The End of Burning

For millions of years, fire was our main form of energy. With renewables, it comes to an end

Clive Thompson
6 min readJul 21, 2022


“Fire” by Vladimir Pustovit (CC 2.0 license, photo unmodified)

Last week I wrote a post about how Americans originally hated coal. Back in the early 1800s, when coal stoves first came along for the household, Americans loathed them.

Why? Because they couldn’t see any flames: Coal stoves were closed tight. Historically, Americana had heated their homes with open wooden fires — and they loved seeing those flickering yellow-and-orange flames.

Who can blame them? A wood fire is one of the most hauntingly beautiful things to behold. The way flames flicker and dance makes them — and they shadows they cast — seem alive. The crackle and pop of logs is practically a form of ASMR. I’ve camped a ton (ten years in the Boy Scouts of Canada) and I’ve felt how campfires can mesmerize, and calm the twitchy modern mind.

So these were, interestingly, the big reasons people hated coal: Aesthetic and cultural. Technologically, the new energy source was not inherently worse. On the contrary, coal was far cheaper and more efficient than wood. (And given that early Americans had deforested big chunks of the northeast while heating their homes, coal was — ironically — the more sustainable fuel at the time, at least in the short-term goal of preserving 19th-century trees.)

Still, it was incredibly hard to stop burning wood, and let those beautiful flames go.

In my Smithsonian column about the resistance to household coal, I compared it to the cultural and aesthetic objections we’re often seeing to household renewables. Homeowners’ associations all over the country are banning rooftop solar in their neighborhoods because members of the association don’t like the way it looks. Windmills face opposition from locals who hate how it changes the view; the same goes for big solar arrays in fields.

When I was researching that Smithsonian piece, one of my interview subjects raised another possibility — an intriguing and subtle one — about why some people might dislike renewables:

Solar and wind don’t burn anything.



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”.