The Work of Energy
Updated: Jun 16
Since human beings first discovered fire, energy has been a gift that we’ve put to work for us. In the U.S. today, we use energy almost every moment of every day. It drives our economy and makes our lifestyle possible, but human beings can’t make energy. All the energy we use comes from outside ourselves.
The sun’s energy, captured by plants, is the source of most fuels we use. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 86% of energy used in the U.S. comes from sun energy, either directly as solar power or captured by plants and then converted to forms we can use. Some, such as wood and plant oil, are sun energy captured within human time. Others, like coal, petroleum, and natural gas, are ancient sun energy. It was captured by plants, decomposed, and metamorphized over millions of years into the fossil fuels we extract from the earth.
Planet Earth is the source of the remainder of the energy we use. Nuclear energy comes from breaking the bonds of radioactive materials, which are part of the earth from the time of its formation. Earth’s molten core is the source of heat energy captured by geothermal systems; and is the driver of land uplift, which causes rivers to flow. We then capture the river’s energy with our hydroelectric plants. Similarly, wind turbines harness the energy in the air flow caused by Earth’s rotation and the sun’s differential heating of the planet’s surface.
The science of physics tells us energy is the ability to do work, in the form of mechanical movement and heat. Human beings first put energy to work when they used fire to keep warm and cook food. It also was put to work making tools, which led to better shelter, more productive hunts, and the development of agriculture.
From the start, the work energy did for people increased their well-being and freed them from some of the daily struggle to survive. Through their use of energy, people altered the landscape to better meet their needs and were no longer entirely limited by the conditions of their environment. However, they were still constrained by the amount of work people could do with hand tools and animals. The only way to do more work was to put more people and animals to the task.
From Egyptian pharaohs to Chinese emperors, Aztec kings, and European royalty, history is full of bellicose and powerful people who put others to work for them through threat, coercion, or enslavement. They used the labor energy of people and animals to acquire and accumulate resources and wealth for themselves. Landscapes were changed and ecosystems altered in the process. For most of human history, the extent of destruction was regional, because it was constrained by the work that could be done with people and animals.
This constraint was removed with the advent of the industrial age. Machines exponentially increased the amount of work energy could do for us. The new limiting factor was the availability of fuel energy for the machines and raw materials for production.
The industrial age in Europe and North America ignited a competition for resources around the world. It also required people to work at the pace of machinery. This meant de-humanizing conditions for poor people working in factories, logging camps, and mines of the industrialized countries, and the conquest, enslavement, and servitude of black, indigenous, and people of color in conquered lands around the world. Today, some leaders and corporations of powerful countries continue the competition to extract resources from poorer countries, and from poor regions within their own country, while paying the lowest possible wages.
Rev. Dr. Walter Brueggemann, in his book, Sabbath as Resistance, calls this energy-driven system the acquisition economy. Its core principle is the continuous growth and expansion of what we can have and do. To varying degrees, Brueggemann claims we’re all in bondage to this economic system. It demands ever greater productivity, while also telling us we’re inadequate, unless we acquire more of whatever is marketed to us.
Like the rulers of ancient kingdoms who used the energy of people and animals to expand their wealth, we now use the industrialized work of energy to remove limits on what we can do and have. The city of Las Vegas, with a metropolitan population of over 2.7 million, is a large-scale example of our use of energy to defy limits. Without air-conditioning, few would want to live in Las Vegas. Although the city’s municipal facilities are switching to renewable energy sources, the metro area’s electricity is primarily fueled by natural gas, which makes air-conditioning, and thus Las Vegas, possible.
Similarly, the desert region of Las Vegas has insufficient water for a population of 2.7 million. The city exists only because the work done by energy from fossil fuels dammed the Colorado River and pumps water from the resulting lake for the city’s use. Due to this and other removals of water for our use, the Colorado River, which once had a thriving delta of over 3,000 square miles, now barely has flow in it when the river reaches the Gulf of California.
Where ecosystem destruction previously was constrained to a region, the work of industrial age energy destroys the landscape on a continent-wide, even a global scale. We live on a limited planet, but we use energy to consume the planet as if there are no limits. Excluding Antarctica, 97% of the planet’s land surface has been altered by human beings to some extent. Our consumption has changed the planet’s surface to such an extent, that geologists have proposed a new epoch called the Anthropocene. Its defining features are the impacts we’ve had on the planet.
Our energy-driven, acquisition economy also has made its mark in the planet’s atmosphere. At the beginning of the industrial age, wood was the primary fuel burned in the U.S. It shifted to coal about the time of the Civil War, and since that time, fossil fuels have done most of the work for us. The carbon released from the fuel that drives our economy accumulates in the atmosphere and traps the sun’s energy, intensifying the greenhouse effect that creates our climate.
Since 1895, there has been an annual average temperature increase of 0.16 degrees Fahrenheit per decade, for a total increase of nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the U.S. The rising temperatures, and associated weather extremes, worsen conditions of hunger, poverty, and health, which oppress people around the world and within our communities.
Despite the ecological destruction caused by the industrial age, energy is still a gift of creation. It has liberated many people from the daily struggle to survive and made it possible for them to thrive. The work energy does produces material goods for the well-being of our households. It provides an abundance and variety of food to sustain our lives. Energy does the work of hauling, processing, and disposing our waste. It also brings safe drinking water to us and removes and treats our wastewater. For many in the U.S., the work energy does gives us free time and the resources to pursue activities we enjoy.
Energy use is at the core of our lifestyle, which is why it’s difficult, even scary, to discuss making changes in the way we use energy. But as people of faith, we can’t ignore the injustices of the industrial age, and the harm the energy-driven economy does to people and all creation. Brueggemann compares the demands of today’s acquisition economy to the demands on the ancient Israelites who made bricks for the Pharoah. To some extent, the Israelites benefited by living within the Egyptian empire; much like we, living within the U.S., benefit from the acquisition economy. However, like the ancient Israelites, we need an exodus to correct the injustices caused by the industrialized use of energy.
This exodus would be an evolution in the way we think about and use energy. It means turning away from seeing energy as a human tool to expand the limits of what we can do and have, and instead, turning toward seeing energy as a Divine gift for the flourishing of all people and life within creation. If we do this, and get the use of energy right, then all ecological and social injustices become easier to solve.
For more about energy and way you can be part of the exodus to a just system of energy use, register for one of the Living Connected: Energy workshops offered this month.