Ceramics & Energy: the Beginning

Ceramics is the first of our fire crafts, discovered from our earliest additional source of energy around the hearths of Homo sapiens sapiens, the only species that needs sources of energy additional to the food we eat. Like so many other animals we use the energy stored in the plants or animals that we eat; but unlike the others we have to find and use other sources of energy, beginning with the mastery of fire. Why? Because we have opted for learning rather than instinct as the way to transform our helpless offspring into young people capable of reproducing our species. Learning is possible only in the context of a culture. The energy from the food we eat is enough to sustain our own lives, but to create a culture that our youth can learn, we need an additional source of energy.

Initially this extra energy source was our mastery of fire. Overcoming our fear of flames, learning to control them, keeping them burning but constrained within a hearth were among the first engineering lessons for hominids. According to Brian Fagan’s 2004 text, The Seventy Great Inventions of the Ancient World (Thames & Hudson), Homo erectus is known to have cooked food over a blaze, and may therefore have tended what could be our earliest evidence of a campfire that burned for several days 1.6 million years ago. The oldest hearths associated with our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens, have been found in Kebara Cave in what is now Israel, dating from 60,000 years ago.

The mastery of fire extended our habitat and the range of foods we could eat, but it also provided a hearth around which we could assemble to transmit our cultures to the people gathered there, undoubtedly for warmth but also for community. So our first extra source of energy made possible our uniquely human cultures of community, the ways we live together. Singing, dancing, telling stories embellished with masks and costumes around the hearth, we began the education of our children, ensuring that they would learn and be able to continue our notions of what it means to be human, as they grew to an age where they could have children of their own.

Some of the people gathered around those hearths may have brought along baskets they were weaving or had woven from reeds, rushes, twigs, grass, palm fronds, bamboo or other plants in the area. Some of those baskets may have been lined with mud or clay so that they could hold liquids. If some of those lined baskets were left too close to the fire, the hardening of the clay into the shape of a bowl, marked with the criss-cross of the burnt out basketry, would have been discovered. So ceramics became the first of our fire crafts, one of our earliest products of cultural change to arise from an extra energy source.

For the first time humankind had created a new material and new shapes and forms not found in nature. Our earliest pottery dates from around 15,000 to 12,000 years ago, found on sites in the Amur River valley in eastern Russia, in the Yangzi River valley of China, and on the islands of Japan, where ten millennia of pottery production has given the name Jomon (which means ‘cord-marked’) to the entire culture. Remarkably, from the beginning Jomon ceramics were not only utilitarian but were also decorative: large and powerful pieces of Jomon clay sculpture accompany or even pre-date the earliest storage vessels there. Ceramic sculpture is among the first works of art made possible by our earliest extra energy source, the mastery of fire.

 

 

 

Barry Lord’s response to Margaret Atwood

IN RESPONSE TO

It’s Not Climate Change — It’s Everything Change

The Culture of A World Without Oil

By Barry Lord

 

Margaret Atwood’s brilliant contribution to this discussion analyzes the salient features of the climate change that we can now recognize as the inevitable outcome of the culture of consumption that oil and gas made possible. An Encyclical from Pope Francis was the most recent mainstream identification of this linkage, specifically focused on its cultural implications. As Atwood observes, my 2014 book Art& Energy: How Culture Changes (The AAM Press) demonstrates how all of our external energy sources have been accompanied by cultural transitions, from the mastery of fire and the culture of community around the hearth that it made possible to the culture of stewardship of the earth and the body that we are adopting as we switch to renewable energy.

Now we have daily news of the struggle between that incoming culture and the still dominant oil-based culture of consumption on which we are so dependent. By the culture of consumption I mean a culture that values buying things, experiences and brands in and for itself; we were shopping long before oil and gas, but their plenitude stimulated an entire way of life, especially associated with the automobile, that initially became visible after the First World War in the ‘Roaring Twenties’ (cf. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby), but really took over after World War II as oil replaced coal as the dominant global energy source beginning in the early 1960s. Supplanting the coal-based culture that depended on a disciplined work force, oil and gas made possible a widespread culture that has certainly benefited many, but which rested on ultimately unsustainable assumptions. Whereas people in the coal culture were defined in relation to the production process (as workers or capitalists, for instance), in a world powered by oil and gas we were all encouraged to see ourselves simply as consumers.

