What Is Energy?
The concept of energy is not that simple to approach. Energy is not always visible or palpable. It is hard to quantify. It is not necessarily material, and its existence may even be ignored. Yet, energy is indispensable to life. It is omnipresent in our activities and influences them considerably.
Energy in Rich Countries’ Daily Life
At night, ventilation devices, internet boxes, freezers, refrigerators, alarm clocks, chargers and various electrical devices left on stand-by consume energy permanently. In the morning, electrical power supplies light. Energy, mostly gas, is required to heat up homes.
Preparing breakfast or other meals requires the consumption of energy: coffee makers, toasters, ovens, microwaves, hotplates, dishwashers, etc.
What about the bathroom? We would not wash so often without abundant energy. You need some to pump water up the water tower, to heat it up and more to make soap.
To listen to the radio, we use electrical appliances which receive waves from electrical emitters, relaying the programmes made in studios which are inconceivable without electrical power. Of course, it is the same with television.
Telephones are charged with electricity. E-mails and internet data are stored on IT servers which are greedy for electricity.
To go to work, most of us need petrol for our cars or electricity for public transport.
In almost all workplaces, there are computers, lighting, heating, ventilation, various electrical appliances and even machines and vehicles running on petroleum or gas.
Anything we buy requires energy to be produced. For any of the things around us, base ores had to be mined - generally with the use of oil-fuelled machines - and transported. Coal, gas, oil and electricity are used to run the transformation and manufacturing factories, and then, all these products have to be transported too.
Anything we eat requires energy. Food is the energy provided to living creatures, but let us not forget about the fuel required by agricultural machinery, the fabrication of fertilizers, the running of food-processing factories, transport systems, etc. We would not eat the same food if fields were ploughed using animal power, if there were no available energy to preserve food or transport it.
Our clothes are often manufactured from oil in energy-greedy factories, and they often have to be transported from thousands of miles away on oil-fuelled ships.
Of course, all the shops from which we purchase these goods also consume energy for their lighting, heating, ventilation, IT equipment, handling and associated offices. And a lot of energy was required to build them to start with.
At the other end of the chain, energy is also required to carry our litter, recycle glass, bury the final waste, depollute water, etc.
Our homes would not be what they are if their foundations had to be dug out by hand rather than with an oil-fuelled excavator, if the building materials had to be transported on muleback rather than on an oil-fuelled truck, if the roof timbers had to be built by hand rather than in energy-greedy factories, if there had not been kilns to fire the bricks.
We are lucky to get healthcare when necessary. Prescribed medicines, corrective lenses, dental prostheses, etc., are easily made available thanks to energy-hungry machines and transport systems. Hospitals, which consume a lot of energy, are there for us in case of more serious health issues: ventilation, lighting, heating, cleaning, disinfection processes, refrigeration, medical equipment of all sorts, operating theatres, etc., are not run on thin air.
Many of us have leisure activities. We would not go to the swimming pool so often if the water was not heated. Bikes, sport shoes, rackets, balls, work-out equipment, etc., are all made thanks to some energy. We even frequently use our car to go and do some sport. Cinemas, concert halls, gyms and museums also consume energy for their ventilation, lighting, heating, etc. Sport events and shows would be unimaginable without a lot of energy. We need some for the construction of stadiums and halls, their heating, lighting and ventilation, to transport their equipment, to bring players and artists, to take the public to events, to carry out the promotion of events. Even the Tour de France, though a bicycle race, is a big oil consumer, given the number of follower vehicles.
Many of us go on holiday, but rarely by bicycle. The energy required to build blocks of flats, villas, hotels, restaurants, casinos, seawalls, amusement parks, ski lifts, sport centres, museums was considerable. Huge amounts of energy are required for the running of all these installations, and to clean beaches, to operate carousels, cable cars, ships or rescue helicopters, etc.
Some people travel by train, which is less energy-greedy than cars, but railways are still very big electrical power consumers. Airplanes are big oil consumers. Of course, the manufacturing of those means of transport is a high energy-consuming process, particularly for the production of steel.
Many people are careful with their consumption of energy: they use low-energy bulbs, they drive more calmly or even walk, they switch off devices instead of keeping them on stand-by, they carefully adjust heating settings. But all that does not account for much, compared to the rest.
Other people, scarce as they may be, and often belonging to the less well-off, behave more virtuously: no car, no holidays, no telephone, etc. Their consumption is slightly lower, but they are still very dependent on energy to move around - even when using public transport - to cook their food, use hot water, live in their own home, get healthcare, etc.
Three-quarters of French wage-earners work for service industries and are paid for managing finance, administering, providing healthcare or assistance, communicating, teaching, doing research, selling, organizing, developing products, etc. Goods and properties are more and more abundant while there are fewer and fewer people to manufacture them. Food is abundant while less than 3% of the working population work in the agriculture sector. And all this would just not work without high energy-consuming machines, factories or transport systems. The organization of society relies entirely on abundant energy. The only people living with really low energy consumption are those in poor countries who eat what they grow, live in rudimentary housing, get little healthcare, do not travel much and have limited access to culture and leisure. Their lifestyle, which they generally endeavour to improve, is similar to the one the French used to have at the beginning of the 19th century.