In essence, we were no longer stuck with the interest we could earn off the sunlight falling on the planet—no longer stuck with the energy we could harness to feed our own muscles and those of our draft animals, with the wind that filled the sails of our ships when the sun warmed some spot and created a difference in pressure. All of a sudden, we could draw on the capital in the bank—those millions of years of deposits of ferns and plankton and dinosaurs that time had compressed into coal and gas and oil. We were, almost literally, like the lucky heirs of someone long dead and very rich whose will was finally deciphered. And we spent without thinking twice. That spending made us who we are. Every one of our revolutions (the industrial, the chemical, the electronic, even the information) at its base owes its strength to this newfound blood now coursing through the veins of our economy. Most of all, perhaps, the consumer revolution. For the half century since the end of World War II, we've defined the American dream as building bigger houses farther apart from one another. Our sprawling landscape proved to be the ultimate method for burning more fuel. Those ever bigger homes, stuffed with ever more appliances and linked by ever bigger, ever emptier cars, sent our electric meters and gas pumps spinning as never before. And what images did we send out to the rest of the world, through our movies and TV? Precisely those pictures of suburban comfort. No wonder everyone else wanted in on the game.
Which was, seemingly, fine. Plan A for the human race was that we'd all get rich eventually, that everyone would harness the same energy slaves that have served the West so well. Sure, there'd be some trouble along the way: Early generations of coal-fired power plants would produce great clouds of smog in Beijing just as they once had in Great Britain; vast fleets of cars would pollute China's skies as once they had California's. But quite quickly, as more energy produced more riches, those places too would have the cash to install scrubbers on their smokestacks and catalytic converters on their exhaust pipes, and before long the air would clear.
Everything seemed to be working as planned: The boom years of the 1990s saw our mass prosperity, and of course our massive energy use, starting to spread to Asia. But there were two little problems, new wrinkles that we hadn't considered before—and that we really didn't want to consider, even as they became more obvious. Twenty years ago, if people thought of global warming at all, it was as an unlikely and distant threat. Five years ago most people hadn't heard of peak oil. Now they are the twin jaws of a closing vise, limiting our options at a time when options are what we desperately need. Examined carefully, they may tell us what the future looks like—a future where we are running out of some of the energy we need and can't use the rest for fear of wrecking the atmosphere. A future that, all of a sudden, looks nothing like what we've long assumed.