Culture and Energy Usage

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The earliest energy theorists were largely physical scientists, some of whom held that the growth and increasing complexity of society were largely synonymous with "progress," construed as a movement toward the higher, the better, and the more desirable. Nobel laureate chemist Wilhelm Ostwald (1907) was of this camp, although other eminent scholars such as the Nobel laureate physicist Fredrich Soddy (1912) and Alfred Lotka (1925), a founder of mathematical biology, also ventured ideas on the relation of energy and evolution yet made no explicit connection.

Energy theorists of cultural evolution are concerned with the whole sweep of cultural evolution, from prehistoric hunters and gatherers to modern industrial societies. This global, secular perspective is useful in assessing the relevance of ideas advanced to account for short periods of time in the history of particular societies. Those who propose an energy theory of cultural evolution emphasize the problem of causality-whether or not the amount of energy a society uses can be manipulated, and if so, to what extent, by what means, and to what effect (Nader and Beckerman, 1978).

In the social sciences, steps toward an energy theory of cultural evolution were made by British archeologists V. Gordon Childe (1936) and Graham Clarke (1946). However, the first figure in the social sciences who fully developed an energy theory of cultural evolution is anthropologist Leslie White. White (1959) held that culture advances as a consequence of the ability to harness more energy, although we are not to conclude that people, either individually or collectively, can choose to vary their energy harnessing technology and thus vary the rest of their culture. Causality in White's view, runs from materialistic forces like environmental change, population pressure, culture contact, and the like, to "superorganic" technological systems, and thence to superorganic social and ideological systems. Technological systems may determine the rest of the culture, but specific technology in turn can come about and continue in use through forces completely outside the conscious command of the participants in culture.

Sociologist Fred Cottrell's thesis (1955, p. 2) was that "the energy available to man limits what he can do and influences what he will do." He later added that both material phenomena and choice are involved in any human situation. However, human choice for Cottrell is not directed. To varying degrees choices can be predicted, given information on individual values, the costs to the individuals of making various choices, and the power of the individuals in question to achieve their choices. One assumes that some element of chance is involved, but in a given situation a particular choice may be predicted with a high level of confidence. Although Cottrell is far from White in his rejection of radical determinism, he is equally far from many political philosophers prominent in the history of the West, who assume that society simply represents the ongoing result of innumerable unconstrained individual choices.

Howard T. Odum (1971), an ecologist, is the most diligent in his attempts to reduce all-or nearly all-cultural phenomena to the currency of energy. On first examination his approach to causality is strikingly reminiscent of White. On closer examination, it seems that Odum holds a "possibilistic" position on causality, similar to that of Cottrell. In a section on theories of history, he comments apropos of the rise and fall of civilizations (1971, p. 229) and refers to the expansion of fossil fuel energy use as the "basic cause" of the population explosion. Energy use may cause other social phenomena, as asserted by White, but energy use itself is not seen as the primum mobile of all human affairs, else there would be no point in suggesting that humans alter their energy use. Thus, the gross amount of energy harnessed by a society is only a starting point. What matters is the presence and sensitivity of feedback loops by which energy is channeled into "useful work," and not discharged in destructive "short circuits."

As an example, Odum (1971, p. 291) mentions the relations in some states among hunters, the Fish and Game Department, and the game animal populations. Hunters pay a significant amount of money for their hunting licenses. This money is spent by the Fish and Game Department on preserving and augmenting animal populations that are hunted. When the animal populations grow too large to be supported in their natural habitat, more hunting is permitted; when the animal populations fall, hunting is curtailed. He specifically (1971, p. 300) calls for this sort of loop in regard to energy indicating the right to inject fuel into the overheated world economy must be regulated.

