How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Thursday, October 29, 2009

World Population - Part I

“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have domination over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth (Genesis 1.28)”

Fertility and fecundity are the earth’s mechanism for maintaining life, and she bestows the gift of reproduction upon all living things indiscriminately. The slug, toad and grain of wheat are all equipped with the miraculous capacity to regenerate their species. As seeds are planted, fawn and fowl are born and trees bear fruit, so the offerings of nature enrich and fill up the earth with abundance. Only with the continued fertility of all living things can the diversity of life on earth be sustained. Early, earth-worshipping civilizations paid homage to the phenomenon of reproductive diversity with a variety of reverent rituals.
Every year the high priestess of the Great Mother Inanna engaged with the king of the land in ritual fertility rights. The copulation of the king with the human embodiment of Mother Earth ensured fertility and abundance across the kingdom for the following year. The high priestess was also responsible for the allocation of the fruits of her gifts of fertility and distributed grain and other commodities among the people. Given the importance of her responsibilities and to maintain impartiality, the high priestess was not allowed to produce heirs of her own during her tenure lest she bestow unequal favor upon her own descendants. The worship of Inanna and observation of her sacred fertility rituals were maintained for millennia and continued after Yahweh’s people came to inhabit the lands of Mesopotamia (1).
Many of the matriarchs in the Old Testament are barren women in the tradition of the high priestess, and the text of the Bible is ripe with indications these powerful women served in the ancient role. Abraham’s wife Sarah engages in perplexing sexual encounters with Pharaoh and King Abimelech for which the couple are richly rewarded with silver, sheep and slaves. But the jealous Yahweh intervenes and puts an end to the ancient fertility ritual, symbolically sequestering the power of fertility from the earth into his own hands.
“God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, “You are about to die because of the woman whom you have taken…it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her (Genesis 20.3 – 20.6).”

Once Sarah is prevented from fulfilling her ritual acts of fertility, her reign as high priestess is ended permanently when she becomes pregnant with Isaac at an unnaturally advanced age, giving her an heir and rendering her unable to perform her sacred duties forevermore. The womb of the goddess, once the vessel of fertility for all living things, became the reservoir for the children of men alone.
As Sarah’s womb became the domain of her husband Abraham and his God Yahweh, so did the womb of the earth and all her female inhabitants. Fertility, once a source of reverence, virtue and feminine domain, became sordid and was manipulated to serve the purposes of men. Rather than having the freedom to choose their own sexual partners, women became the property of their fathers and husbands. While men were free to copulate and reproduce with as many wives, slaves and concubines as they could, a woman’s virginity was carefully guarded until she was married. Once married, she would remain faithful to her husband alone under penalty of death, thus securing a man’s lineage through the sequestration of his wife’s womb.
As Yahweh and his male human followers wrestled control of fertility from the earth, the Great Mother was systematically removed from her throne and fecundity was subjected to the will of mankind. Men became the guardians and rulers over the wombs of women selfishly spreading of their own human seed and relegating the earth’s sacred fertile web of life to the subservient role of mere provision of sustenance. Rather than engaging in ritual acts of annual renewal, fertility was coveted, appropriated and controlled to suit man’s purposes. Without reverent attendance to sustaining all life, Fertile valleys became deserts, great forests fell and the great web of biodiversity now stands in peril because of man’s avaricious theft of the Great Mother’s rich fertility for his own purposes. Now, a single place on earth does not exist, that remains untouched by man and his activities.
The species Homo sapiens is what ecologists refer to as a “successful” species. It is successful because it has managed to survive and multiply at an impressive rate. Other successful species include the common housefly, rat and cockroach. Today the earth sustains almost 7 billion human beings.
As the human species proliferates, it does so at the expense of all other living things.

