Advancing beyond the Fire Age22 January 2014
" ... because we have evolved with fire, we have long taken for granted its deleterious consequences."
By Walt Patterson
Why is the air in Beijing unbreathable? Why are governments confronting each other over the Arctic seabed? Why do climatologists warn of ever more extreme weather worldwide? All these urgent issues have a common cause. The cause is fire. Fire in building heaters, factory furnaces, vehicle engines and power stations is poisoning the air in megacities everywhere. The pressing insistent need to feed fire is why governments worry about security of fuel supplies. When fed, fire produces the carbon dioxide that is upsetting planetary systems. Fire now threatens our future.
Yet the Fire Age began long before the Stone Age. It even predates homo sapiens; our Neanderthal precursors had fire. Humans have evolved with fire. We think of fire, if we think of it at all, as a key to civilisation. If you ask people what they consider the greatest human achievements, the answers will probably include the wheel and the control of fire. For most of human evolution, fire has indeed been essential and invaluable. But fire's greatest contribution may be one most might not yet recognise. Fire has enabled us to smelt and fabricate metals, to harden ceramics and manipulate materials of every kind. It has thus made possible the human control of electricity. Electricity, in turn, may save us from fire.
We still think of fire as welcoming, reassuring, cosy. But it is actually a violent, extreme process, brutal and primitive, rapidly turning resources into wastes, often toxic and pernicious. Nevertheless human society still relies on fire for most of its activities - even when it need not, and despite the ever intensifying problems fire creates. To address these problems - pollution, security, climate - the aim of policy ought to be to reduce and eventually minimise human use of fire.
Is that aim unrealistic? By no means. In purely physical terms, we humans do six things. We control heat flow; we adjust local temperatures up or down; we make light; we exert force; we move things; and we manage information. To do so we use physical things such as buildings, lamps, motors and electronics, and two processes - fire and electricity. Unlike fire, electricity does not use up what it happens in, and produces no waste. It can be extreme, like the lightning that first gave us fire. But it can also be subtle and delicate, like the currents in a microchip.
For the past century electricity has been steadily supplanting fire for many human activities, with electric heaters and coolers to adjust local temperature, electric lamps for light, electric motors to exert force and move things, and electronics to manage information. But we still make most of the electricity itself with fire. We need not. We can also capture natural energy flows, from sun, wind and water, as useful electricity, and we are doing so more and more, around the world. Electricity as a process can now be completely independent of fire.
However, because we have evolved with fire, we have long taken for granted its deleterious consequences. That severely skews our choice between different ways to do things. We still, for instance, consider coal-fired heat and electricity to be cheap, even as coal fire makes the air of cities suffocating, and threatens the stability of the earth's climate. We need to overcome our crippling inability to acknowledge and account for the true cost of fire. If we do not, spurious comparisons of cost will lead us to choose disaster.
Even if we do try to account for the true cost of fire, moving beyond the Fire Age will not be easy. Fire plays a central role in today's global economy. Some of the world's largest companies, and indeed entire countries, depend for their revenue on feeding fire. We already have a vast worldwide infrastructure, consisting of buildings, industrial plant and power stations, that could not function without fire. We have laid out society so that we now depend for mobility on fire, in internal combustion engines in cars, trucks, ships and aircraft.
Nevertheless we now use fire in many unnecessary ways. We use it, for instance, to compensate for the inadequate performance of buildings - inadequate performance we could rectify with appropriate upgrades and the requisite investment. Simply improving buildings, to minimise waste, could dramatically reduce our use of fire.
The other key to the transformation we need is electricity. We already use electricity rather than fire for many of our activities; but we produce far too much of the electricity with fire, with consequences ever more alarming. We need urgently to accelerate the shift away from fire-based electricity to what we have come to call renewable electricity. A better description is 'infrastructure electricity' - physical assets such as wind turbines and photovoltaic arrays that harvest natural ambient energy and turn it into useful electricity. We need to establish financial and institutional ground-rules and incentives to make infrastructure electricity the norm, and phase out fire.
We have the means. At long last, the time has come for human society to move beyond the Fire Age.
Walt Patterson is associate fellow in the Energy, Environment and Resources Programme, Chatham House, London. His next book, now under way, will be called Beyond The Fire Age: What We Do, How We Do It, How We Can Do Better.
For an introductory working paper see Walt Patterson On Energy, go to: <www.waltpatterson.org/news.htm>.