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MAKING THE MODERN WORLD
Stories about the lives we've made

module:Geography of energy

page:Introduction


Geography of energy frontis

What is energy, and why do we need it? In scientific terms, energy is the ‘capacity to do work’. The work may take a variety of forms:

  • moving things (kinetic energy)
  • lighting things (radiant energy)
  • warming things (heat energy)
  • altering the state of things


Using electrical impulses to store and send data might include a combination of energy types. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Altering the state of things can include electrical energy, such as using electrical impulses to store and organise data, or chemical energy, such as using reactions to change or modify substances in the food or chemical industries. Indeed, altering the state of things might include a combination of energy types.

The less energy available to a society, the less ‘work’ (in the broadest sense of the word) it will be able to do and the fewer tools it will have available. Conversely, when a society has abundant supplies of energy, human ingenuity allows the society to engage in major works.


The pyramid of Cheops. Some early societies drew on slave power to achieve goals. picture zoom © Structurae.de

The nature of these works varies according to the type of energy. Societies whose energy was limited to human muscle power achieved architectural monuments such as the pyramids using the energy of a large slave population.

As societies became more sophisticated in the energy sources they harnessed, their works became more varied. Manufacturing, medicine, transport, technology – and even art – in a society reflect the possibilities provided by the energy types and availability.

You can read more about early power sources in the following scene:


STORY: Power
SCENE: Early power sources
launch scene


Fossil fuel extraction. Miners using a pneumatic drill, Rhondda Valley, South Wales, 1931. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

We owe most of the luxuries we enjoy to the abundance of cheap energy sources, and particularly to fossil fuels, which store energy concentrated in the ground over millions of years. But these energy sources are not sustainable because they take tens of millions of years to form and we are using them hundreds of millions of times faster than they are replaced. Furthermore, the use of fossil fuels causes problems on a variety of scales.


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Effects of fossil fuel use
Stage Problem Scale Impact
... .... ... ...
Coal extraction Subsidence
Water pollution
Altered stream flow
Local
Local
Local to regional
Long term
Medium term
Long term
... .... ... ...
Gas and oil extraction Subsidence
Altered stream flow
Local
Local to regional
Long term
Long term
... ... ... ...
Coal burning Smog
Acid rain
CO2
Local
Regional
Global
Short
Medium
Long
... ... ... ...
Gas burning CO2 Global Long
... ... ... ...
Oil burning (most commonly burned as petrol) Smog
Acid rain
CO2
Local
Regional
Global
Short
Medium
Long
... ... ... ...


 

Resource Descriptions

Using electrical impulses to store and send data might include a combination of energy types.
The pyramid of Cheops. Some early societies drew on slave power to achieve goals.
Fossil fuel extraction. Miners using a pneumatic drill, Rhondda Valley, South Wales, 1931.
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