The ancients believed in five elements. They weren’t that far off. In Hindu (and Greek) cosmology these elements were Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Aether. In Chinese cosmology the last two are Wood and Metal. In Captain Planet the last one is Heart. They’re very similar.
In reality, humans have access to roughly five primary energy sources:
- Fire — solar
- Water — hydro, wave
- Earth — geothermal power
- Air — wind
- Aether /Metal— nuclear power
There are of course a few outliers — biomass (plant matter, which comes from solar), hydrogen (which requires power to make), and donkeys running in a circle (not covered, but the food chain leads to the sun). The ancients also postulated that consciousness was a sixth element, but we have yet to get a handle on that.
These are the primary sources of energy and we primarily don’t use them. We get less than 20% of our energy from renewable sources. For the vast majority of human needs, we rely on, essentially, an ancient power bank. Fossil fuels.
What Are Fossil Fuels?
But what is a fossil fuel? I used to think it was dinosaurs, but it’s not.
Over millions of years, bacteria, plants and plankton harnessed energy from the sun. When they died, this energy was squashed and stored in the earth. The ultimate energy source is ancient photosynthesis, which is fascinating. This was the original manna from heaven. Food from light. Fossil fuels are ultimately solar power, stored in the bodies of ancient life.
Oil, gas and coal are just the compressed corpses of the past. Creatures that died at sea became oil and gas. Those that died on land became coal and methane. This morbid power bank supplies more than 80% of human energy today. This is a problem, because, well, you know the problem.
Life-based power is easier to access, but much, much more dangerous than primary energy. We basically should not have disturbed these plankton graveyards, because they were, in aggregate, monsters.
In the history of life, photosynthesis was like crack cocaine. It quickly got out of control. Cyanbacteria used it voraciously to create food from light, and in the process emitted metric shit-tonnes of oxygen. Oxygen sounds great to us, but at the time anaerobic life was like ‘WTF is this?’ and died. Then most new life also died because the Earth cooled and became a snowball. Life barely survived at all. This was the Great Oxygenation Crisis of 2.4 billion years ago. Never forget.
That is the power of photosynthetic energy, which we casually dig out of the Earth and light on fire. Plankton and plants look dumb but, in aggregate, they change the Earth so much that you can see it from space. Their burning bodies are predictably changing our climate again, just in the opposite direction.
The Climate Is Alive
We think of life as living in the climate, but this is incorrect. Life is the climate. We are literally swimming in plant farts. It’s not that the Earth has oxygen, which makes life possible. Life creates the oxygen that makes more life possible.
The reason that fossil fuels warm the Earth is not some abstract physics, it’s because we’re using lifeforms as energy, and the climate is life. The problem is not that it’s running out (we have a huge amount left), the problem is that this messes with the thermostat, as life always has.
Fossil fuels are amazing but we are releasing tonnes of angry plankton ghosts and we need to stop now. Basically, we cannot run our civilization off a power bank anymore. It has already begun overheating and the Climate Crisis and the sixth great extinction has already begun.
Unfortunately, we can’t just combine all our energy sources to summon Captain Planet. All we have is Greta Thunberg, I don’t know where the hell the rest of the Planeteers are. Ma-Ti has probably burned to death in the Amazon.
As Greta says, the number one thing we have to do is use our voices to effect political change. Remember that we don’t have to change everything, the top priority is to just stop using fossil fuels. To unplug the power bank, even though the 100 companies causing 71% of climate change are rich, connected, and extremely powerful.
This is technologically simple, but politically hard. Nearly impossible really, but the alternative is much, much worse. Cyanobacteria nearly extincted themselves, but they were pond scum (no offense). We should know better. We have to organize, we have to use our voices and we have to replace fossil fuels with renewable, non-life based energy. For good.