Introduction

Questions about energy and its sources are major preoccupations in the world of the 21st century. Government leaders, politicians, activists, scientists, economic analysts, researchers, journalists, and citizens—in the United States and beyond—have been asking serious questions about the natural resources the world uses for energy and the way in which the world uses such resources. These questions include the following:

1. How long will the world's supply of its most widely used energy resource, oil, last?

2. What are some ways to prevent an "energy crisis"—that is, an immediate shortfall in energy supply and/or a sudden, sharp increase in the cost of energy resources?

3. How can the affordability of energy resources be assured?

4. Does a nation's energy security necessarily depend on oil as a commodity? And is the stability of its energy system necessarily tied to the availability of foreign energy resources?

5. To what extent have insecurities about energy driven political decisions, controversial government policies, and even wars?

6. How will developing nations' energy needs be met?

7. How extensive is the environmental impact of energy production and use, and what can be done about it? Similarly, to what extent have human beings' energy-related activities contributed to the Earth's changing climate?

8. Can renewable energy sources and oil alternatives be developed quickly and efficiently enough to have the potential for widespread, conventional use? And is nuclear energy really one of these technologies?

These questions can seem overwhelming and even insurmountable, yet they express several basic, underlying energy-related issues that the world confronts today:

• Energy supplies, crises, and shortfalls

• Energy affordability and economics

• Foreign oil dependence, political instability, and foreign relations

• Weak or inadequate energy infrastructure, which causes limitations on energy production

• Energy-related environmental issues and the potential of renewable and alternative sources of energy

Although these basic energy-related issues seem to have a particular urgency today, people have been dealing with similar energy uncertainties for decades—even centuries. That is because energy is one of the most powerful, complex forces behind the development of human civilizations. "Silent and unseen, energy fuels our bodies, our machines, our societies, and our planet. It is the common denominator among widely diverse activities," write the authors of Biosphere 2000: Protecting Our Global Environment.1 Energy is a force upon which human beings throughout the ages have relied to support their progress and survival.

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