Every environmental problem, whether it is resource depletion, extinction, loss of biodiversity, global warming, water pollution, toxic waste or any of the countless environmental woes that now plague the planet, can be traced to a human cause. Simple mathematics dictates that increasing human populations will result in increased environmental problems. More people burning fossil fuels, more people consuming resources, more people throwing stuff away, more people going to the bathroom, etc. can only lead to more global warming, more deforestation, more toxic waste and more pollution of water, air and land. Humans alone are the species that have created this plethora of environmental destruction, and the more of us that come to fill this planet, the worse these problems will become. People are at the heart of the matter.

A healthy, diverse ecosystem implements its own population controls. The coyote controls the fecund rabbit. Wolves ensure that deer will never overrun their food supply. If by chance a population does grow out of control, disease usually corrects the imbalance. Unfortunately, the human species has upset the natural balance at almost every turn.

In spite of the obvious correlation between environmental degradation and human population growth, faithful adherents to Yahweh’s two-thousand year old creed recoil at the idea of population control. In the face of all evidence to the contrary, they believe their God will resolve any problems humankind imposes across the face of the earth. What is He waiting for? Perhaps it would be more prudent to act instead on the earth’s behalf and restore the Queen of Heaven’s sacred rite of fertility to once again embrace the glory of the diversity of all life. To do so, we must first acknowledge that as a species, the population of Homo sapiens is dangerously out of balance with the rest of the ecosystem and take systematic steps to control its growth.

1-  Wilson, Kelpie. Genesis Gets the Crumb Treatment at

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Energy - Part II

Global Warming

Imagine an extinct earth. Without her mantle of living organisms, the earth would be a sterile, bland rock-strewn orb swirling through the solar system rather than the beautiful beacon of sapphire, emerald and aqua she is today. Earth is the only known planet with life. If we take for granted life’s continued existence on her surface, we squander this greatest of miracles. Life is the exception rather than the rule in the universe. Conveniently, we don’t need to wonder what will happen if we continue down our current path of reckless destruction. Our solar system provides a case study.

Our Earth has a sister who resides one planet closer to the sun. Venus is not as different from Earth as one might think. The mass, diameter and rocky composition of the two planets are nearly identical. Venus, however, is the hottest planet in the solar system despite a dense atmosphere that allows for only about 10% of the sun’s rays to reach her surface and Mercury’s much closer proximity to the sun. Why is Venus so hot? The Venusian atmosphere is composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide resulting in a runaway greenhouse effect that heats the average surface temperature of the planet to a scorching 465 degrees Centigrade (1)*. Her atmosphere is also tainted by noxious sulfuric compounds that form corrosive acids making the surface of Venus more like a brimstone incinerator in Hell than the dwelling place for the goddess of love for which the planet is named. The toxic brew that comprises Venus’s air also contains the same constituents that we here on earth blithely spew from our coal burning power plants into our own atmosphere. We need only to look to our sister planet to see where the consequences of our actions might lead.

By measuring carbon dioxide levels in air bubbles trapped in arctic glaciers, scientists have been able to estimate atmospheric levels of the gas as far back as 1,000 C.E. Up until the beginning of the industrial revolution about two hundred years ago, CO2 concentrations remained relatively constant at around 280 parts per million (2). Once we started burning fossil fuels to energize our machines, CO2 levels started to steadily increase, and they have been going up ever since. The latest data indicates our atmospheric levels today are about 386 parts per million and rising (3). Our addiction to energy has launched one of the greatest experiments in human history.

Politics, Religion and Science
The current debate over global warming is one of the most puzzling political conundrums of the 21st century. On one side, the vast majority of atmospheric scientists from all over the world contend that a build up of certain gasses in the atmosphere including carbon dioxide emissions from global consumption of fossil fuels is causing an increase in the earth’s average temperature. On the other side is a group of entrepreneurs (mainly in the fossil fuel trade) and some politicians who receive campaign contributions from those same entrepreneurs who argue against it. The fact that there is any debate at all is a testament to the powers of propaganda. According to a recent Gallup poll, as many as 41% of Americans believe the specter of global warming is exaggerated, choosing to believe those with an economic interest over those who are actually experts on the subject (4).

