The modern world runs on energy. This might seem obvious, but in terms of history, it is rather a dramatic development. Prior to the industrial revolution, human society used very little energy beyond what human labor, animal power, and what basic natural resources like wind, water and fire could provide. A windmill, a water-mill, or a fire to cook on or light the house were about the extent of the use of energy resources. But once the industrial revolution hit, suddenly it became necessary to find new sources of energy to power a world increasingly run by machine.
Over the course of the last two centuries, we have gone from a world powered by wood, whale blubber, wind, and river water to one in which fossil fuels, solar panels, and even nuclear fission help to feed humanity’s ever-growing need for more and more energy. As the rate of energy consumption continues to grow, competition for dwindling energy resources only makes it more difficult and expensive to keep up the same levels of consumption.
One of the reasons that energy resources are so important is that they make it possible for a country to maintain its lifestyle. When China became a world power and announced its plan to develop its standard of living through industrialization, securing energy resources became a matter of extreme concern. It was on the back of vast strip mining of fossil fuels that China developed its industrial base. A lack of natural resources can make it harder for a country to reach the highest levels of industrial development because it is usually more expensive to important fuel than it is to produce it at home. That’s one reason, for example, that North American countries have turned toward refining oil sands into petroleum. Formerly, this process was too expensive and cost more than importing oil from the Middle East, but thanks to changes in both prices and technology, it is now a cost efficient way to restore some energy independence, dealing a major blow to OPEC nations’ revenue.
On the other extreme, when Iran wanted to create a nuclear weapon, obtaining nuclear fuel was of paramount importance, and this entailed seeking out uranium and plutonium, two highly fissionable nuclear fuels. Similarly, terrorist groups around the world are looking for those same nuclear fuels to produce their own dirty bombs.
But the importance of energy resources isn’t just found at the international level. Right in your own home, you have to make decisions about which energy resources to use to heat, cool, and power your home. Most homes are heated either through oil, natural gas, or electricity. Some even use wood-burning stoves. Each of these has pluses and minuses, and each utilizes a different energy resource system in order to create heat. Similarly, your house can now take advantage of different ways of powering it with electricity. You can buy electricity off the grid, and this power is generated from a range of options, including coal, hydroelectric, and nuclear. Or you can power your house with solar panels to use the energy of the sun. Finally, you might even (in exceptional circumstances) use a generator that runs on propane or oil.
Fortunately, we live in an age when it is possible to make use of a wider variety of energy resources. The choice of which resource to use impacts not just individuals but also the environment. Some resources are renewable, some are not, and some, such as nuclear, run the risk of damaging the environment for generations to come. Whatever energy choice you make, there are consequences to consider. The good news is that in today’s world there have never been so many options for making responsible choices that will benefit the environment, or at least reduce the risks so that the future will have plenty of energy resources for everyone.
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