The challenge today is to define and describe the emerging culture of stewardship of the earth and the body that is so closely associated with renewable energy. A world without oil will have to be a world with fully developed renewable energy sources and the culture of stewardship that goes with them. Solar panels, wind turbines and geothermal wells provide energy by means of technology only. No fuel is needed. Once the apparatus is installed, there is nothing more to buy. The culture of consumption will no longer be rooted in our energy supply.

Even more important, by fully utilizing a global two-way power grid every building can become a producer as well as a consumer of energy. This depends on a means of storage so that we or others can access power when we need it, not just when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. Storage of energy and of data (which can be seen as a kind of congealed energy) becomes a significant value in itself, resulting in stern penalties for hackers and a global grass-roots struggle to retain access to data banks in people’s hands and minds, rather than in the exclusive domain of governments.

Access for use and capacity to store and share the goods of this world is what matters for stewardship. Acquisition, consumption and ownership are secondary. Mutual stocks collectively owned by all concerned may accordingly become the preferred model, rather than the private investment fortunes of today. A circular economy can be conceived, whereby the real cost of all products is redeemed through multiple uses of everything: there would be no such thing as a ‘waste product’. Already we see a fledgling ‘sharing economy’ — Airbnb, Uber and much more — growing stronger daily.

In a world without oil, shopping will no longer focus our culture as it does today. Fashion will be transformed into trading, swapping and adapting our clothes to function effectively in every season. Currently millions of garments are discarded annually in every industrial country, and sending them to third world countries destroys the indigenous clothing industries there. Binge shopping and the annual Xmas celebration of consumerism will increasingly be questioned or rejected by a growing number of people committed to a culture that abhors waste.

Stewardship will characterize our attitudes to our bodies as well as the planet. Commodification of body parts for commerce may no longer colour our passions with such force. Already the fitness industry, which has grown to ubiquity in the same decades as renewable energy has been gathering force, fosters a concern to sustain our bodies holistically. In place of the fetishistic exploitation of ‘private’ body parts to sell sex, soap or sailboats, I have predicted that the culture of stewardship of the body will encourage tolerance for public nudity, especially as widespread obesity is increasingly recognized as another deplorable outcome of the oil-based culture of consumption.

Performance art in which the artist’s body is his or her medium and earth art in which natural properties are celebrated already characterize our visual aesthetics. Musicians, poets and novelists will be situating their lyrics and plots in new contexts. Anxiety will persist, especially since nuclear energy will almost certainly be part of our renewable package; but we will be anxious about a wider range of concerns as we try to find out what it really means to be stewards of each other.

These predictions are generally consistent with the post-fossil fuel world that Ian Morris projects in the other book that Margaret cites, his Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve (Princeton University Press, 2015). Stewardship and sustainability will be supported by the greater equality (including gender equity) and the resistance to violence that Morris foresees. It is always exciting (and reassuring) when two scholars working from different assumptions and in diverse disciplines reach broadly parallel conclusions.

The picture that emerges from this cultural analysis is less dramatic than any of Margaret’s dire alternatives. This is because it is a picture consistent with our anthropology and history. From our beginnings, homo sapiens has been the only species that evolved by employing external sources of energy additional to the food we eat; we do so because we require those external energy sources to create our cultures, which are essential to us because they provide the context for our otherwise helpless young to grow into adult human beings with the capacity to reproduce our species. Our big-brain commitment to learning rather than instinct for our survival as a species meant from the beginning that we are always going to be totally dependent on the energy sources that make possible the cultures within which we can teach and learn.

Thus our current dependence on oil is not an aberration, it is the norm. Every energy source has brought certain cultural values with it — think of slavery and coal as two of the most obvious examples. Art & Energy traces the entire history of these transitions. In a world without oil, renewable energy will take the place of oil and gas, and we will eventually become as dependent on the culture of stewardship of the earth and the body as we are today on consumption. Undoubtedly there will be downsides to the new culture that we cannot yet anticipate. We are going to be learning how to see ourselves and others as mutually interested collaborative stewards rather than essentially competitive consumers. The stakes are high: as the planet’s only species committed to learning, in order to save our habitat we now have to learn sustainability.