Some are also manipulated into misguided ideas by their religious leaders. The late Jerry Falwell, noted televangelist millionaire completely dismisses the concept of global climate change as a tool of propaganda created by anti-establishment radicals for the sake of undermining America’s capitalist economy. He has stated, ‘I urge everyone to go out and buy a SUV today (5).” Mr. Falwell, like many fundamentalists, believes that his male God up in heaven is in control of everything here on earth. God has a plan and won’t allow humans to destroy His planet, unless of course, that is part of His plan.

Unfortunately, the simple “God is in control” explanation for everything allows humans to carry on with their destructive behavior with no need to fear the consequences. In this world view, we can just keep on going until all of the resources are contaminated or simply used up. The famine, poverty, environmental devastation and massive human suffering that have resulted are okay according to evangelicals like Falwell because God must have willed it. Humans who are clearly responsible for their own predicament are blameless. If Falwell, contrary to all scientific evidence and logic turns out to be correct, then he and a very small handful of those who embrace his ideology will be raptured away to Heaven while the rest of us continue to suffer for all eternity for our sins. On the other, more likely hand, Falwell is delusional, the earth will be dead, and we will be extinct.

Regardless of who is right, it would be prudent to err on the side of caution. Surely, a God that blessed us with the powers of intellect and the ability to apply the scientific method for logical understanding of the world around us wouldn’t have given us these gifts to ignore and actually refuse to use them. He wouldn’t have created a magnificent planet with amazing complexities and beauty so that we can pollute it, use it up and kill it. Why would He then condemn us to Hell for trying to protect and care for his marvelous creation?

Another sad aspect of our historical human nature is we suffer as a species from procrastination putting things off, even if we know we shouldn’t, until they become critical. Unfortunately, in the case of global warming, we will have to be proactive, even when the worst signs of the impending disaster are not yet obvious, if we are to be effective at controlling the problem at all.

Every time we belch pollution into the air, we are condemning the elixir we breathe and our very breath to impurity. When we absently and senselessly consume resources, we are depriving ourselves of a greater wealth. When an organism needlessly meets its demise by our senseless and selfish hand, we are depriving ourselves of a priceless miracle that material wealth can never replicate. What are the reams of waste paper, toilet paper and packaging sitting in landfills compared with an ancient forest? What is the value of driving an SUV compared with the peninsula of Florida or the isthmus of Bangladesh? How does our selfish consumption of fossil fuels compare with a Polar Bear’s right to life?

We do not need to live this way. Our human civilization, with the powers of reason and inquiry, has advanced sufficiently to be able to meet the vast majority of our energy needs with technologies that will not exterminate life on earth.
1- European Space Agency (ESA) at

2- Data from
3- Data from
4- Gallup Poll, March 11th, 2009 at
5- Outside Online Magazine, May 2005.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The United States of Delusion - Part III

The Greatest Lie Ever Perpetrated

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (Preamble to the Declaration of Independence 2.1).”

The 56 founding fathers that signed the Declaration of Independence had a revolutionary vision of democracy that would foster equality and universal opportunity. Ultimately, implementing the vision has been more complicated.

At the time of the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the United States were attempting to shrug off the vice grip of the imperialistic Fatherland that settled North America for the explicit purpose of exploiting the untapped natural and human wealth for capitalistic profit. While some early American colonies were settled for the purposes of exercising religious freedom, the vast majority of early American colonies were actually owned and operated by corporate entities that were deeded large tracts of land by the King of England in an attempt to re-establish the class and business structure that served the elite few so well in the homeland (1)*. For his beneficence, the King received handsome regular shares in the profit from the New World enterprises.

