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Published: March 2009

Our Energy Challenge

Coal plant
Essay by Bill McKibben
Photograph by Ralph Orlowski, Getty Images

We are stuck right now—stuck between a played-out rock and a hot place.

And it's an open ques­tion whether or not we can work our way free. It's the question that will determine whether the 21st century represents continued progress or whether a long, steady, and debilitating decline is about to set in. This is about saving our home. Our home planet.

Energy, of course, is not just another part of our economy. For all intents and purposes, it is our economy. The great economist John Maynard Keynes once reckoned that the standard of living for most humans had at most doubled in all the millennia since history dawned—until the turn of the 18th century, when we learned how to use coal to run engines. Then, suddenly, it's as if each of us had rubbed a bottle and come away with our own genie, ready to do work on our behalf for a very reasonable price. All of a sudden, living standards, in the energy-using West, were doubling every few decades. (There's a reason, after all, that "industrialized world" and "developed world" are very nearly synonyms.)

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