Barry Lord is the author of Art & Energy: How Culture Changes (The AAM Press, 2014) and Co-President of Lord Cultural Resources. His blog is at artandenergybarrylord.wordpress.com

Margaret Atwood and Barry Lord on a World without Oil

This posting is of the text of a Medium discussion between Margaret Atwood and Barry Lord on the subject of a world without oil. First the original Atwood text, then Barry Lord’s response to it.

It’s Not Climate Change — It’s Everything Change

By Margaret Atwood

 

Oil! Our secret god, our secret sharer, our magic wand, fulfiller of our every desire, our co-conspirator, the sine qua non in all we do! Can’t live with it, can’t — right at this moment — live without it. But it’s on everyone’s mind.

Back in 2009, as fracking and the mining of the oil/tar sands in Alberta ramped up — when people were talking about Peak Oil and the dangers of the supply giving out — I wrote a piece for the German newspaper Die Zeit. In English it was called “The Future Without Oil.” It went like this:

The future without oil! For optimists, a pleasant picture: let’s call it Picture One. Shall we imagine it?

There we are, driving around in our cars fueled by hydrogen, or methane, or solar, or something else we have yet to dream up. Goods from afar come to us by solar-and-sail-driven ship — the sails computerized to catch every whiff of air — or else by new versions of the airship, which can lift and carry a huge amount of freight with minimal pollution and no ear-slitting noise. Trains have made a comeback. So have bicycles, when it isn’t snowing; but maybe there won’t be any more winter.

We’ve gone back to small-scale hydropower, using fish-friendly dams. We’re eating locally, and even growing organic vegetables on our erstwhile front lawns, watering them with greywater and rainwater, and with the water saved from using low-flush toilets, showers instead of baths, water-saving washing machines, and other appliances already on the market. We’re using low-draw lightbulbs — incandescents have been banned — and energy-efficient heating systems, including pellet stoves, radiant panels, and long underwear. Heat yourself, not the room is no longer a slogan for nutty eccentrics: it’s the way we all live now.

Due to improved insulation and indoor-climate-enhancing practices, including heatproof blinds and awnings, air-conditioning systems are obsolete, so they no longer suck up huge amounts of power every summer. As for power, in addition to hydro, solar, geothermal, wave, and wind generation, and emissions-free coal plants, we’re using almost foolproof nuclear power. Even when there are accidents it isn’t all bad news, because instant wildlife refuges are created as Nature invades those high-radiation zones where Man now fears to tread. There’s said to be some remarkable wildlife and botany in the area surrounding Chernobyl.

What will we wear? A lot of hemp clothing, I expect: hemp is a hardy fiber source with few pesticide requirements, and cotton will have proven too costly and destructive to grow. We might also be wearing a lot of recycled tinfoil — keeps the heat in — and garments made from the recycled plastic we’ve harvested from the island of it twice the size of Texas currently floating around in the Pacific Ocean. What will we eat, besides our front-lawn vegetables? That may be a problem — we’re coming to the end of cheap fish, and there are other shortages looming. Abundant animal protein in large hunks may have had its day. However, we’re an inventive species, and when push comes to shove we don’t have a lot of fastidiousness: being omnivores, we’ll eat anything as long as there’s ketchup. Looking on the bright side: obesity due to over-eating will no longer be a crisis, and diet plans will not only be free, but mandatory.

That’s Picture One. I like it. It’s comforting. Under certain conditions, it might even come true. Sort of. More or less.

Then there’s Picture Two. Suppose the future without oil arrives very quickly. Suppose a bad fairy waves his wand, and poof! Suddenly there’s no oil, anywhere, at all.

Everything would immediately come to a halt. No cars, no planes; a few trains still running on hydroelectric, and some bicycles, but that wouldn’t take very many people very far. Food would cease to flow into the cities, water would cease to flow out of the taps. Within hours, panic would set in.

The first result would be the disappearance of the word “we”: except in areas with exceptional organization and leadership, the word “I” would replace it, as the war of all against all sets in. There would be a run on the supermarkets, followed immediately by food riots and looting. There would also be a run on the banks — people would want their money out for black market purchasing, although all currencies would quickly lose value, replaced by bartering. In any case the banks would close: their electronic systems would shut down, and they’d run out of cash.

