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close this bookDiversity, Globalization, and the Ways of Nature (IDRC, 1995, 234 p.)
close this folder9. Clean energy for planetary survival
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe industrial revolution
View the documentThe use of hydroelectricity
View the documentThe age of petroleum
View the documentNuclear power
View the documentThe clean options


In preindustrial times, energy needs were limited to agrarian activities. Planting, harvesting, and transporting crops to small neighbouring urban centres did not require much energy. Transportation of merchandise and people was slow, and manufacturing (in foundries, potteries, and mills) was limited and consumed only small amounts of energy. Only minor quantities of energy were required to heat and light homes. These needs were satisfied by using animal, wind, and water power and by burning wood, charcoal, and other renewable fuels. Only negligible use of fossil fuels, such as coal, lignite, and peat, took place; and mining operations were limited to open-air quarries and pits.

Almost all preindustrial sources of energy were renewable. Forests could grow again naturally or be replanted, animals could be raised, wind and water were free. Under these circumstances, a steady rate of production and even some growth could be sustained for an unlimited period without exhausting the resource base. The effect on the environment of the use of these sources of energy was limited and, in most cases, only local. The impact of windmills and water mills was minimal, animal wastes contaminated only local areas and were biodegradable.

The largest impact was probably a result of cutting trees for firewood: soil erosion and local decreases in biodiversity. At the global and regional levels, the effects were almost unnoticeable.