The Power of Energy in History

As part of preparation for teaching this upcoming semester, I’ve been reading up on environmental histories of Asia and European Russia. Luckily, several good summary histories have come out recently, one of which I will be reviewing shortly. But one of the themes that undergirds environmental history all over the world is that of energy usage and dependence. Every culture that has shifted from foraging to agriculture has found a way to tap solar energy through animals. Industrial peoples added wind and water power, then new forms of chemical energy, and in a few cases nuclear power. Without tapping new energy sources, cultures remained at the same plateau. It’s something the pundits and some activists tend to forget, or to discourage, in  policy and resource discussions today.

Everything short of nuclear power begins with the sun. Animals process solar energy through plants. Solar energy causes the winds and weather that make wind and water power possible. Humans depend on solar energy, as converted by plants and animals, to do everything. Solar energy is the foundation of our existence. But we do need to have it run through other things first.

(BIG DISCLAIMER: I’m not going to talk about domestication of plants or those peoples who remained hunter-gatherers and nomadic pastoralists. This is a very fast summary and a think-piece.)

Plants and animals provided the first extra-muscular power source for humans. We burned wood for heat and light. That heat led to the creation of pottery (better food storage and preparation, creative expression), then glass, and metallurgy. When converted to charcoal, wood provided the basic industrial fuel for most humans well into the 1700s. Wood can be a renewable resource, although many cultures eventually suffered from shortages caused by what modern observers would call poor management. The people at the time had a different view, and even when shortages were noted, the needs of “now” often overwhelmed plans for conservation. Animal traction (pulling things) and burden shifting (carrying items), as well as the possibilities for better diets caused by increased protein consumption (milk, eggs, meat), and fertilizer production made a major difference in allowing people to remain sedentary and to develop more complex cultures and societies. Animal domestication also made a difference in human health and immunology, but that’s a topic for another time.

Humans made it pretty far on wood and animal power. But the next step was wind and water. Water is a far more efficient way to move bulk goods than is overland travel. Also important is that rivers are there but roads have to be built. You can float logs downstream; hauling timber requires a lot of animal power (and roads, and fodder.) We do not know who first tried to use running water to turn something, but by the Roman period, horizontal mills had appeared. The Romans in Italy did not take water power much farther because they did not need to. Out on the fringes of the Empire, however, by 350 CE or so, the first vertical mills had appeared. They remained rare, until overshot-wheels and gearing systems for transferring the vertical motion into horizontal motion appeared. Then mills sprang up on every suitable body of water around, providing energy for grinding grain, pounding hides and flax into fabric and leather, sawing wood, pumping water, crushing seeds for oil, and other things. Wind mills followed, although they had more limited locations and operated less regularly. Each step reduced the labor needed for heavy tasks, and improved the standard of living for the people who used the goods made with water and wind power by increasing productivity and lowering long-term costs.

As an interesting aside, I got to see just how difficult it is to make a good waterwheel. When I was at an open-air museum near Graz, I heard a strange surging sound. A little investigation turned up a water-mill with a wheel that had come off center. The water ran over the top, but the wheel could not turn until enough weight-of-water built up as the buckets (the slots in the wheel) filled. Then the wheel spun quickly, but for a short period, as the weight unbalanced the wheel and it dumped the water. Then it froze again. That’s not going to grind anything well, or make for safe sawing.

The next breakthrough was chemical energy, as found in coal and oil. The first energy crisis of the New American Republic was caused by peak whale. Whale oil had been the major light source, and once whales vanished, well, people had to use earth oil instead. And someone found a major pool of it in Pennsylvania, and someone else hit on ways to refine and distill it. Something similar happened in Galicia (modern Poland and Ukraine), leading to a European oil boom. The coal fields of England and Wales sped up the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Some economists wondered why France, for example, lagged behind England in industrializing. For one thing, France had excess wood and converting from wood and charcoal to coal was not necessary. As it turns out, England also had enough wood, and many iron producers practiced what we’d call sustainable forestry. But coal burned hotter, steadier, and you could use a little less of it because it had concentrated so much energy per kilo of mass. And people were using steam engines to drive pumps in the coal mines, and people then located the factories near those mines, and . . .

But animals remained very, very important. One of the reasons the Habsburg Empire and German began suffering food shortages within months of the outbreak of WWI was the sudden loss of fertilizer and animal traction. Horses and oxen were drafted along with men. Not only were there fewer animals to pull plows and wagons (and harvesters), but all that manure disappeared as well. Without artificial fertilizers, productivity per acre declined. Inclement weather and enemy armies didn’t help, but the lack of animal power and animal by-products crippled swaths of Eastern and Central Europe even before the blockades began to take major hold.

Residents of modern, industrialized nations often decry the bad effects of energy production and consumption. We must conserve trees and water, use less energy, cut down on artificial fertilizer consumption (and production), eliminate certain chemical products and return to solar energy. And so should the rest of the world. Especially those peoples who have not yet reached the industrial level. But it is precisely that use of coal, oil, and nuclear that allows us to preserve the wood, to use fewer acres per capita to raise food, to spend surplus income on saving the whales. Without cheap energy, people have little choice but to cut their shade trees for firewood. The history of China, for example, is one of constant expansion in search of fuel. By the 19th Century, the Han peoples had run into a major resource wall, and the 20th Century can be seen in part as a search for ways around that resource limit. That the methods chosen led to new forms of environmental degradation was seen by the Communist Party as less important than keeping the population fed and housed, and the economy expanding.

We in the West tend to take cheap energy for granted, or see it as bad. 99.999% of the rest of the people who live or ever have lived would disagree.