Tough talk about oil

This highly readable book about America's energy crisis urges us to think about the future of our children.

Al Crosby has written the book that, if read and applied, could alter the very culture of American energy use.

Energy consumption patterns have become the latest application of the "ugly American" ethic of gluttonous and selfish consumption. Each day, it seems, a different pundit explains how American consumers dwarf the energy needs of all other global consumers.

Children of the Sun offers a logic that - understood and acted upon - would require us to break that cycle of energy gluttony.

In this highly readable book, Crosby manages to unpack the essential concepts of energy and consumption in a manner comprehensible to the general reader. Similar to an introductory biology class, the book presents basic concepts of energy (it never disappears, just changes form) and biology (resource supplies are finite).

Once we see these concepts perhaps we will stop wondering how much it costs to fill an SUV and instead ponder the complex connection between unleaded gas and the bright sun above us. The logic Crosby presents is clear: A society's energy regime must manage supplies and resources for sustained use.

Here are the hard, cold facts: Each gallon of gasoline that we pump contains 90 tons of plant matter (the equivalent of forty acres of wheat) that nature transformed over thousands of years.

"We are living off a bequest of fossil fuel," explains Crosby, "from epochs before there were humans and even before there were dinosaurs."

For Crosby, the connection is clear: "Today, as ever, we couldn't be more creatures of the sun if we went about with solar panels on our backs." But his purpose is to provide education and historical context, not to inspire guilt about the speed with which we are consuming materials created over the course of millennia.

When oil first gushed, hand over fist, out of the ground at Spindletop, Texas in 1901, Americans shaped a perspective on energy use that defined a century of our nation's life: Finite resources could be used as if infinite, if we just did not think about the future. Can we change mid-stream?

Similar to an instructor in front of a room full of bright undergraduates, Crosby is not necessarily offering solutions.

Instead, "Children of the Sun" is a book that can provide us with the raw material to construct a 12-step process for acknowledging and understanding our addiction; but there are few answers.

The responsibility lies with American consumers. Crosby's book offers us the opportunity to become educated energy consumers. We need to simply read it, ingest it, and find ways to apply its sensibility to our lives.

Crosby has tackled other complex topics in the past. He is author of seminal historical works on the Columbian exchange of pathogens and the 20th-century, global flu epidemic. By the 1970s, his work had helped to form the new field of environmental history.

While "Children of the Sun" resembles his earlier work in its ability to synthesize voluminous amounts of extremely technical scientific concepts and writing, the finished product could not be more different.

"Children of the Sun" is brief and engaging. Coming in at just over 160 pages, it can be read in a single sitting.

Taking on the conversational tone of the wise instructor, Crosby limits detail and deftly explains complicated concepts in a few sentences. (He explains fusion in fewer than ten pages!) He seems to enjoy his task immensely.

Each chapter of "Children of the Sun" tackles a different era in human use of energy, including: Fire and Cooking, Agriculture, Coal and Steam, Oil and the Internal Combustion Engine, Electricity, Fission, and Fusion.

Overall, Crosby does not castigate our wasteful ways. Instead, he educates us to see the folly of such a usage pattern.

There is, for instance, the story of panic after the Chernobyl nuclear explosion when Sweden elected to kill approximately 80% of its reindeer population on the chance they were infected. We also learn of Ben Franklin accidentally shocking himself while trying to electrocute a turkey for dinner. Crosby has a knack for telling stories that help the science go down more easily.

Many of us wish we could find one voice among the sea of pundits talking about energy today who would tell us what to do. Deep down, we wish to do the right thing for our children's energy future.

My advice is that we should all read "Children of the Sun." More important, we should also buy a spare copy or two to send to our legislators and business leaders. It could change everything.

Brian Black teaches history and environmental studies at Penn State University. He is author of "Petrolia: The Landscape of America's First Oil Boom."

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