The imperial expansion of England into North America had several, less than democratic side effects. The indigenous Native American population was decimated, slaves and indentured servants comprised the majority of the labor force, and women were regarded as inferior and were hostage to the whims of their fathers and husbands. The signing of the Declaration of Independence and subsequent revolution did not alter the oppressive status quo. When the founding fathers spoke of all men being created equally, it is quite probable they were referring exclusively to white men.

After the revolution, many corporatists remained loyal to the King and were deeded substantial landholdings elsewhere in the empire, but others remained in the United States intent on securing and expanding the fortunes they had harvested from American soil exchanging their loyalty to the dying British Empire for a belief in the new American one. The same social atrocities that prevailed under the former empire were equally fortuitous for business in the new capitalist order.

The pledge of the new nation to nurture democracy was distinctly at odds with its economic goals. While industrialists enjoyed the freedom to pursue wealth unencumbered by royalty with its hand out, the labor force continued to be oppressed or at worse, enslaved. Equality did not translate across class and racial boundaries.

Industry’s interests are best served by free or very inexpensive labor and limited governmental regulation. Even today, corporations unimpeded by national boundaries, choose to operate where labor is cheap and health and environmental regulations are limited or non-existent. Individuals benefit from an exact opposite set of circumstances where they can earn a living wage for an honest day’s work, a safe and healthy work environment, sustainable resource use and an unspoiled natural environment. The ideological and class struggle continues. The biggest lie ever perpetrated is that democracy and unfettered capitalism are compatible ideologies. They are and always have been at odds with one another.

This is not to say that all aspects of free enterprise are bad. Business works best when it is accountable to society. Small businesses and local economies have traditionally fostered rather than impeded public interests. A business owner in a small town cannot treat his workers unfairly and still expect local patronage. He cannot carelessly pollute or consume public resources without consequences. A small, local farmer that is cruel to his animals or mistreats his land will soon find himself out of business. Local economies are inherently self regulating, and it is likely that this kind of community accountability is what Adam Smith had in mind when he spoke of the infamous “invisible hand (2)*” that he believed would guide business towards morally correct and fair behavior.

When Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations almost 300 years ago, the vast majority of capitalistic enterprise was in the form of small, locally owned and operated businesses. Smith could never have envisioned the limited liability corporate monolith that reigns over the modern global economy much as kings once ruled unencumbered by regulatory restraint. Yet the same corporations quote Smith as justification for their unbridled greed, pursuit of exclusive self interest and exploitation of the world’s people and our shared resources. We have exchanged the tyranny of kings for a tyranny of corporations without even realizing our blind complicity.

We have been sold a set of lies, and the mistruths are glaringly obvious. Deregulation of corporations only benefits the bottom line of corporations, not the average person. The era in United States history that enjoyed the greatest growth of the middle class and relative increases in living standards occurred after regulations and social programs were implemented during the New Deal. As we began to deregulate industry again in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the relative wealth of the middle class began to decline once again while the ultra wealthy got richer. Wealth does not trickle down; to benefit all it must percolate from the ground up.

In spite of the distortions endemic in our capitalist society, the democratic promise of equality continues in the hearts and minds of Americans and the global population. How does one pursue life, liberty and happiness? We have basic needs for life - food water, air, shelter and healthcare. To be liberated, we must be free to pursue our life’s purpose unencumbered by the dictates or tyranny of others. Things that make people happy are a supportive family and social network, a sense of satisfaction with ones work, having the basic needs of life met, enjoying health and a healthy environment and having a sense of purpose in life. In the United States of America, we have the capacity and monetary wealth to make the above ideals available to every man, woman and child regardless of race, sex, creed or sexual orientation. It is time to make our laws match our common ideals rather than the financial interests of an elite few. The promise still lives.

1- Korten, David, C. Agenda for a New Economy – From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth. Berret-Kohler Publishers Inc., San Fransisco, 2009.

2- Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Modern Library, 1937 edition.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

False Economy - Part II

Money, Money, Money, Money…Money!