Lastly, Richard N. Adams (1975) claims intellectual descent from White. He also ranks the cultural evolution of societies by the amount of energy harnessed, and sees the drive toward the harnessing of increasing amounts of energy by the whole fabric of human cultures as inevitable, as long as energy is available to be harnessed. However, this statement does not amount to a prediction of the course of any particular society. Adams has modified White's determinism so that only global processes are held to be deterministic while local events may manifest a high degree of indeterminism (Lovins, 1976). Just how much room this reexpression allows for the manipulation of a particular society's energetic parameters by national policy decisions is an open question.

All four theorists agree that the amount of energy available constrains possibilities for social change and social action. They also agree on a relationship between energy use and the increase of what is socially desirable. White decouples increasing amounts of harnessed energy from ideas of what is more desirable. Cottrell is also concerned with cultural evolution on a macroscopic scale, focusing on the contrast and transition between "low energy" (unindustrialized, or "third world") societies and "high-energy" (industrialized) societies. Cottrell also recognizes that there is no necessary coupling, especially in the short term, between cultural evolution (defined again as the harnessing of increasing amounts of energy) and the increase of what is socially desirable. Odum's emphasis on feedback loops is that intricate feedback linkages and a high degree of role specialization are necessary for the realization of individual worth. He places a positive value on systemic stability. This stability is achieved through the use of more energy than that employed by tribal peoples, whom Odum considers to exist at the whims of a fickle natural environment, but less energy than currently employed by industrial countries, which Odum considers to be running, as cancer does, out of control. For him, the position seems to be that quality of life relates not to gross magnitudes of energy but to the complexity and stability of the system of energy production, distribution, and use. There is explicit coupling of growth of energy use without feedback controls with a deterioration of something like the quality of life. On the other hand, Adams argues that a deterioration in the quality of life for some members of a society is an inevitable correlate of increased energy flow.

Energy policy debates having to do with the immediate future in the United States take a more restricted range of time and space than do the global schemes of energy theorists. Further, some of the primitive assumptions of these policy arguments run directly counter to assumptions of global theorists. Policy statements almost always assume, for instance, that energy use is the dependent variable which can be manipulated at will by political decisions (Nader and Milleron, 1979).

Despite general acceptance of some measure of harnessed energy as an index of cultural evolution, it has been more than fifty years since anyone seriously argued that cultural evolutionary "advance" was in itself a movement toward the higher, the better, and the more desirable. Societies may indeed grow larger, more centralized, more internally differentiated, and more powerful as they consume more energy, but as time unrolls these changes have resulted in both improvement and degeneration in the lives of members of those societies, some members experiencing both (Daly, 1974; Duncan, 1975).

The conclusions of the cultural theorists are pertinent because of the clear dangers of putting too much stock in local and short term experience, since technology rarely exists free of people. For example, it is popularly held that energy use per capita versus quality of life in the United States in the period between 1955 and 1975 shows a negative correlation: energy use generally increased while quality of life generally declined. Conversely, the period 1935 to 1955 shows a positive correlation: both energy use and quality of life increased. Neither correlation shows the true relationship, because per capita energy use and quality of life are related to each other in complex ways. While this situation can hardly be illuminated by a simplistic, unidirectional attribution of causality, it does make the point that a mere increase in energy use cannot force a rise in the quality of life (Nader and Beckerman, 1978).


Many issues in energy policy have been and will continue to be argued on the basis of presumed effects of energy use and energy policy on the quality of life. Some international comparisons of energy use and well-being are useful in their focus on efficiency of energy use (Goen and White, 1975). Others, such as the comparison between the United States and Sweden (Schipper and Lichtenberg, 1976), conclude that far from suggesting an inevitable coupling between level of economic activity and energy use, comparisons actually suggest ways in which more well-being can be wrought from every BTU of fuel and kilowatt-hour of electricity consumed in a given place. Furthermore, the data are persuasive that there is no direct relationship between per capita energy use and standard of living as measured by Gross National Product (GNP) (Weizdäcker, Lovins, and Lovins, 1997).

