The demand for energy has increased steadily, not only because of the growing population but also because of the greater number of technological goods available and the increased affluence that has brought these goods within the reach of a larger proportion of the population. For example, despite the introduction of more fuel-efficient motor vehicles (average miles per gallon increased by 34% between 1975 and 1990), the consumption of fuel by vehicles in America increased by 20% between 1975 and 1990. The rise in gasoline consumption is attributable to an increase in the number of miles the average vehicle traveled and to a 40% increase in the same period in the number of vehicles on the road. Since 1990 average fuel efficiency has changed relatively little, while the number of vehicles, the number of miles they travel, and the total amount of fuel consumed has continued to increase.
As a result of the increase in the consumption of energy, concern has risen about the depletion of natural resources, both those used directly to produce energy and those damaged during the exploitation of the fuels or as a result of contamination by energy waste products (see under conservation of natural resources). Most of the energy consumed is ultimately generated by the combustion of fossil fuels, such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas, and the world has only a finite supply of these fuels, which are in danger of being used up. Also, the combustion of these fuels releases various pollutants (see pollution), such as carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide, which pose health risks and may contribute to acid rain and global warming. In addition, environmentalists have become increasingly alarmed at the widespread destruction imposed on sensitive wildlands (e.g., the tropical rain forests, the arctic tundra, and coastal marshes) during the exploitation of their resources.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.