Every day we go to work. We work and work and work and work, and at the end of the week or month, we are given a paper check that we take to a bank. The bank adds the numbers on the check to numbers in our bank account and sends us an email or another piece of paper in the mail that tells us our total number of dollars. Sometimes, we write on another piece of paper, a check, to get cash, or more pieces of paper. Ultimately, we can exchange our pieces of paper for goods and services, which is why we spend so much of our time and energy working for paper.

The pursuit of money is a keystone of the American dream. People are defined by their personal net worth, the job they do and the salary they earn. The higher our number, the more accomplished we feel. The number represents our success and value as a person. At some stage in our culture we began confusing money with real wealth.

The use of money is as old as civilization itself. The first form of exchange was barter. People exchanged livestock, grains, crafts and agricultural goods for other things they wanted. Barter is still a viable form of exchange today and is still practiced throughout the world. Barter has some limitations as a form of currency. If the goods one wishes to purchase or exchange are perishable or seasonal, a simple swap may not be realistic. When bartering was not practical, commodity currency was used instead. Commodity currency is a rare or scarce material that is given in exchange for goods. Commodities used for currency have included rare metals, shells, beads, wine and salt. Over time, commodity currency became standardized leading to the development of coinage.

Carrying around pockets full of gold and silver was not always convenient, so eventually, representative currency (paper money) evolved. Representative currency is like an I.O.U. In itself, the currency has no value, but it is a promissory note for something of value. The United States used representative currency until 1933. Until that time, dollars were linked to bullion of gold and silver stored at the U.S. Treasury. Gold and silver certificates represented an equal sum of money in U.S. coffers. During the Great Depression, the government needed to print money to stimulate the economy that it could not back up with bullion reserves, and the gold standard was abandoned.

Most of the world now has fiat currency, which does not represent or act as an exchange for any commodity. Rather, fiat money is printed by governments, and all creditors are legally bound to accept the fiat money to satisfy debts under penalty of law. The value of fiat money varies according to the health of the economy of the government that prints it. If a government prints money in excess of the value of goods in the economy, inflation or devaluation of the currency occurs.

Finally, much of the currency currently in global circulation doesn’t really exist at all. Credit currency resides for the most part in the memory banks of computers and in cyberspace. When we make a charge on our credit cards or take out a loan, banks lend us money they don’t actually have. Fractional Reserve banking is the system that allows banks to lend money in excess of their assets, which means banks can literally create money that does not exist. Usually, this does not pose a problem, as depositors with the bank rarely make a simultaneous run on the bank, and those with debt obligations to the bank pay them off reliably thus replenishing the negative balance of the bank back towards zero. Collateral in the form of goods like houses also ensure that the debt hole of the bank can be filled with something of value.

Banks want to engage in fractional reserve banking because they charge interest and fees and profit from lending money they don’t really have. Bank executives that make a lot of loans are rewarded with big bonuses, so they are inclined to loan money wherever they can. Banks make even more money when they bundle debts together, divide them into shares and sell the shares on the open market. The debt then becomes a speculative instrument like shares of stock and can fetch whatever price people are willing to pay, resulting in more profits for banks and more bonuses for bank executives. The shares can also be rebundled and sold again resulting in more profit, etc. The result is an upside-down pyramid resting on a tip that started when a bank lent money that never existed to begin with.

When the tip of the pyramid becomes unstable because, for example, people paid too much money for houses and now can’t afford to pay back the loan, the whole house of cards collapses revealing a shocking truth. Wall Street business as usual is nothing more than cleverly crafted financial slight of hand, and the complex financial instruments they promote are designed for the sole purpose of amplifying the wealth of the individuals and institutions that created them. While the tax payer picks up the tab for the economic havoc that resulted, those responsible for collapsing the global economy are sitting happily on bank accounts fat with the wealth squeezed out of average citizens before the sham revealed itself.

