The Energetic Foundations of Human History

The broad processes of human history can be understood using an ecological framework that recognises primary energy sources as the strongest factors determining the general structure of human economy, politics and culture. The transition from a hunter-gatherer way of life to that of settled agriculture made possible the expansion of human numbers, denser settlement patterns and surplus resources. Those surplus resources were the foundations for what we call civilisation including the development of more advanced technologies, cities, social class structures, standing armies and written language. Archaeology records a series of civilisations that rose and fell as they depleted their bioregional resource base. Archaeology records a series of civilisations that rose and fell as they depleted their bioregional resource base. Lower density simple agrarian and hunter-gatherer cultures took over the territory of collapsed civilisations and allowed the resources of forests, soils and water to regenerate. That in turn, gave rise to new cycles of growth in cultural complexity.

In the European renaissance, the medieval systems that evolved from the remnants of the Roman empire were reinfused with knowledge and culture from the Islamic and Asian civilisations and grew into competing nation states. A combination of the demands of internal growth and warfare between nations almost exhausted the carrying capacity of Europe. As this ecological crisis deepened in the 14th and 15th centuries, European exploration in search of new resources carried the “diseases of crowding” around the world. In the Americas up to 90 percent of many populations died, leaving vast resources to plunder. Starting with the repatriation of precious metals and seeds of valuable crop plants such as corn and potatoes, European nations soon moved on to building empires powered by slavery that allowed them to exploit and colonise the new lands well stocked with timber, animals and fertile soils, all rejuvenating in the wake of the collapse of indigenous populations.

As industrialisation spread oil quickly surpassed coal as the most valuable energy source, and accelerated the jump in human population. European population, culture (especially capitalism) and technology grew strong enough to then tap vast stocks of novel energy that were useless to previous simpler societies. European coal fuelled the Industrial Revolution while food and other basic commodities from colonies helped solve the limits to food production in Europe. As industrialisation spread in North America and later in Russia, oil quickly surpassed coal as the most valuable energy source, and accelerated the jump in human population from 1 billion in 1800 to 2 billion in 1930 and now over 6 billion in one lifetime. This massive growth in human carrying capacity has been made possible by the consumption of vast stocks of non-renewable resources (in addition to expanding demand on the renewable biological resources of the planet). Rapid rates of urbanisation and migration, technology change, increasing affluence and disparity of wealth as well as unprecedented conflicts between global and regional powers have accompanied this transition. The history of the 20thcentury makes more sense when interpreted primarily as the struggle for control of oil rather than the clash of ideologies. The history of the 20thcentury makes more sense when interpreted primarily as the struggle for control of oil rather than the clash of ideologies.1 In emphasising the primacy of energy resources I am not saying that the great struggles between ideologies have not been important in shaping history, especially Capitalism and Socialism. But most teaching and understanding of history under-estimates the importance of energetic, ecological and economic factors.

The fact that conflict has increased as available resources have expanded is hard to explain using conventional thinking. One way to understand this is using older moral concepts about more power leading to greater moral degradation. Another equally useful way to understand this is using ecological thinking. When resources are minimal and very diffuse, energy spent by one human group, tribe or nation to capture those resources can be greater than what is gained. As resources become more concentrated (by grain agriculture and more dramatically by tapping fossil fuels), the resources captured through diplomacy, trade and even war are often much greater than the effort expended.

The final phase in the fossil fuel saga is playing out now as the transition from oil to natural gas and lower quality oil resources accelerates. The final phase in the fossil fuel saga is playing out now as the transition from oil to natural gas and lower quality oil resources accelerates, with massive new infrastructure developments around the world as well as increasing tension and active conflicts over resources. We can only hope that nations and humanity as a whole learns quickly that using resources to capture resources will yield less return and incur escalating costs and risks in a world of depleting and diffuse energy.

Next page: 1.2 The Next Energy Transition

Last Updated ( Thursday, 12 June 2008 )