If the gross per capita energy use in a society cannot be held to correlate with the quality of life therein, what energy measures can? It seems likely that rapid change in the amount of energy used, either up or down (unless driven by zeal), will have a deleterious effect on the quality of life. If we examine American history over the last century or so, and if we compare our experiences with those of other nation-states, it appears that evidence for sharp increases or decreases in energy production and consumption correlates with social downturn. Our own experience of the great depression, as well as the fears that industrial nations share of an oil boycott, lead to the conclusion that a rapid increase in energy use will bring unemployment, shortages, and declining economic indicators of all kinds. On the other hand, experience from the last part of the nineteenth and first part of the twentieth centuries, as well as comparable periods of energy growth from the history of England, Germany, and Japan suggest that rapid increases in energy use are accompanied by fluctuations in the roles of social institutions, unmanageable inequalities in the distribution of power, class, regional, and ethnic conflicts of a serious nature, and a pervasive sense of anomie.

In the social science literature life style has had an accepted meaning-value preference as expressed in consuming behavior. Sociologists have developed methods whereby projections may be made of personal consumption patterns such as a shift in the proportion of consumer dollars spent on services as compared to dollars spent on durable goods. Such research attends to such questions as, "Can consumption patterns change so that less energy is used without altering social preferences?" Other researchers might examine the official statistics on personal consumption expenditures over an extended period of time in order to gain a historical understanding of the nature and scope of changing life styles, up or down. One can observe that Ireland and New Zealand have a very similar consumption of fossil fuel per capita (Cook, 1976). The Republic of Ireland is frequently used as an example of social and economic stagnation and even misery, while New Zealand is typically seen as a society in which everything runs so smoothly and progressively and equitably that its only fault is dullness. Per capita energy use and technologies are parallel. Fads and fashions play a role, as does enthusiasm, zeal, loyalty to tradition, style setting, and being the first on the block.

In Denmark, an intensely ecologically–minded country, moving to wind power made sense because they are located in one of the windiest comers of the world. They moved to wind power development after choosing not to have nuclear power. In 1999, wind energy covers 7 percent of Danish electricity with the goal being 50 percent over the next three decades. Eighty percent of the country's windmills are owned by individuals and cooperatives. Denmark's project is part of a larger voluntary venture for sustainability. Self-sufficiency and the environment are values strongly supportive of conservation and individual initiatives in Denmark, whereas in Japan and France the use of nuclear power has increased from 1987–1997. While long-term results of such choices cannot be easily forecast, energy catastrophies in one country could easily change the picture.

The ethnographic literature is replete with examples that illustrate that within a wide range, the total amount of energy that a society uses per capita is less important than the specific uses made of such energy. For example, the use made of energy and the perception of energy surplus among three precolonial African agricultural groups varied. All three groups increased the energy at their disposal by obtaining slaves, but they used these for different purposes: the Bemba principally as a trade item, the Tonga as additional labor about the homestead, and the Chokwa as both porters and trade items. All three groups had an energy surplus over and above what they expended. To have enough energy to cope with occasions that require a high expenditure of energy, any society has to live with most of its members operating below full work capacity most of the time. People mobilize their energy resources for short spurts; there are additional food and other resources known to them that could be harvested if needed but which usually are ignored (Cline-Cole et al., 1990). Without long-term storage, the inefficiencies are a necessary condition for survival over time, unlike the assumption that any energy available ought to be used because it is available and not because there is some human purpose to be obtained as a consequence of its deployment.


