Energy and Culture

Laura Nader released an edited volume called The Energy Reader in 2010 compromised of a series of essays by influential thinkers, activists, and professionals adding up to something akin to an anthropology of energy.  This view mandates a look at the humanities, not just science or technology, and supposes a longer time frame for understanding change as anthropology often does.  This I find incredibly enlightening in the context of planning, urban planning, more specifically.  The practice of planning and its theoretical counterpart/partner/(estranged cousin?) has to do with preparing people for the future, allowing for people to reach their maximum potential, and maintaining well being and all that includes: everything from infrastructure and land uses, to opportunities for recreation and employment, to clean air and water. Planning serves as an intersection and cultivation of numerous disciplines and concerns. But it’s foremost project is to make sure we are thinking about and preparing for the future. So perhaps the essays in this volume are more pertinent to planners than we generally think. Energy should be a central concern in planning, whether it be in making sure there are ways to meet the needs of the present and future generations or to abet climate change mitigation/adaptation.  Energy is also central to human development and socio/political relations, as we see in the work of historians, philosophers,engineers, physicists, etc. who contributed to this volume. Take for example the first chapter, “Social Power and the Future” by Richard Newbold Adams who details the thesis from his book Energy and Structure: A Theory of Social Power which goes as such: “All social structures are essentially power structures dependent on energy…Adams argues that social power affects humanity’s approach to ecological, economic, and political problems, directing people to seek solutions that are often deceptively shortsighted. Adams, an anthropologist, proposes that social power is directly derived from control over energy processes. He identifies how power and mentalistic structures constitute fundamental determinants that shape the lives of people at all stages of cultural development, forcing them to accept alternatives often far removed from their desires. His central thesis is that the amount of power in any system varies with the amount of control exercised over the environment and that increasing power and control lead to increasing centralization of decision-making, social marginalization, and environmental despoliation. Thus the more highly developed societies, by virtue of their greater controls, are responsible for the greater ultimate subordination and destruction of human potential, as humanity combines technological advances with a growing inability to exercise good judgment with respect to our own survival.” In the excerpt in The Energy Reader he details his theory by explaining that the complexity and form of modern social and political organization is directly determined by the amount of energy that is being converted in the system. The logical conclusion, thus, is that limited energy resources for extraction mandates a “levelling-off” if we desire to keep the current political organization.  As Timothy Mitchell discusses a similar idea using an STS historical framework in his book Carbon Democracy, he says in its opening line, “[f]ossil fuels helped create both the possibility of modern democracy and its limits.” Adams goes further relating humans to their habitat, as a part of natural systems, to explain that energy and social power necessitates a multiplicity of powers, not monolithic structures, much like an ecosystem in a fight for control of energy.  This has some tremendous implications for the future, if we are to switch to a leveled-off steady-state economy and ecology, one which is increasingly difficult to imagine with rampant nonrenewable energy use.  So are we to revert to an agrarian existence? Not likely. A completely controlled, collectivized industrial society? I hope not. Or his third option, an industrial society living in harmony with the environment. The primary issues is, then, endless growth, and how to manage it. A task for planners, maybe. But it poses a large societal question: what can the future hold given the natural limits of resources, the threats of war and violence for accumulation by dispossession (Adams claims peasant societies are quasi-societies and almost steady state, but that breaks down when you consider the upper classes and their connectivities), and the form of social and political organization that is dependent on growth (materially, energetically, economically)? Adams questions the survivability of an urbanized civilization in general by proposing that nomadic agrarians are most  feasible.  More in line with the thesis, however, he explains that “proposals for utopian futures need to consider not only the energy sources but also the power structure that will necessarily come into being from any such energy base and the administration and communication systems that can be supported by that level of energy conversion. It is, perhaps, a little too much to ask of man that, in order to survive, he cease to be human” (29).

Ian Barbour, Harvey Brooks, Sandford Lakoff & John Opie co-authored a chapter on the rise of the american industrial society and highlight the central role that energy played in shaping society and culture.  In their text Energy and American Values, the authors argue that the development of energy and industrialization, and the problems that progressed, were contingent upon the development of American values as a sovereign, progress-oriented, and a productive powerhouse of growth (Barbour, Brooks, Lakoff, & Opie, 1982).  Technology and values were co-produced as more energy was extracted and expended without concern for efficiency.  First horses and wheels, then steam and water, then coal and steel. These phases marked the “progress” of technological innovation and economic growth made possible by energy expenditures.  They also began to create an ideology or conception of man’s dominance over nature. Nature was now only an obstacle that the “will of man” could rise over. With these technological innovations and energy expenditure a new ethic of entitlement was instilled in the American people. They felt they not only deserved the basic liberties associated with liberal democracy, but  that this political ethos extended into a “democracy of things” such that everyone could be guaranteed a comfortable and convenient life filled with the technologies and benefits of machines run by water and steam.  With coal, the “revolution” would be complete. Manufacturing became the economic powerhouse with the massive production of steel, burning of coal, and creation of steam, agriculture quickly became less important to the economy.  Numerous technological changes led to more sophisticated and efficient machinery for extracting resources and producing goods.  The rise of a business ethic and the importance of the market came to be central components of American life.  The market instilled goals for increasing profits and monopolization, while competition was a testament to the “self-made man, not heir” who could become successful as delimited by wealth and prosperity.  “Rugged individualism” became the modern ethos.  Individual self-interest and laissez-faire ideology prospered in the nascent environment of American progressivism and pragmatism.

How much does technology shape culture or vice-versa? Is this even the correct way to go about thinking of the interactions? There are two major fields of thought on co-production: interactionist and constitutive. The first is associated with Shapin and Schaffer, the latter with the likes of Latour.  These perhaps are good places to begin to think about this question.  In light of studies like Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy  and Ezrahi’s  The Descent of Icarus  I think there are tremendous opportunities to study the relationships between energy, technology, politics, and society.  Does our particular history, the decisions and choices of past generations, shape the type of democratic possibilities that exist today? What might new technologies or views on science do to our envisioning of democratic possibilities and governance?


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