Much of our economy is based on phantom or illusory wealth. Our currencies are not based on any commodity or standard. We borrow money we don’t have from banks that don’t have it either. When a brave or honest person looks behind the curtain, the wizard reveals himself to be a pathetic old man. Sadly, rather than exploring new economic models, our government is throwing good money after bad with massive bailouts for the very institutions that got us into this situation in the first place.

Most of what makes us truly wealthy cannot be purchased with paper dollars like health, love and companionship, happy children, and a beautiful and functioning habitat. Other wealth is provided by nature and comes in the form of life’s necessities such as nutritious food, shelter, clean air and water, healthcare and energy. Unfortunately, our phantom wealth economy has managed to sequester much of what was once freely provided by nature, making some real wealth now only available to those who have the money to afford it.

While the collapse of the phantom economy has been painful for many, it also creates an opportunity to create a real wealth economy that will serve all of the organisms of the earth rather than a few elite humans. In his book Agenda for a New Economy, David Korten* provides a six-fold framework for such an economy. The real wealth economy would:

1- Provide everyone with the opportunity for a healthy, dignified and fulfilling life.
2- Bring human consumption into balance with Earth’s natural systems.
3- Nurture relationships within strong, caring communities.
4- Honor sound, rule-based market principles.
5- Support an equitable and socially efficient allocation of resources.
6- Fulfill the democratic ideal of one-person, one-vote citizen sovereignty.

It is time to take the economy back.

Korten, David, C., 2009. Agenda for a New Economy – From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth. Berrett Koehler Publishers, San Francisco.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

False Economy

We are a reactive culture. At the heart of our cultural and economic woes are some deeply seated issues that require extensive examination; however, as a society, our impulse is to look at the symptoms of our woes and fix the symptoms rather than the underlying causes.

Our economic and foreign policies in our relationships with our neighbors to the south are historically exploitative. Our food industries are heavily dependent on migrant workers and illegal immigrants. Without the input of exploited immigrant farm workers, our food would not be harvested or at best would be much more expensive, yet our knee-jerk attitude towards immigration (i.e. it’s us against them, fence the borders), does nothing to address our real problems with Latin America.

When we are sick, we swallow a pill (if we can afford it). High blood pressure is treated with a pill rather than eliminating the underlying causes that led to the problem in the first place. If one’s stomach is overly acidic, they take a little purple pill at a cost of $5 each to shut off the production of acid in the stomach instead of addressing the obvious question of why the stomach isn’t functioning optimally. With cancer, we cut out the tumor, bombard the body with radiation and then fill it with poisonous chemotherapy essentially disarming the immune system. Our attitude towards health care is the same as our attitude towards foreign policy. If we can’t fix it, we will bombard it and kill it and hope it goes away. Nurturance rarely if ever even comes into the picture.

We are running out of crude oil, not to mention the sticky complicity of fossil fuels’ contributions to global climate change and terrorist states, but rather than spending money to develop alternative technologies, we waste trillions of dollars on wars in the Middle East to ensure the security of the crude oil supply, albeit not very successfully. We invent more fuel efficient cars and then continue to encourage the urban sprawl into open space that requires the American automobile lifestyle and pursue political policy to ‘drill baby drill’ in search of the ever more elusive crude elixir. We need an alternative, sustainable form of energy, but we continue to try and find a way to put off the inevitable and keep using oil.

The very expensive war on terror targets terrorists rather than trying to undo the vast gulf of social and political injustice and inequality that created the terrorists’ rage in the first place.
On Thursday, September 24th, 2009, while most Americans were begrudgingly going about their daily travails, 16 year old honor student Derrion Albert was beaten to death on the streets of Chicago. Three teenagers, aged 16 to 19, have been charged with first degree murder for his killing. In looking upon this tragic history, one can blame neglectful parents, drugs or gang violence, but the reality is we have all failed these four children. As a county, we ignored and neglected them until a crisis wouldn’t allow us to wallow in our collective indifference any longer.