There is reason to believe that social organization, the framework within which we operate on a daily basis, may be strongly influenced by energy capability to produce, consume, store, or distribute. In one well-documented example (White, 1962), the pattern of energy control led to drastic change in social organization. The significant technological innovation responsible for the rise of feudalism in Europe was the introduction of the stirrup. The effect of the stirrup was to permit the concentration of greater force on the tip of a spear or the edge of a sword than could be achieved by a rider without stirrups, and to permit the rider to withstand greater force without being unhorsed. The horse had been in common use in Europe for centuries. What changed was not the gross amount of energy available, but the proportion of it that could be concentrated, and the speed and precision with which that concentrated energy could be released. The single consequence of this innovation was that, as arms and armor evolved to the full potential of a cavalry, and the support and forage of horses became requisite for military success, warfare became too expensive for serfs, who could afford neither the equipment nor the land necessary for mounted war. The result was the "flowering" of knighthood, the code of chivalry, the tying of ownership of land to the vassalage of its occupants, the tying of ownership of wealth to public responsibility, and the rest of the distinctive characteristics of feudalism. The control of a particularly important means of locally distributing energy led to a vast change in society itself.

It is anthropological commonplace that those who control scarce but necessary resources control, in large measure, the society that depends on those resources. Around the turn of the nineteenth century and somewhat later, railroads dominated large scale transportation in this country. The owners of railroad companies also dominated political life to an extraordinary degree (Boyer and Morais, 1955). At the grassroots level there was distrust and outright hatred of the railroad companies and their owners which brought us perhaps closer than we have ever been to class warfare in the United States. Nevertheless, the building of railroads led inexorably to capital intensive, highly centralized control.

The power of the railroads was diminished, not only by federal regulation, as history books sometimes argue, but also by the rise of motor vehicles and public roads as viable alternatives. With private trucks and cars the monopoly of a small segment of the population on the scarce "resource" of long range transportation was broken. There is some parallel with nuclear reactor technology since nuclear power is centralized, heavily regulated, subsidized by government, and crucially dependent upon selling prowess quoting scientific and engineering expertise.

Discussions of technologies have not always related to organization and values. Certainly since 1945 the bulk of the discussion has concentrated upon technical issues, such as the adequacy of the emergency core cooling system in light water reactors or the question of nuclear waste. However, the breakthroughs on safety and vulnerability resulted from studies of the culture of nuclear power. Charles Perrow (1999) argues that accidents are "normal" because they are built into the system. Perrow concludes that some complex systems can never be made accident-free because of "interactive complexity" (technological components are too varied for human operators to predict), and "tight-coupling" (small errors escalate too quickly for operators to figure out what is happening). For him, failure is built into a hard-wired system that does not allow for resilient possibilities of recovery.

In addition, discussions have focused on the effect of technology upon individual civil rights and civil liberties, terrorism, financial issues, and decaying technocarcasses. Such discussions have not utilized in-depth comparisons of strategies as with solar, nuclear, coal, and conservation; rather, each strategy has been considered separately, often independently of end users and consequences of failures (Kuletz, 1998), as shut downs, health and environmental catastrophies, or wars.

American discussions of nuclear energy first explored civil rights and civil liberties. Dangers of theft or sabotage of a plutonium facility require drastic incursions on individual freedom (Ayers, 1975). At issue are risks of increased civilian surveillance, the extension of the military clearance system to include civilian workers, and increasing steps towards infringement on privacy such as covert airport services and security of government officials. In sum, safety considerations, so vital in dealing with vulnerable technologies, result in restrictive laws affecting all aspects of behavior, such that there are large increases in the numbers of police (Zonabend, 1993). Safety considerations then justify extraordinary investigation, arrest, and regulatory measures.

The sociopolitical consequences of increased commitment to nuclear technologies which represent only 5 percent of world energy, raises questions of democratic decision-making to safeguard the environment and health and safety of the general public (Holdren, 1976). Some ask if it is worth the price. Research on the social and political implications identifies the crucial contrast between vulnerable and nonvulnerable technologies, and between technological waste and social waste.