Having looted and hoarded some food and filled their bathtubs with water, people would hunker down in their houses, creeping out into the backyards if they dared because their toilets would no longer flush. The lights would go out. Communication systems would break down. What next? Open a can of dog food, eat it, then eat the dog, then wait for the authorities to restore order. But the authorities — lacking transport — would be unable to do this.

Other authorities would take over. These would at first be known as thugs and street gangs, then as warlords. They’d attack the barricaded houses, raping, pillaging and murdering. But soon even they would run out of stolen food. It wouldn’t take long — given starvation, festering garbage, multiplying rats, and putrefying corpses — for pandemic disease to break out. It will quickly become apparent that the present world population of six and a half billion people is not only dependent on oil, but was created by it: humanity has expanded to fill the space made possible to it by oil, and without that oil it would shrink with astounding rapidity. As for the costs to “the economy,” there won’t be any “economy.” Money will vanish: the only items of exchange will be food, water, and most likely — before everyone topples over — sex.

Picture Two is extreme, and also unlikely, but it exposes the truth: we’re hooked on oil, and without it we can’t do much of anything. And since it’s bound to run out eventually, and since cheap oil is already a thing of the past, we ought to be investing a lot of time, effort, and money in ways to replace it.

Unfortunately, like every other species on the planet, we’re conservative: we don’t change our ways unless necessity forces us. The early lungfish didn’t develop lungs because it wanted to be a land animal, but because it wanted to remain a fish even as the dry season drew down the water around it. We’re also self-interested: unless there are laws mandating conservation of energy, most won’t do it, because why make sacrifices if others don’t? The absence of fair and enforceable energy-use rules penalizes the conscientious while enriching the amoral. In business, the laws of competition mean that most corporations will extract maximum riches from available resources with not much thought to the consequences. Why expect any human being or institution to behave otherwise unless they can see clear benefits?

In addition to Pictures One and Two, there’s Picture Three. In Picture Three, some countries plan for the future of diminished oil, some don’t. Those planning now include — not strangely — those that don’t have any, or don’t need any. Iceland generates over half its power from abundant geothermal sources: it will not suffer much from an oil dearth. Germany is rapidly converting, as are a number of other oil-poor European countries. They are preparing to weather the coming storm.

Then there are the oil-rich countries. Of these, those who were poor in the past, who got rich quick, and who have no resources other than oil are investing the oil wealth they know to be temporary in technologies they hope will work for them when the oil runs out. But in countries that have oil, but that have other resources too, such foresight is lacking. It does exist in one form: as a Pentagon report of 2003 called “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and its Implications for United States National Security” put it, “Nations with the resources to do so may build virtual fortresses around their countries, preserving resources for themselves.” That’s already happening: the walls grow higher and stronger every day.

But the long-term government planning needed to deal with diminishing oil within rich, mixed-resource countries is mostly lacking. Biofuel is largely delusional: the amount of oil required to make it is larger than the payout. Some oil companies are exploring the development of other energy sources, but by and large they’re simply lobbying against anything and anyone that might cause a decrease in consumption and thus impact on their profits. It’s gold-rush time, and oil is the gold, and short-term gain outweighs long-term pain, and madness is afoot, and anyone who wants to stop the rush is deemed an enemy.

My own country, Canada, is an oil-rich country. A lot of the oil is in the Athabasca oil sands, where licenses to mine oil are sold to anyone with the cash, and where CO2 is being poured into the atmosphere, not only from the oil used as an end product, but also in the course of its manufacture. Also used in its manufacture is an enormous amount of water. The water mostly comes from the Athabasca River, which is fed by a glacier. But due to global warming, glaciers are melting fast. When they’re gone, no more water, and thus no more oil from oil sands. Maybe we’ll be saved — partially — by our own ineptness. But we’ll leave much destruction in our wake.

The Athabasca oil-sand project has now replaced the pyramids as the must-see manmade colossal sight, although it’s not exactly a monument to hopes of immortality. There has even been a tour to it: the venerable Canadian company Butterfield & Robinson ran one in 2008 as part of its series “Places on the Verge.”

Destinations at risk: first stop, the oil sands. Next stop, the planet. If we don’t start aiming for Picture One, we’ll end up with some version of Picture Two. So hoard some dog food, because you may be needing it.

