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Olduvai III: Catacylsm
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Back to the Future

Back to the Future

The path of sound credence is through the thick forest of skepticism.” – George Jean Nathan

In the second half of the 16th century, Britain plunged into an energy crisis. At the time, the primary source of energy driving the British economy was heat derived from the burning of wood, and Britain was running out of trees. As the supply of wood dried up and its price began to soar, inflation set in, compounding the problem and spreading it to all corners of the economy. With imports from continental Europe insufficient to close the growing supply gap, the crisis looked set to crush the standard of living of the average British citizen.

And then they discovered coal.

Well, they didn’t exactly discover coal – it had been known for centuries that coal could be a useful fuel – but they did learn that, with a bit of tinkering, coal could replace wood in many important applications. They also recognized that they had a lot of it. With a higher energy density than wood, coal is a superior fuel that ultimately enabled meaningful improvements in the British economy. Trees could be preserved for construction purposes, homes could be more efficiently heated, and companies could leapfrog their competitors – foreign and domestic alike – by retooling to accommodate the new fuel. What followed was a decades-long economic boom.

Coal | Getty Images

It is now well understood that the wide adoption of primary fuels with high energy density enables better standards of living. In a popular piece we wrote last year called Where Stuff Comes From, we presented a simplified mental model for understanding the energy density of carbon-based materials using rungs of a theoretical ladder. As a thermodynamic sink, CO2 sits on the ground…

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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