Steven Chu made a similar observation. The major energy problem in about one-third of the world is very different from the energy problems common in the United States, he said: “The basic energy needs of the poorest people are not being met.” The poor in the developing world rely primarily on wood, charcoal, dung, or other organic materials for cooking, and most live without electricity (IAC, 2007). The rest of the world has a “moral and social obligation” to help those who live in poverty gain access to the energy they need, Chu said.

Yet continued reliance on the dominant sources of energy being used today also poses grave risks to human well-being. The production and use of fossil energy cause air and water pollution and also can require huge economic investments. Efforts to secure long-term access to fossil and nuclear fuels have at times greatly exacerbated international tensions. And global climate change caused by the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere could have catastrophic consequences. “There is a broad consensus that if a responsible society doesn’t act, we’re heading for a problem in the environment, on energy security, and on economic development,” said Jeffery. “We need to act now.”


In his 12-volume Study of History (1934-1961), historian Arnold Toynbee examined the trajectories of various human civilizations and asked why civilizations succeeded or failed. Most often, said James Schlesinger at the summit, they failed because of a challenge they could not meet. Today, the provision and use of energy pose “an immense challenge, both foreign and domestic,” Schlesinger said. “The question is our ability to respond effectively to that challenge.”

Schlesinger quoted from a 1953 book entitled The Next Million Years by Charles Galton Darwin, the grandson of the author of the Origin of Species. In 1953 Darwin wrote:

A thing that will assume enormous importance quite soon is the exhaustion of our fuel resources. Coal and oil have been accumulating in the earth for over five hundred million years, and, at the present rates of demand for mechanical power, the estimates are that oil will be all gone in about a century, and coal probably in a good deal less than five hundred years. For the present purpose, it does not matter if these are under-estimates; they could be doubled or trebled and still not affect the argument. Mechanical power comes from our reserves of energy, and we are squandering our energy capital quite recklessly. It will very soon be all gone, and in the long run we shall have to live from year to year on our earnings. (p. 63)

Darwin’s observations are as relevant today as they were a half century ago, Schlesinger observed. “We are going through our capital of inheritance at a remarkable pace.”

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