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Energy and the Earth

University of Wisconsin–Madison via Coursera

This course may be unavailable.


Energy consumption and its consequences have spurred some of the most important public debates of our time. We are presently confronted by an unprecedented paradox:  the negative consequences of fossil fuel combustion have never been clearer, but oil and gas extraction are experiencing a technological revolution.  How long with fossil fuel supplies last? What are the long-term implications of fracking and other technologies that extend their use? At what point will renewable energy systems replace fossil fuels altogether?  Such questions have a direct impact on our health, wealth, and security, but reliable answers are scarce.  

In this class we will develop a unique, “big picture” perspective on these issues, based on the concept that all energy systems, fossil and renewable, depend on finite geologic resources of the Earth.  Armed with this perspective, energy consumers, producers, and policy makers can make more informed choices for the future.  This course will emphasize three universal principles:

  1. Energy quality matters more than quantity,  
  2. Technological advances continually redefine reality, and
  3. All energy systems carry their own negative consequences. 
We will explore energy options ranging from solar to nuclear, revealing how the above principles apply to each.  


Week 1:  “In the Beginning”: the historic and geologic context of human energy use.

Week 2:  “Leveraging the Past”: energy sources that have been naturally enriched through the leverage of geologic time.

Week 3:  “Living in the Present”: renewable energy sources that draw on the present flux of energy from the Sun.

Week 4:  “Planning for the Future”: prospects and challenges of future energy use.

Taught by

Alan Carroll


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