When Henry Adams traveled to Paris for the Great Exposition in 1900, he had an epiphany about the century that was just dawning.
Walking into a room of electricity-generating dynamos, he realized that these devices were more than just “an ingenious channel for conveying somewhere the heat latent in a few tons of poor coal.”
Instead, Adams — one of the great writers and thinkers of his day — saw “the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the cross.”
It turns out, he was spot on. In the decades that followed, energy became the central motivating force in the affairs of men.
After tens of thousands of years in which the primary civilizing forces were intellect, faith and raw muscle power, humans began to unleash and harness pure energy.
From the first clumsy steam engines and crude kerosenes cooked up in home stills to the awesome technologies that shape modern atomic power plants, the exact shape of the dynamo has changed and evolved.
But the basic principle identified by Adams remained the same. Strip away all the muddle and “superfluous rags” of our busy lives and you find that we live and breath energy.
Without a ready supply of the dynamo’s bountiful fruits, everything that we think of as modern civilization grinds to a halt, from the cars we drive to the foods we eat to the thoughts and ideas that flash in packets of light across the web.
But we have reached a new stage, a transitional moment where we can no longer be devoutly confident that the supply of energy will continue.
It’s not just the crisis unfolding in Japan, where one of those shiny, glittering dynamos smolders with dangerous unhinged power.
It’s also the grim memory of last summer’s fiery blast in the Gulf of Mexico, where the sea was stained for months with ugly sworls of crude.
It was last year’s Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in West Virginia, which left 29 men dead and buried deep underground.
It’s the sweeping unrest in the Middle East, where much of our energy supply lies tangled up in the murderous politics of a culture very different from our own.
It’s the rapidly accelerating demand for oil — from China and India — even as ready supplies dwindle.
And it’s the growing certainty that our consumption of fossil fuels, the primary life-blood of the dynamo, is gradually changing the very chemistry of our atmosphere.
When Henry Adams wrote his essay in the early 1900s, he contrasted the new dynamism with the fading power of Man’s faith in the Virgin Mary, especially here in the buddingly vibrant United States.
“An American Virgin would never dare command” our destiny, he argued.
This was a country wedded not to mystery and tradition and doctrinal reverence, but to the confidence and power of harnessed energy.
Yet now, almost exactly a century later, we find that our faith in the dynamo is every bit as fragile and uncertain as our faith in the Virgin.
Indeed, the primary question that will shape all of our lives over the next generation isn’t whether we vote Republican or Democrat, or whether we balance the budget, or whether we cure cancer, or rebuild the economy.
Strip away all that muddle — as Adams did at the Great Exposition — and there is only one essential quandary:
Will we find safe, sustainable and affordable ways to fuel the great dynamos that drive our modern age?
This is a challenge that should invite no discord, no partisanship.
We should all agree that there is no more important investment of our creativity, our scholarship, our treasure and our national will.
The search for better and more enduring sources of energy should be more than our generation’s Manhattan Project or our quest for the moon.
This must be the great American endeavor, the one defining effort that will shape all our future pursuits.
If we don’t answer this question, successfully and soon, many of the great power plants and energy mills that dot our landscape will go dark.
They will sit empty and strange and cold, the monuments of a past era every bit as mysterious as Lourdes or Chartres.