It’s interesting to look back on what I wrote about oil in 2009, and to reflect on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years. Much of what most people took for granted back then is no longer universally accepted, including the idea that we could just go on and on the way we were living then, with no consequences. There was already some alarm back then, but those voicing it were seen as extreme. Now their concerns have moved to the center of the conversation. Here are some of the main worries.

Planet Earth — the Goldilocks planet we’ve taken for granted, neither too hot or too cold, neither too wet or too dry, with fertile soils that accumulated for millennia before we started to farm them –- that planet is altering. The shift towards the warmer end of the thermometer that was once predicted to happen much later, when the generations now alive had had lots of fun and made lots of money and gobbled up lots of resources and burned lots of fossil fuels and then died, are happening much sooner than anticipated back then. In fact, they’re happening now.

Here are three top warning signs. First, the transformation of the oceans. Not only are these being harmed by the warming of their waters, in itself a huge affector of climate. There is also the increased acidification due to CO2 absorption, the ever-increasing amount of oil-based plastic trash and toxic pollutants that human beings are pouring into the seas, and the overfishing and destruction of marine ecosystems and spawning grounds by bottom-dragging trawlers. Most lethal to us — and affected by warming, acidification, toxins, and dying marine ecosystems — would be the destruction of the bluegreen marine algae that created our present oxygen-rich atmosphere 2.45 billion years ago, and that continue to make the majority of the oxygen we breathe. If the algae die, that would put an end to us, as we would gasp to death like fish out of water.

A second top warning sign is the drought in California, said to be the worst for 1,200 years. This drought is now in its fourth year; it is mirrored by droughts in other western U.S. states, such as Utah and Idaho. The snowpack in the mountains that usually feeds the water supplies in these states was only 3% of the norm this winter. It’s going to be a long, hot, dry summer. The knockon effect of such widespread drought on such things as the price of fruit and vegetables has yet to be calculated, but it will be extensive. As drought conditions spread elsewhere, we may expect water wars as the world’s supply of fresh water is exhausted.

A third warning sign is the rise in ocean levels. There have already been some noteworthy flooding events, the most expensive in North America being Hurricane Katrina, and the inundation of lower Manhattan at the time of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Should the predicted sea-level rise of a foot to two feet take place, the state of Florida stands to lose most of its beaches, and the city of Miami will be wading. Many other lowlying cities around the world will be affected.

This result, however, is not accepted by some of the politicians who are supposed to be alert to dangers threatening the welfare of their constituents. The present governor of Florida, Rick Scott, is said to have issued a memo to all government of Florida employees forbidding them to use the terms “climate change” and “global warming,” because he doesn’t believe in them (though Scott has denied this to the press). I myself would like to disbelieve in gravitational forces, because then I could fly, and also in viruses, because then I would never get colds. Makes sense: you can’t see viruses or gravity, and seeing is believing, and when you’ve got your head stuck in the sand you can’t see a thing, right?

The Florida government employees also aren’t allowed to talk about sea-level rise: when things get very wet inside people’s houses, it’s to be called “nuisance flooding.” (If the city of Miami gets soaked, as it will should the level rise the two feet predicted in the foreseeable future, it will indeed be a nuisance, especially in the real-estate sector; so the governor isn’t all wrong.) What a practical idea for solving pesky problems: let’s not talk about it, and maybe it will go away.

The Canadian federal government, not to be outdone in the area of misleading messages, has just issued a new map that shows more Arctic sea ice than the previous map did. Good news! The sea ice is actually increasing! So global warming and climate change doesn’t exist? How reassuring for the population, and how convenient for those invested in carbon fuels!

But there’s some fine print. It seems that this new map shows an averageamount of sea ice, and the averaging goes back thirty years. As the Globe and Mail article on this new map puts it:

In reality, climate change has been gnawing away at the planet’s permanent polar ice cap and it is projected to continue doing so.

 

‘It’s a subtle way, on a map, to change the perspective on the way something is viewed,’ said Christopher Storie, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Winnipeg and president of the Canadian Cartographic Association.

 

Whereas the older version of the map showed only that part of the sea ice that permanently covered Arctic waters year round at that time, the new edition uses a 30-year median of September sea-ice extent from 1981 through 2010. September sea ice hit a record low in 2012 and is projected to decline further. The change means there is far more ice shown on the 2015 version of the map than on its predecessor.

