Energy raises the power of human labour to incalculable levels.
“Our standard of living depends on the fact that we have augmented our modest human muscle power with ever-greater amounts of manmade horsepower, in the form of engines, motors, and generators, powered by fossil fuels and nuclear energy.”1
Reliable, powerful energy sources allow the production of more goods for any given quantity of labour. And for years we’ve heard about new and supposedly better ways to produce energy, some supposedly “renewable",” some high-tech and still far-off into the future (fuel cells anyone?), all of them either promising much and producing little, or costing a lot more to produce much less.
All have had problems, and none have really replaced either fossil fuels or nuclear as the energy source on which a civilisation can be based. Solar energy for example requires huge banks of batteries and photo-voltaic arrays, along with all the toxins used to make the equipment, for relatively little energy return.
So none of the “high tech” replacements has really been able to replace the “low tech” solutions first developed more than a century ago.