- Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity’s Unappeasable Appetite for Energy
Let’s begin with a short and nasty quiz: for how many people does the name Marion King Hubbert ring a bell? To geologists and oil experts, this name is well known. But although the realization of his theory about the future of the world’s oil reserves might soon have an immense impact on the lives of each and every person on this planet, many have not yet heard about him or about the phenomenon he envisaged, commonly termed “Peak Oil.”
Hubbert assumed that for any given geographical area, from a single oil field to the whole planet, the rate of petroleum extraction over time would resemble a bell curve. Based on his theory, in 1956 he made the prediction that US oil production would reach its peak sometime between the late 1960s and the early 1970s. His prediction came true in 1970: since then, US oil production has constantly declined. Furthermore, Hubbert predicted that the world’s total oil production would peak somewhere around the end of the twentieth century. Although world oil production has maintained its growth at least until 2006, it is quite reasonable that the peak is not far from us. For the last 150 years, modern civilization has developed an almost absolute dependence on fossil fuels, mainly petroleum; its peaking will have tremendous implications. This is the very practical and immediate context in which Alfred Crosby’s Children of the Sun may be read.
Crosby’s book presents the history of humanity’s use of energy as a play in three acts. The first act, “The Largess of the Sun,” focuses on fire and agriculture, the first two energy “tapping” methods that differentiate [End Page 547] man from other animals. The second act, “Fossilized Sunshine,” describes the great energy bonanza man won through the usage of coal, oil, gas, and—in a secondary manner—electricity. The third and final act, “Energy at the Turn of the Third Millenium,” is dedicated to nuclear fission and fusion and other kinds of electricity production in what Crosby calls, after Paul Crutzen, “the Anthropocene.”
However, the book is far from being just a simple list of energy sources. Children of the Sun is built like a chronological biography of a known personality, or even as a love letter from Mother Earth. The reader, a member of humanity, is given a chance to make intimate acquaintance with our planet through the resources it provides and delivers us, almost totally originating from the sun. Blending hard facts with colorful and amusing anecdotes and written in Crosby’s pleasant and fluent style, Children of the Sun is simply fun to read.
Crosby makes clever and intelligent literary connections between the various chapters of the book. For instance, Crosby makes the connection between William Ford and Mary O’Hern, who fled from the famine caused in Ireland by the failure of an agricultural energy system, to their son, Henry Ford, who was one of the founders of another energy system: the car (pp. 58–59). Crosby also masters the not so easy task of bringing together environmental history and intellectual history: for example, his elaboration about the connection between intellectual and spiritual enlightment and the simple material fact that nocturnal lighting became available and cheap in eighteenth-century Europe (p. 87).
Children of the Sun may make only a minor contribution to the specific research of geologists, physicists, biologists, anthropologists, and energy experts. It should, however, make a significant contribution to the fusion of those seemingly disparate and distant fields of knowledge, to create a coherent understanding of our situation today. While anchoring his historical and natural accounts and analysis on precise data and concrete facts, Crosby also succeeds in combining each thread of the story into one coherent narrative.
In a balanced and thorough book review, it is common to also highlight a book’s faults and disadvantages. Reviewing Crosby’s book poses a problem...