 

‘Both are correct,’ Dr. Storie said. ‘They’ve provided the right notation for the representation, but not many people will read that or understand what it means.’

Cute trick, wouldn’t you say? Not as cute as Florida’s trick, but cute. And both tricks emphasize the need for scientific literacy. Increasingly, the public needs to know how to evaluate the worth of whatever facts they’re being told. Who’s saying it? What’s their source? Do they have a bias? Unfortunately, very few people have the expertise necessary to decode the numbers and statistics that are constantly being flung at us.

Both the Florida cute trick and the Canadian map one originate in worries about the Future, and the bad things that may happen in that future; also the desire to deny these things or sweep them under the carpet so business can go on as usual, leaving the young folks and future generations to deal with the mess and chaos that will result from a changed climate, and then pay the bill. Because there will be a bill: the cost will be high, not only in money but in human lives. The laws of chemistry and physics are unrelenting, and they don’t give second chances. In fact, that bill is already coming due.

There are many other effects, from species extinction to the spread of diseases to a decline in overall food production, but the main point is that these effects are not happening in some dim, distant future. They are happening now.

In response to our growing awareness of these effects, there have been some changes in public and political attitudes, though these changes have not been universal. Some acknowledge the situation, but shrug and go about their daily lives taking a “What can I do?” position. Some merely despair. But only those with their heads stuck so firmly into the sand that they’re talking through their nether ends are still denying that reality has changed.

Even if the deniers can be brought reluctantly to acknowledge the facts on the ground, they display two fallback positions: 1) The changes are natural. They have nothing to do with humankind’s burning of fossil fuels. Therefore we can keep on having our picnic, such as it is, perhaps making a few gestures in the direction of “adaptation” — a seawall here, the building of a desalination plant there — without worrying about our own responsibility. 2) The changes are divine. They are punishments being inflicted on humankind for its sins by supernatural agency. In extreme form, they are part of a divine plan to destroy the world, send most of its inhabitants to a hideous death, and make a new world for those who will be saved. People who believe this kind of thing usually number themselves among the lucky few. It would, however, be a mistake to vote for them, as in a crisis they would doubtless simply head for higher ground or their own specially equipped oxygen shelters, and then cheer while billions die, rather than lifting a finger to save their fellow citizens.

Back in 2009, discussion of the future of energy and thus of civilization as we know it tended to be theoretical. Now, however, action is being taken and statements are being made, some of them coming from the usual suspects — “left-wingers” and “artists” and “radicals,” and other such dubious folks — but others now coming from directions that would once have been unthinkable. Some are even coming — mirabile dictu! — from politicians. Here are some examples of all three kinds:

In September 2014, the international petition site Avaaz (over 41 million members) pulled together a Manhattan climate march of 400,000 people, said to be the largest climate march in history. On April 11, 2015, approximately 25,000 people congregated in Quebec City to serve notice on Canadian politicians that they want them to start taking climate change seriously. Five years ago, that number would probably have been 2,500. Just before that date, Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, announced that it was bringing in a cap-and-trade plan. The chances of that happening five years ago were nil.

In case anyone thinks that it’s only people on the so-called political left that are concerned, there are numerous straws in the wind that’s blowing from what might once have been considered the resistant right. Henry Paulson, Secretary of the Treasury under George W. Bush, has just said that there are two threats to our society that are even greater than the 2008 financial meltdown he himself helped the world navigate: environmental damage due to climate change, and the possible failure of China. (Chinese success probably means China can tackle its own carbon emissions and bring them under control; Chinese failure means it probably can’t.)

In Canada, an organization called the Ecofiscal Commission has been formed; it includes representatives from the erstwhile Reform Party (right), the Liberal Party (centrist), and the NDP (left), as well as members from the business community. Its belief is that environmental problems can be solved by business sense and common sense, working together; that a gain for the environment does not have to be a financial loss, but can be a gain. In America, the Tesla story would certainly bear this out: this electric plug-in is doing a booming business among the rich. Meanwhile, there are other changes afoot. Faith-based environmental movements such as A Rocha are gaining ground; others, such as Make Way For Monarchs, engage groups of many vocations and political stripes. The coalition of the well-intentioned and action-oriented from finance, faith, and science could prove to be a very powerful one indeed.

