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Energy: A Human History – a Slim Slice of History and Science

General Ideas

“The population of the earth has increased more than sevenfold since 1850 – from one billion to seven and a half billion – primarily because of science and technology,” Richard Rhodes concludes at the end of his new book Energy: A Human History. “Far from threatening civilization, science, technology, and the prosperity they create will sustain us as well in the centuries to come.”1

Rhodes tells an engaging tale of energy transitions over some 500 years. Yet the limitations in his field of view become critical in the book’s concluding chapter, when he reveals which particular axe he is especially eager to grind.

Both the title of the book and its timing invite comparison with Vaclav Smil’s 2017 work Energy and Civilization: A History (reviewed here). There is a significant overlap, most notably in both author’s views that major energy transitions – from wood to coal, from coal to petroleum – have been multi-generational processes.

But Rhodes’ scope is far narrower, both in time and in geography.

Rhodes begins his story in sixteenth-century England. His cast of characters is overwhelmingly Anglo-American and male, with a sprinkling of western Europeans, and only a brief excursion outside of “western civilization” to discuss oil exploration in Saudi Arabia.

Smil, by contrast, starts his book in pre-history, with an erudite discussion of the energy implications of human evolution. He follows with more than 200 pages on developments in energy usage from ancient times to the Middle Ages, in Africa, India, China, Europe, and Mesoamerica.

Smil’s readers, then, arrive at his discussion of the industrial revolution and the fossil fuel era with an understanding that millennia of progressive developments, around the world, had gone into the technologies and social organizations available to sixteenth-century Englishmen.

The unspoken implication in Rhodes’ tale is that the men of the Royal Society of London started with a blank slate, and all our current technological marvels are due wholly to the magnificence of their particular current in science.

One question that never arises in Rhodes’ book is, how did it happen that a class of educated men had the time and resources to ponder theories, conduct long series of experiments, and write and discuss their essays? There is no mention that during these same centuries, the countries of western Europe were drawing vast quantities of basic resources from Africa and the Americas, at the cost of millions of lives.

In short, this is a woefully incomplete history of energy. But within those limitations, Rhodes writes engagingly and with admirable clarity.

A thermodynamic page-turner

For anyone interested in basic issues of physics and technology, the progression from scattered awareness of curious phenomena, to testable theories, to technologies that were applied on a mass scale and changed everyday life, makes a fascinating story. For example, observations of static electricity from a cat’s hair, frightening strikes of lightning, and the effects of magnets eventually grew into a comprehensive theory of electromagnetism. Rhodes ably outlines how this led through development of crude batteries, then to simple generators, and eventually to the construction of a massive generator harnessing some of the power of Niagara Falls for a new phase of the Industrial Revolution.

Likewise, his discussion of the long gestation of the coal-fired steam engine – which depended on an understanding of basic issues of thermodynamics as well as refinements in metal-working needed for the construction of high-quality boilers – illuminates important factors in the birth of the fossil-fuel era.

An excellent section on early oil drilling and refining processes leads to a fascinating aside: the profitable introduction of lead as a performance-enhancing additive to gasoline, notwithstanding severe health effects which were noticed and decried at the earliest stages of the leaded gas era.

Credit where credit is due

The social effects of these developments in basic and applied science have been sweeping and many of them have been salutary. It would be foolish to deny that science has played a major role in increasing life expectancy and making rapid population growth possible.

Yet many historians would argue that social and political factors such as labour rights and the push for universal education have been equally important.

Of most direct importance to Rhodes’ subject, it is clear that science was critical in helping us understand principles of thermodynamics and helping us harness the power in both fossil fuels and and renewable resources. But science has not decreed that, once having learned to extract and consume fossil fuels, we should use up these resources as fast as humanly possible. That trend, rather, is due to an economic system that requires profits to increase continuously and exponentially.

Likewise, science taught us how to use the fossil fuel resources which have helped boost our population seven-fold in the past 170 years. But science did not create those resources, which were cooking in the earth’s cavities for millions of years before the first protohuman scientist conducted the first experiment.