Derrion’s sad story is not an isolated event. Last year 30 other children were violently murdered in Chicago, and countless others faced the same fate across the country in crime infested urban areas. From our suburban, middleclass, glass houses with white picket fences, it is easy to point fingers and lay blame squarely elsewhere, but what does it say about our culture when we are so content to turn a blind eye to the senseless slaughter of children in our own national backyards?

Derrion’s murderers will now go to prison, probably for the rest of their lives. In prison, they will not contribute to the betterment of society, and tax payers will pick up the tab for their incarceration. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. More than one in every hundred adults in this country or 2.2 million people are currently behind bars in America (1). A further 5 million people are on parole or probation. The national average annual cost to jail a single prisoner is approximately thirty thousand dollars (2). Add the costs of incarceration to the costs of law enforcement, legal fees, probation and parole officers, and the national price of ignoring our social ills adds up to trillions of taxpayer dollars every year. Certainly our money could and should be spent in better and more productive ways.

We could invest our money in prenatal care and parenting classes for the underprivileged, early learning and counseling for children at risk, drug prevention and treatment, job creation programs, college educations for all who deserve them, teachers and healthcare. We could nurture and cherish every child from conception through college as a member of our larger American family. The result would be a well adjusted, well educated and nurturing population rather than the dysfunctional, violent and despairing society we currently suffer with. By putting our money towards what is desirable rather than spending reactively, we could transform our world.

1-  World Prison Population List at
2-  The Real Cost of Prisons at

Friday, October 2, 2009

Energy - Part I

Energy – The Power of Life and Death

Fire is the manifestation of pure energy. It is simultaneously nurturing and destructive. Fire can keep us warm, cook our food, generate our electricity and propel our machines, but it can also consume, destroy and render to ashes all that cross its path.

Energy, fire and the deities that have historically attended the flame are often associated with the life force itself. The energy that illuminates life separates the living from the inert. The Celtic goddess Brigid, also known as Mother Goddess, is the revered deity of light, motherhood, justice, creativity and metallurgy. As the life force energy animates the living, so the fires applied to ore transform rock into shining metal. Brigid was so revered she crossed from the pagan mythos into Christianity as she was adopted into sainthood. As Saint Brigid, the ancient goddess served as midwife to Mary and protected the baby Jesus from harm by anointing his head with three drops of illuminating and protective dew of the sun itself. As humans harness and apply the powers of energy to their own ends, we employ the crafts of the gods. When the first hominid took a burning branch home and placed it in his hearth, we left the ranks of animals and joined the realm of the divine.

The human requirement for energy is almost as old as our species itself. Born pathetic, hairless and weak with only smarts to our benefit, the human species quickly devised strategies to deal with its inadequacies. Tools such as spears, were developed to compensate for lack of stealth, speed and strength, and to make up for the lack of a genuinely luxurious pelt, man utilized energy. For much of our species’ history, the energy we used was in the form of fire produced from wood or animal dung.

Cursed with a very high metabolism that spews heat in all directions and no insulative covering, humans and their ancestral hominids fared well as long as they remained in continental Africa, but once they began the migration northwards into Eurasia, staying warm became a prerequisite for survival. Fire came at different times to various groups. Originally, it was probably carried to settlement areas from burning trees struck by lightening. Later, man learned to generate the flames himself.

From an environmental standpoint, early man’s exploitation of fire had only a negligible impact. With population numbers of less than one million souls at any given time in the pre-historic period, harvested fuel wood quickly regenerated from the vast wilderness, and although the burning of wood results in the production of greenhouse gasses, the excess CO2 generated would have been quickly assimilated by masses of competing plants.

