Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The History of "Progress" and the Dawn of the Anthropocene

The story of human progress is closely tied to transportation technologies and the sources of energy we use to power them. Energy is critical to life on earth and for better and for worse our species is defined by it.  More than a million years ago our ancestors learned how to wield fire. By 5500 BCE, we had harnessed the power of the wind and more than six thousand years later the Vikings made the first known transatlantic crossing to be followed by the European invasion that started in 1493.

Steam power

It was not until 1698 that the first crude steam engine was invented. It was built by Thomas Savery, of England to pump water out of coal mines. The first steamboat patent was filed by English physician John Allen in 1729 and the earliest known steam-powered automobile was created in 1769 by French inventor Nicolas Cugnot. The first sea-going steamboat was built by Richard Wright in 1813. Later in the century ocean liners began making regularly scheduled ocean crossings.

Combustion engine

The world began its perilous spiral in 1859 with the invention of the first internal combustion engine. The first gasoline-fueled, four-stroke cycle engine was built in Germany in 1876 and ten years later Carl Benz began the first commercial production of motor vehicles and mass production began in the 20th century. Powered by cheap and abundant fossil fuels the combustion engine is king. In the 20th century the combustion engine powered the shift away from rail and water towards cars and planes. Since World War II, the number of vehicles on the road has risen from about 40 million to some 680 million.

Air travel

The first airplane was flown in 1903, by Wilbur and Orville Wright and eleven years later the first passenger flights began. in 1927, Charles Lindbergh would make his historic flight between New York and Paris and by the 1950 air travel was commonplace. In 2017 there were approximately 7,800,000,000 traveled by air and in 2016 that number is expected to be 4,100,000,000. Earth in the 20th century there were very few airplanes, today there are almost 40,000 planes excluding light aircraft.

Electric power

The first crude electric vehicle was developed more than a quarter century before the first combustion engines.  Although Robert Anderson is recognized as the inventor of the first electric engine in 1832, it would take more than 150 years before electric vehicles began mass production in the 1990s. Despite increased range and lower battery costs plug-in electric cars are less than half a percent of the vehicles on the road today. The world is dominated by engines that burn hydrocarbons. Powered by cheap and abundant fossil fuels the combustion engine is king.


This reliance on 19th century technology is killing us. The climate change causing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels account for the majority of man made emissions. Cars and planes as well as other means of transportation are responsible for about 15 percent of man-made carbon dioxide.  The man made climate crisis is one of the reasons that sceintists have called our times the age of the Anthropocene.  Later this month scientists are expected to formally recognize the age of the Anthropocene. A 37 member committee of researchers from around the world will vote on whether the Anthropocene will be added as a new epoch to the Geological Time Scale.


By 2025 there will be a billion vehicles on the road and there is every reason to believe that these vehicles can be electrics. While electric air travel is a much bigger challenge we are seeing small scale examples that prove promising. We can expect to see clean energy assume a dominant role. Solar and wind are both century old technologies whose time has come. Alexandre Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect in 1839 and Charles F. Brush created the first electricity-generating wind turbine in 1888.

Energy in the form of light and heat from the sun made life on earth possible and wind powered our earliest long range transportation technologies so it fitting that solar and wind have emerged as our great hopes for the future.

Energy and transportation have never been more important to the fate of human civilizations. Replacing fossil fuels with clean sources of energy and replacing the combustion engine with the electric engine are examples of progress in the truest sense of the word.

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