If, following Rhodes’ thinking, we give science the whole credit for making a population explosion possible, we should also credit science with blowing through millions of years of accumulated energy resources in just a few hundred years. We should give science credit for the fact that billions of people live in areas already being severely impacted by climate change caused by fossil fuel emissions (even though those people typically have used minimal quantities of fossil fuel themselves.) And we should ask, why can’t science come up with a cost- and time-effective way of replacing all those fossil fuels, so that all 7 billion of us plus our more numerous descendants can keep on living the high-energy lifestyle to which (some of) us are accustomed?

Ah, but science has already found a big part of the next answer, Rhodes might answer: nuclear power.

The questions raised by Rhodes’ concluding sections on nuclear power are complex, and we’ll dive into those issues in the next installment.

An Outside Chance

9 Comments on "Energy: A Human History – a Slim Slice of History and Science"

  1. pointer on Wed, 27th Jun 2018 7:43 am 

    Do either of these books mention slavery? Fossil fuels are our slaves. Curiously most people miss the immorality of using such slavery. I suspect those who used slaves also missed (and still miss, in many parts of the world, including our enlightened United States of America) the immorality of their source of work.

  2. Jef on Wed, 27th Jun 2018 9:01 am 

    We never made any of the “transitions” mentioned.

    We still use wood for energy.
    We still use coal for energy.
    We still use human slaves to do our labor.

  3. shoal on Wed, 27th Jun 2018 6:45 pm 

    “Where 3 Million Electric Vehicle Batteries Will Go When They Retire”

    “The first batches of batteries from electric and hybrid vehicles are hitting retirement age, yet they aren’t bound for landfills. Instead, they’ll spend their golden years chilling beer at 7-Elevens in Japan, powering car-charging stations in California and storing energy for homes and grids in Europe. Lithium-ion car and bus batteries can collect and discharge electricity for another seven to 10 years after being taken off the roads and stripped from chassis — a shelf life with significant ramifications for global carmakers, electricity providers and raw-materials suppliers. Finding ways to reuse the technology is becoming more urgent as the global stockpile of EV batteries is forecast to exceed the equivalent of about 3.4 million packs by 2025, compared with about 55,000 this year, according to calculations based on Bloomberg NEF data. China, where about half the world’s EVs are sold, is implementing rules in August to make carmakers responsible for expired batteries and to keep them out of landfills. The European Union has regulations, and the industry expects the U.S. to follow.”

  4. Dave Thompson on Wed, 27th Jun 2018 7:32 pm 

    Sounds like another book that talks about pie in the sky future tech that is impossible to run our industrial civ without FF inputs to keep the wheels from falling off.

  5. Theedrich on Thu, 28th Jun 2018 3:16 am 

    Yup.  To infinity and beyond!  Thanks, Rhodes.

  6. deadly on Thu, 28th Jun 2018 6:18 am 

    Not even close, you stupid idiot.

    Diseases, the cure of, have been a major factor in the growth of the human population.

    Syphilis is no longer a threat nor a fear.

    Diphtheria is conquered, measles, mumps, German measles, polio, the Plague, smallpox, have all been, to a large extent, been reduced to a small problem, not a constant endemic. Especially, Black Death. It would take only a few days of seeing people drop like flies for you to realize it is time to get out of Dodge. lol

    Influenza remains a problem, but it has always been that way.

    Humans are biological organisms. They live and breath, die too.

    Try some vipassana.

    The development of fossil fuels, resources, to gargantuan amounts, are because of medical advances, medical science, to extend many years to a human life and improve the human condition.

    If such diseases continued to exist, not as many humans would have survived, subsequently, the use of fossil fuels would not have expanded such as they have.

    In the final analysis, that is the final analysis.


  7. Dredd on Thu, 28th Jun 2018 7:42 am 

    This piece reminds me of the women who wanted to marry their kidnappers in the Stockholm Syndrome episode.

    It encourages blaming the victim (The Psychology of the Notion of Collective Guilt – 2).

  8. goat2055 on Fri, 29th Jun 2018 2:28 pm 

    The wheel was a monumental invention and game changer.

  9. autistmouse on Mon, 2nd Jul 2018 9:18 pm 

    Comments about what is the most important invention or the relative value of antibiotics versus combustion engines misses the point of the article. Development of new things requires the sum of the old things. Antibiotics and combustion engines are two expressions of the same surplus of energy and time that complexity brings. The trouble is when that same complexity begins to cost more eventually leading to a flat than deficit amount of time and energy. Squabbling over the relative value of expressions is meaningless.

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