Energy use is fundamental to human existence and it should come as no surprise that the way mankind has been using it is at the heart of many of the environmental problems that have emerged in recent years. There are many types of pollution, but the emissions from the combustion of fuels in power stations and cars are probably the most worrying for many people, given the impact of air quality on health. More generally, the use of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas is increasingly seen as having major environmental impacts, such as global warming. There are also major concerns over the use of nuclear fuels. These energy sources also underpin what many see as an unsustainable form of industrial society, in which the environment is treated as a ‘free’ resource of energy and other materials and as a more or less infinite sink for wastes, with the scale and pace of the ‘throughput’ from source to sink growing ever greater.
This book explores the way in which energy use interacts with society and the environment, but the emphasis is not so much on describing the problems as on looking at some possible strategic solutions. Some of the solutions involve new technology: our use of technology has been a major cause of environmental problems, but it is sometimes argued that technology can be improved and used more wisely so as to avoid them in future. However, there are also limits to what technology can do: in the end it may be that there will also be a need for social, economic and political change if serious environmental damage is to be avoided. Part of the aim of this book is to try to explore just how far purely technical solutions can take us, and then to look at the strategic alternatives.