Gasoline prices are rising again, and our last heating bill was nearly twice last year's bill. The whole world is fighting over scarce energy resources. How did we get in this mess? Professor Alfred W. Crosby of the University of Texas at Austin (my alma mater) knows. In Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity's Unappeasable Appetite for Energy, he tells a story that goes back to the formation of the earth from solar debris and continues through all of humanity's innovations, such as replacing hunting and gathering with farming and developing internal combustion engines. At all times, humans are finding ways to use the energy of the sun.
The future is as important as the past in this book. Crosby says that our harvesting of petroleum is at its peak and will be downhill from now until eternity. We have to develop new energy resources soon. He likes wind and solar energies for environmental reasons, but says that they are local and not global solutions. Despite their problems, he thinks we have to expand our use of nuclear technologies. He argues that the alternative is to return to a 1750 A.D. model of energy use, a bad choice which would require many of us to die.
Crosby is a historian, not a scientist, and he writes for non-scientists. He includes just enough technical detail and a little humor to advance the story. I think he has succeeded in making a complicated history clear, and I understand steam engines and nuclear fusion better than before I read the book. I recommend this book to all public libraries and readers of history.
Crosby, Alfred W. Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity's Unappeasable Appetite for Energy. New York: Norton, 2006. ISBN 0393059359