From Publishers Weekly
Ever since cultivating fire, the human species has depended on tapping new sources of energy for survival, writes global historian Crosby (Germs, Seeds, and Animals: Studies in Ecological History
). This enjoyable, humorously anecdotal study provides a succinct overview of our voracious "appetite for energy," most particularly the inventive (and indiscriminate) exploitation of sunshine in its fossilized forms—peat, coal, oil and natural gas. The hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic era depended on muscle power to move through their world, and not much changed, Crosby notes, until the advent of the Industrial Revolution, when the first steam-powered engine was invented in 1712 by ironmonger Thomas Newcomen (James Watt, Crosby says, merely improved on Newcomen's design). Advances in harnessing energy trapped in organic matter followed quickly: whale oil used for lighting was supplanted by coal gas, kerosene distilled from petroleum and finally Thomas Edison's light bulb—itself powered by the electricity generated from coal and oil. This history explores how an ingenious and adaptable humankind found ever more efficient ways to harness "concentrated sun energy." Crosby is optimistic about the Earth's future—with the caveat that that future could be bleak without another energy breakthrough. B&w illus. (Jan.)
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The last shall be first: Crosby concludes that civilization has maximized its exploitation of solar energy (whether in renewable or fossilized form) and will have to go nuclear if its energy desires are to be satiated. Tracing the historical route to this impasse, the author's trim tome has a droll tone that should make it considerably more appealing than the current torrent of grimmer, longer, and agenda-driven books on this subject. A veteran ecological historian, Crosby structures his story by the landmarks of energy technology--fire, the dynamo, the internal-combustion engine. And he emphasizes the indolent element of human nature: we like to get more work done with less effort. Surprisingly, cooking starts off Crosby's survey: it eased digestion, increased edibles, and probably helped induce the domestication of animals. These labor savers, Crosby illustrates in anecdotal style, reigned as the muscle-power maximum of energy production until Thomas Newcomen's 1712 steam engine ignited the Industrial Revolution. An entertaining history of the energy conundrum. Gilbert TaylorCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved