Ancient Civilizations New Sources Of Energy And Environmental Concerns

Deforestation in Ancient China

The centuries passed, and the use of fire for energy, along with the widespread use of wood for fuel, began to have a significant consequence. The growing demand for wood as fuel resulted in deforestation, or the cutting down or clearing away of forests. Forests are homes to many species, and they provide a kind of protective blanket over the earth, preventing the soil from eroding and thus from sending excess silt deposits into nearby rivers and streams. Soil erosion and the displacement of forest species from their natural habitat are two of the negative effects of deforestation. Deforestation is known for harming ecosystems, the communities of organisms within a geographical area that depend for their survival and proper functioning on an intricate network of interactions with the environment.

Deforestation is known to have been a problem as early as 770 b.c.e.— when it devastated China. China's early use of wood to fuel fires that generated heat and light led to rapid deforestation, then to a serious wood shortage, and then to a need to turn to charcoal for fuel. The problem of deforestation is one that actually reaches far beyond these early centuries. For example, by the time of the late 1800s, straight through the mid-20th century, deforestation in China was further exacerbated by a burgeoning rice-farming industry that cut into pastures and other tree-lined lands. This activity resulted in soil erosion, a lack of cultivable land, and finally a food shortage and famine. In Europe, too, deforestation became a concern: In the mid-11th to late 13th centuries Europeans cleared millions of hectares of forests and swamps in order to obtain wood for fuel. In 1346 England established a policy to protect forests from further cutting. And in France in the 18th century unprecedented domestic thermal energy consumption and a growing industrial sector dependent on wood for fuel caused serious deforestation. This process then led to escalating wood prices and governmental restrictions on woodcutting. In the 1730s and in 1776 French peasants organized uprisings over these wood price increases and restrictions.

Deforestation remains one of the greatest concerns of environmentalists around the world today. Clearly the world of ages past encountered some of the same energy-related issues that have importance today, such as shortages in energy supply and the environmental impact of energy production and use.

Hydropower in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia

Returning to earlier generations, it becomes clear that people's energy needs multiplied further. Animals were another energy resource early civilizations began to tap. At the beginning of the fourth millennium b.c.e., more and more people began to settle in the valleys of the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates Rivers, within the western and southwestern regions of the Asian continent, in regions such as Egypt and Mesopotamia. The waters of the Nile and other rivers overflowed at certain times of the year and provided a natural irrigation system for the land. Blessed with the natural irrigation produced by these rivers, the Egyptians and Mesopotamians began to grow grains on the land as a source of food. They also began to rely on animal energy to supplement their own human energy. Cattle pulled plows, sheep buried seeds under their hooves, donkeys transported harvested goods, and horses carted carriages.

Just as early tool and weapon production depended on the availability of the natural resources of stones and branches, early irrigated cereal farming activities depended on the availability of other natural resources, such as water for irrigation. The energy that moving water provides is known as hydropower. It is so called because water is two atoms of hydrogen plus one atom of oxygen. Like the Sun's, energy from moving water is considered renewable.

With the help of naturally occurring hydropower, then, the Egyptians and Mesopotamians had a flourishing cereal production sector, and more and more people settled around the rivers. Complex governing systems gradually rose up to oversee the land, the harvests, and the peasants and to regulate the distribution and rationing of the grains harvested for cereals. In Egypt the pharaoh was the head of this governing system, while in Mesopotamia temple and palace officials supervised the farmlands and harvests. Regulations required that a portion of the harvests be given to governing officials, who also ordered that retention basins be built along the rivers to accommodate the burgeoning river-valley population. By 2650 b.c.e. the rivers had become a major source of energy to fulfill another need: the transportation and distribution of grains. Thus, the security and well-being of the territories around the rivers began to hinge on the agricultural products they generated. The key to their energy stability was the stability of the political system that controlled them. So, in a sense, these early riverside settlers too met with an energy-related issue that remains a concern for the world today—energy's impact on the economy.

Even during this early age of humankind, dramatic shifts in the use of energy were beginning. In using water for transportation, for example, human beings were for the first time gaining power over a source of energy that did not really need to be supplemented by their own human energy. And even though the efficiency of water as a source of energy for transportation depended on directional currents and winds, this newfound form of energy opened up endless possibilities for transportation through numerous routes along the sea. Further innovations and refinements in shipping vessels enabled people to use the winds and currents in a more efficient way. For example, the addition of sails to shipping vessels allowed them to take advantage of the wind as a source of energy, giving them the ability to steer their vessels in the courses of the wind and travel much more quickly and efficiently. (Their predecessors simply had to float their goods downstream!) In the fifth and sixth centuries b.c.e. Greek shipping vessels in particular had a shipping capacity of up to 150 tons; four centuries later this capacity had increased to as much as 800 tons. By the first century c.E. North Africa and Egypt were shipping vast amounts of wheat along the Tiber River.

Human Energy Crisis in the Roman Empire

The Romans of the third century b.c.e., however, encountered wood shortages and bottlenecks in shipbuilding yards. Human energy from hundreds of thousands of slaves, captured from the many cities Rome had conquered, soon became an important resource in the Roman Empire. Unlike all other energy sources, slaves were capable of doing the work that made the Roman Empire the center of civilization that it was—they built great structures, they labored in mines, they maintained Rome's elaborate water and wastewater systems, and they managed domestic tasks for the elite. However, nearing the time of the Roman Empire's decline in the fifth century c.E., Rome made fewer and fewer conquests and began to experience a shortage in the human energy it once obtained from slaves procured from pillaging other cities.

Rome's human labor shortage exemplifies another issue that has relevance today: energy crises. In this case, the energy crisis was a sudden shortfall of human energy supply that forced the empire to seek out new energy sources. As the authors of In the Servitude of Power: Energy and Civilization through the Ages state, "All historical societies have developed an energy thrust-block, a threshold beyond which they could not go."4 In more modern times, such an energy crisis occurred in the United States in 1973-74 when Arab countries stopped shipping oil to the United States and other Western nations because of their support of Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War. In 1973, as now, oil was the most widely used energy resource. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), oil accounted for about 45 percent of primary energy supply in the world in 1973. At this time more than a third of America's oil was imported from the Arab countries of the Middle East. So, when Arab countries stopped shipping, or placed an embargo on, oil imports, the United States experienced a severe oil shortage. U.S. oil supply could not catch up to U.S. oil demand, and the price of oil quadrupled in 1973-74. This event prompted the United States to implement a policy of maintaining a stockpile of oil should another energy crisis occur.

Of course, the nature of the Roman energy crisis was a little different from that of this modern-day energy crisis. To return to Roman history: The crisis in human energy (that is, a dwindling supply of slaves) led Rome to begin to rely on water mills for energy to perform some of the work that slaves once completed. Water mills were wooden wheels to which were attached horizontal spoons; flowing water collected in the spoons and caused the wheel to spin. The spinning motion powered a drive shaft that could complete certain tasks, such as grinding grain, by rotating one stone upon another. The earliest water mills are thought to date back to antiquity. Water mills were not only useful for grinding grain and other agricultural tasks; they later became a major energy source for textile production. The wheels could drive shafts that carried out the functions of spinning, weaving, cleaning, trimming, and thickening cloth. Historians believe that Europe actually began using water mills for energy as early as the first century B.c.E. By around the 10th century c.E., thousands of water mills were grinding grain across Europe. At the height of water mill usage in Europe during the Middle Ages, water mills were so ubiquitous that they even cluttered rivers and obstructed boat traffic. Yet in medieval Europe this water power technology led to an energy-related issue that also troubles the world today—the afford-ability of energy resources. This was because medieval feudal lords (and, later, monasteries) levied rents for the use of water mills and exercised control over what the mills produced. Cloth makers, farmers, and other people involved in the textile industry, struggling under the weight of what they owed their "mill masters," began to seek out energy from another renewable resource: wind.

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