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Column2015.5. 8

Humanity and Energy

Coal and the Industrial Revolution

The late 18th century saw dramatic improvements in the steam engine, a device that generated mechanical power by using coal to heat water and convert it to steam. Humanity now had a new and far more powerful means of harnessing energy, without having to rely on human power or horse power. Coal-based energy, in tandem with iron, paved the way for a wide range of industrial machines, among which textile spinning machines were particularly important. This energy source also made it possible to build extensive railway networks and iron sailing ships, thereby fuelling the transport of resources around the world. The power of physical labor, which depended chiefly upon the efforts of humans and horses, was replaced by the power of machines. Whole industries were established on a foundation of coal, with this most stable of energy sources influencing not only the division of labor, but also the very shape of modern cities.

Oil and the Nation

From the mid-19th century, petroleum began replacing coal as a convenient source of energy that could be utilized readily, and it continues to be one of the world's most valuable resources. Refined petroleum was the impetus behind the invention of the internal combustion engine. Subsequently, oil grew to become the dominant energy source underpinning economic activity. At the same time, petroleum provides the raw material for creating chemical products, construction materials, medical equipment, and other products that support human life and social infrastructure. Today, as in the past, civilization depends heavily on oil, and nations, in their need, continue scrambling to acquire it.

Nuclear Energy and the Balance of Power

The early 20th century was a period when science and technology were advancing at an unprecedented rate. A series of conflicts erupted between national governments, culminating in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Humanity, with the fire of the atom in its hands, subsequently deepened its scientific understanding and technological control, in an effort to exploit the immense power of nuclear energy for peaceful means. Nuclear energy led to advances in both industry and everyday life, with medical applications being just one example. Despite the promise of nuclear power as a limitless source of energy, humanity has been unable to fully implement necessary safety controls in the face of rapid change. As a result, the world learned from the experiences of Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) that, even when it is not used for war, this technology has the capacity to ruin areas of land that support life.

Global Warming and Natural Energy

Science and technology are symbols of humanity's power in its struggle against the forces of nature. Modern civilization, which emerged chiefly out of Western Europe, came to believe that humanity could dominate nature. Through our efforts, we have achieved such feats as removing the tops of mountains, solidifying riverbanks, and protecting human life from natural disasters. In addition, a variety of inventions have come to add color to society, enabling people to enjoy rich lives both day and night, around the clock. As a result, however, nature itself has begun gradually to change. Now we cannot help but feel that a vague sense of fear and anxiety is the price to pay for continuing to consume such huge amounts of energy.

There are two main objectives associated with natural energy. The first is for it not to emit greenhouse gases, unlike coal and oil, which discharge large amounts of CO2. And the second is for its end products to have no deleterious impact on life and the environment, unlike nuclear power, which produces a wide variety of untreatable radioactive waste. For some time, scientists and engineers have been conducting research and development with the aim of making new energy mechanisms a reality. Entering the 21st century, a time when the role of greenhouse gases in global warming has long been thoroughly established, there is a growing demand for traditional energy sources to be replaced by clean natural energy.

Efforts to Solve Energy Problems

Today, it is important for humankind to understand the underlying systems of nature and the behaviors of plants and animals that have flourished on this planet, blessed by the sun, for over three billion years. Considering our future, we should take advantage of the sun's energy by developing practical applications that exploit it. At the same time, we should develop clean new methods to convert light into electrical energy and to create the chemicals that society requires. On top of all this, we need to devise new energy-efficient mechanisms. Such are the tasks that we feel will prove most worthwhile.

Research into such areas will advance the study of new energy-conversion technologies and usage methods that together will enable the sustainable development of humanity while preserving the global environment of the future. We will continue to pass on the benefits of our findings to society.