Areas of consensus and dissent appear, suggesting that the way energy is used and the purpose to which it is put are important to acceptance if not satisfaction. For example, in Europe, North America, and elsewhere a consensus is forming against wasteful engineering design. Few people would express themselves against improved miles per gallon or improved efficiency of refrigerators. There is more likely to be dissent on social waste; people would be more likely to object to carpooling or trading autos for mass transit. With regard to solar strategies there might be consensus on the democratizing effect of direct solar technology-after all, the sun falls on the rich and the poor, the weak and the powerful, the famous and the anonymous. Particularly the issue of decentralized solar power is symbolic of a greater issue: the preservation of liberty and equity through maintaining some independence from the "big system" (Stanford Research Institute, 1976). Centralized solar energy systems would have few of the dangers associated with highly vulnerable supply technologies, but there is expressed dissent at least among experts. Whatever the disagreements, it is clear that at issue is the value placed on freedom.


Movement to redirect technological progress has brought about an "efficiency revolution" and the notion of a new industrial revolution incorporating, for example, the production of hypercars, compact fluorescent lamps, water drip systems, desk top computers that give more for less. Such movement is fueled by the realization that if Northern lifestyles spread globally it would take several globes to accommodate such life styles. It is well documented that the world's well–to–do minority uses the most energy, produces the greatest amount of pollution, and contributes greatly to the greenhouse effect. The efficiency revolution is in direct contradiction to supply side wizardry or high tech fantasies of fast breeder reactors, mega-fertilizer factories, gigantic water projects, preferring instead direct solar, hydro power, wind power, biomass, fuel-cell cars and the like (Nader, 1995). In the United States and Europe a coalition of business executives, consumers, environmentalists, labor leaders and legislators are the new energy entrepreneurs in a world where oil and coal fuels are increasingly being viewed as sunset industries (Hawken, Lovins, and Lovins, 1999).

Energy is becoming a multi–disciplinary concern. Aspects which were of interest to physicists, chemists and engineers are now a fixed growing concern for a wide variety of people. All energy research is inextricably interwoven with values, such as those relating to scale, complexity, organization, scientific challenge, and cost. The bulk of energy research that deals with scientific and technological questions is often embedded in deeply held beliefs about the human condition and direction. Technical specialists operating within the limits of their competence produce a clouding of the basic human factors that apply to broad understanding of the human dimensions of energy issues.

Energy can be used to foster different values in society: economic values based on efficiency, political values of democratic decision making, aesthetic values of architectural and environmental beauty, or their opposites. The question arises as to whose values will predominate in relation to the amount of energy produced, the purposes for which energy is used, and the forms and consequences of energy production. The perspective from which these relationships are addressed is important (Nader, 1981). The mode of energy use in industrialized society has been largely determined by producers rather than users. Automobile companies produce cars to sell cars, and Los Angeles's city rail systems were eliminated with this in mind (Mokhiber, 1988, pp. 221–228). Oil companies prefer inefficient cars because they use more gasoline (Sampson, 1975). Central power systems allow utilities to retain control over all productive facilities. Illuminating engineers may be apt to illuminate in a way that adds to profit and convenience of the illuminating engineer.

When quality of life becomes central, the dialogue on energy changes. In such a dialogue the individual user must have equal time. Certain choices might never be made if public welfare was the yardstick. Production and per capita expenditures of energy may then be secondary to the purposes for which energy is used and to the form of energy production. While certain broad correlation of energy use with other social parameters have been examined by social scientists for over a generation, findings are often ignored or misinterpreted. For example, technological progress and increased energy is said to have eliminated the drudgery of women's work while there is ample evidence to the contrary (Bendocci, 1993). Yet energy technologies are still being sold as panaceas for a woman's work life.

Our understanding of the relationship between human energy usage and culture has evolved from the simple paradigm wherein increased gross energy expenditure equaled cultural advancement to complex, non-lineal theories which account for interactions between myriad technological and social forces. The diversity of practical technologies world-wide suggests an enormous variety of solutions on hand and in the making for meeting human energy needs in both developed and developing countries.

Laura Nader

See also: Energy Economics; Ethical and Moral Aspects of Energy Use; Geography and Energy Use.


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