huge amounts of energy. Because so much of this energy is derived from fossil fuels, in effect we are all eating fossil fuels.
Finally, David talked about what he referred to as the ‘four pillars of modern civilisation’. These are ammonia (used in fertiliser and explosives), plastics, steel and concrete, the manufacture of which, combined, consume 17% of energy supply and account for 25% of CO2 emissions. Unsurprisingly, in view of its rapid growth, China now accounts for a significant proportion of these totals and, because other countries are following China’s example of industrialisation, they too will demand ever more energy. It is a worrying thought that, for the reasons presented by the speaker, we won’t eliminate the combustion of coal, oil and natural gas for many decades to come.
Details of the Bakewell and District Probus Club, including reports of earlier meetings, can be found on its website at www.bakewell probus.org