As man’s civilizations advanced, so did his need for energy. The Iron Age created a need for massive quantities of fuel for the smelting of ore. The industrial revolution ushered in the age of coal. The era of Edison’s light bulb electrified the world, and transportation once provided by horsepower fueled by fodder and sunshine was replaced by combustion engines hungry for fossil fuels. Today, humans consume energy for transportation, heating, clothes washing and drying, refrigeration, air conditioning, vacuuming, entertainment, communications, cooking, etc. In fact, there are very few facets of the modern life that do not involve some kind of energy input.

A History of Fossil Fuel
About three hundred million years ago, long before our ancestors were burning wood to cook and stay warm and long before dinosaurs ruled, a Paleozoic hot, swampy earth was the birthplace of the oil, coal and natural gas that fuels our lives today. On the land, towering forests of leafy green plants lived and died. Materials from the dead plants collected in swamps and were covered by water and sediments. Over thousands and then millions of years the overlying sediments formed into rock pressing down on the dead plant matter squeezing out water and concentrating carbon into coal.

In the oceans, a similar process took place as algae and microscopic plants and animals settled to the bottom of the sea and were covered over by sediments. Over millions of years, the microscopic flora and fauna formed crude oil and natural gas.

The main ingredient of interest in fossil fuels from an energetic standpoint is carbon. When combustion takes place, carbon combines with oxygen in an exothermic reaction to form carbon dioxide. The byproduct of the reaction that is of interest to us humans is the same byproduct we have been making use of for thousands of years, heat.

The heat from the burning of coal is used to make steam to turn turbines to make electricity in our power plants. In our automobiles, heat from the combustion of gasoline is used to expand air in a chamber and create motion. In our home, we often capture heat directly from the combustion of natural gas and heating oil to cook our food and to provide heating.

For most of man’s history, wood was the preferred fuel. Readily available and easy to use, wood was initially used for basic heating and cooking. Later wood was used in the industrial applications of the smelting of iron and manufacturing of brick, glass, salt and other consumer goods. Energy crises ensued as man’s population and energy demands increased and his need for wood outstripped the resource’s ability to replenish itself.

Viewed as inferior due to its dirtiness, coal was utilized initially out of necessity as wood supplies became scarce, particularly in Great Britain. But coal did have advantages. Ounce per ounce, a unit of coal could yield up to five times the amount of energy as wood, and thus allowed for an exponential expansion of industry that would have been impossible in a wood-based energy economy.

Ironically, it was the quest for coal itself that drove the invention of the first coal powered engine. As demand for coal became greater, easily accessible coal was harder to come by, forcing mines deeper and deeper into the earth in search of the precious resource. Mine flooding became problematic. In response, Thomas Newcomen created a coal powered engine that could pump water from a 160 foot mineshaft heralding in a new era of easily accessible energy and the first fossil fuel powered engines.

As man’s needs for energy increased during the industrial revolution, he turned to the energetic powerhouse of fossil fuels to fulfill his energetic needs, and fossil fuels have been an industrial and economic windfall raising our global civilizations and economies to previously unknown heights. The rise of the British Empire on the heels of the industrialization of the 17th and 18th centuries was fueled by cheap and abundant coal. Our own American rise of empire almost exactly coincides with the development of deep oil well drilling technologies and consequent exploitation of American oil.

While fossil fuels have driven our industry and prosperity, they have a darker side that has inadvertently unleashed a Pandora’s Box of environmental woes upon the earth in the process. The same qualities that make coal, crude oil and natural gas a superb source of cheap and concentrated energy also makes them a concentrated source of carbon-dioxide and other environmental contaminants that now threaten the planet with climate change and may threaten the very existence of life itself.

As humans harnessed the powers of life and destruction, we historically ignored the dark side of our actions and over time have transformed the face of the earth to her detriment. Mountain tops have been removed in the quest for coal, pristine landscapes have been despoiled for our lust for black gold, and our atmosphere is choking on our excesses. Like our gods, we hold the power in our hands. We have the technological capacity to reverse our destructive trends today. We will have to choose if our divine fires will replenish life or render the earth to a pile of ashes.