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Admiral Rickover: The future of fossil fuels

Reader Dennis Brumm writes:
A friend of mine in Pennsylvania sent me a care package yesterday (from the era when newspapers still considered Americans literate), and in it he put a copy of an article he stumbled upon in a 1957 issue of The Christian Science Monitor. Amazing stuff below:

The Future of Fossil Fuels
An Intimate Message from Washington

By Neal Stanford

The Christian Science Monitor (Features Section)
June 5, 1957

Speechmakers and speeches are a dime a dozen in this windy city, so a man has to say something particularly significant or be particularly provocative to get the attention of the press these days. One such man and one such speech are Admiral H. G. Rickover (1) and his recent remarks on “Energy Resources and Our Future.”

Admiral Rickover is the Navy’s top man in nuclear propulsion; and his speech referred to is as full of startling, provocative, and significant observations as any your correspondent can remember coming across in years. Which proves there is plenty that is of importance for officials to say--if they will only abandon the obvious, the stereotyped, and the expected. In the short space allotted this Intimate Message I will paraphrase as nearly as possible the admiral’s admirable discussion.

This is what might be called the fossil fuel age. Coal, oil, and natural gas supply 93 per cent of the world’s energy. Water power accounts for only 1 per cent. Labor of men and domestic animals accounts for 6 per cent. This is in startling contrast to a century ago when fossil fuels supplied only 5 per cent of the world’s energy, and men and animals 94 per cent. Five-sixths of all the coal, oil, and gas ever consumed by man has been burned up in the last 55 years.

The rate at which fossil fuels are being consumed is breath-taking. All coal, oil, natural gas used before 1900 would not last five years at today’s rate of consumption.

The United States with only 5 per cent of the world’s population uses one-third of the world’s total energy output. This accounts for America’s high standard of living. Man’s first step up the ladder of civilization dates from his discovery of fire and his domestication of animals. Then slave labor was used to provide more energy. A reduction in per capita energy consumption always marks a decline in civilization. The exhaustion of wood fuel is said to explain the fall of the Mayan civilization. The depletion of forests for fuel in India and China lessened their energy base and lowered their civilizations.

Another cause of declining civilization comes from the pressure of population on available land. The point comes where land cannot support both the people and their domestic animals. Horses and mules disappear first; then the water buffalo is replaced by man--who is two and a half times as efficient as an energy converter as are draft animals. While domestic animals and machines increase productivity per man, maximum productivity per acre is achieved only by intensive manual cultivation.

It may well be that it was man’s unwillingness to depend on slave labor for energy needs that turned the minds of medieval Europeans to search for alternate sources of energy, thus sparking the power revolution of the Middle Ages which paved the way for the industrial revolution of the 19th century. When slavery disappeared in the West, engineering advanced. When a low-energy society comes in contact with a high-energy society, the advantage always lies with the latter. Europe not only achieved standards of living vastly higher than those elsewhere but did so while its population was growing at rates far surpassing those of other peoples.

Now what of the future of fossil fuels? It is an unpleasant fact that according to our best estimates total fossil fuel reserves (recoverable at not over twice today’s unit cost) are likely to run out at some time between 2000 and 2050 A.D. Oil and natural gas will disappear first; coal last. Nuclear fuels would seem to be the answer. But they have their drawbacks. They can't be used in small machines, such as cars, trucks, buses, tractors. We must remember that the oil we use in the United States in one year took nature 14,000,000 years to create.

Barring atomic war or unexpected changes in the population curve we can count on an increase in world population from 2,500,000,000 today to 4,000,000,000 by the year 2000 (2). It is an awesome thing to contemplate a graph of world population from prehistoric times to the year 2000 A.D., for 99 per cent of that time it stretches almost level. In the 8,000 years from the beginning of history to 2000 A.D. world population will have grown from 10,000,000 to 4,000,00,000, with 90 per cent of the growth taking place during the last 5 per cent of that period--or 400 years.

It took the first 3,000 years of recorded history to double the population of the world; 100 years for the last doubling; but the next doubling will be in 50 years. Calculations give us the astonishing estimate that the people living in this one year equal one-twentieth of the total number of human beings ever born into the world. (I found this hard to believe; but Admiral Rickover says it is so.)


1. Admiral H.G. Rickover (Center for Excellence in Education):
The Late Admiral H.G. Rickover

To most people, Admiral H.G. Rickover is best known as the father of the nuclear navy and modern nuclear engineering, but to anyone involved with CEE's programs, Admiral Rickover is the father of the nation's premier science and mathematics program. The late Admiral H.G. Rickover emigrated from Poland to the US in 1900. He received his Engineering degree from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1922. Following sea duty, Rickover earned a master of science degree in electrical engineering from Columbia University. He served in the Bureau of Ships during World War II. Following the war, he was assigned to the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge, Tenn. and later served with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. As Director of the Naval Reactor's branch of the U.S. Navy, the Admiral developed the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, launched in 1955. In addition to establishing his own graduate schools for nuclear engineering studies and writing several books on education, the Admiral was awarded the Congressional Medal for exceptional public service in 1959 and 1983, and in 1980 was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter for his contributions for world peace. His record of 64 years of active service in the military service remains unchallenged. The Admiral passed away in 1986; he is remembered as a renaissance scholar, an intensely principled leader, and a fierce believer in a better world through education. RSI students have come to be called "Rickoids," and as the program enters its 24th year the participants continue to be influenced by his vision.

2. The UN estimated world population was 6.07 billion in the year 2000; it far surpassed the 4 billion estimate of this 1957 article (The Green Revolution at work?).

Editorial Notes: It would be interesting to see a copy of the original speech by Rickover. Admiral Rickover was an amazing figure. Note that President Jimmy Carter - the only U.S. president to level with the public about energy - was a subordinate of Rickover's in the Navy. Carter said that next to his parents, Rickover has had the greatest influence on him. One of the pleasures of working on energy issues is discovering the great minds who have been here before us, such as: Thomas Edison Isaac Asimov Howard T. Odum This publication of the article represents its first appearance online, as far as we know. We've dated it as 1970 since our software doesn't allow earlier dates. -BA

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