But will all of this, in the aggregate, be enough?

Two writers have recently contributed some theorizing about overall social and energy systems and the way they function that may be helpful to us in our slowly unfolding crisis. One is from art historian and energetic social thinker Barry Lord; it’s called Art and Energy (AAM Press). Briefly, Lord’s thesis is that the kind of art a society makes and values is joined at the hip with the kind of energy that society depends on to keep itself going. He traces the various forms of energy we have known as a species throughout our pre-history — our millennia spent in the Pleistocene — and in our recorded history — sexual energy, without which societies can’t continue; the energy of the body while hunting and foraging; wood for fire; slaves; wind and water; coal; oil; and “renewables” — and makes some cogent observations about their relationship to art and culture. In his Prologue, he says:

Everyone knows that all life requires energy. But we rarely consider how dependent art and culture are on the energy that is needed to produce, practice and sustain them. What we fail to see are the usually invisible sources of energy that make our art and culture(s) possible and bring with them fundamental values that we are all constrained to live with (whether we approve of them or not). Coal brought one set of values to all industrialized countries; oil brought a very different set… I may not approve of the culture of consumption that comes with oil… but I must use [it] if I want to do anything at all.

Those living within an energy system, says Lord, may disapprove of certain features, but they can’t question the system itself. Within the culture of slavery, which lasted at least 5,000 years, nobody wanted to be a slave, but nobody said slavery should be abolished, because what else could keep things going?

Coal, says Lord, produced a culture of production: think about those giant steel mills. Oil and gas, once they were up and running, fostered a culture of consumption. Lord cites “the widespread belief of the 1950s and early ’60s in the possibility of continuing indefinitely with unlimited abundance and economic growth, contrasted with the widespread agreement today that both that assumption and the world it predicts are unsustainable.” We’re in a transition phase, he says: the next culture will be a culture of “stewardship,” the energy driving it will be renewables, and the art it produces will be quite different from the art favored by production and consumption cultures.

What are the implications for the way we view both ourselves and the way we live? In brief: in the coal energy culture — a culture of workers and production — you are your job. “I am what I make.” In an oil and gas energy culture — a culture of consumption — you are your possessions. “I am what I buy.” But in a renewable energy culture, you are what you conserve. “I am what I save and protect.” We aren’t used to thinking like this, because we can’t see where the money will come from. But in a culture of renewables, money will not be the only measure of wealth. Well-being will factor as an economic positive, too.

The second book I’ll mention is by anthropologist, classical scholar, and social thinker Ian Morris, whose book, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, has just appeared from Princeton University Press. Like Barry Lord, Morris is interested in the link between energy-capture systems and the cultural values associated with them, though in his case it’s the moral values, not only the aesthetic ones — supposing these can be separated — that concern him. Roughly, his argument runs that each form of energy capture favors values that maximize the chance of survival for those using both that energy system and that package of moral values. Hunter-gatherers show more social egalitarianism, wealth-sharing, and more gender equality than do farmer societies, which subordinate women — men are favored, as they must do the upper-body-strength heavy lifting — tend to practice some form of slavery, and support social hierarchies, with peasants at the low end and kings, religious leaders, and army commanders at the high end. Fossil fuel societies start leveling out gender inequalities — you don’t need upper body strength to operate keyboards or push machine buttons — and also social distinctions, though they retain differences in wealth.

The second part of his argument is more pertinent to our subject, for he postulates that each form of energy capture must hit a “hard ceiling,” past which expansion is impossible; people must either die out or convert to a new system and a new set of values, often after a “great collapse” that has involved the same five factors: uncontrolled migration, state failure, food shortages, epidemic disease, and “always in the mix, though contributing in unpredictable ways–- climate change.” Thus, for hunting societies, their way of life is over once there are no longer enough large animals to sustain their numbers. For farmers, arable land is a limiting factor. The five factors of doom combine and augment one another, and people in those periods have a thoroughly miserable time of it, until new societies arise that utilize some not yet exhausted form of energy capture.

And for those who use fossil fuels as their main energy source — that would be us, now — is there also a hard ceiling? Morris says there is. We can’t keep pouring carbon into the air — nearly 40 billion tons of CO2 in 2013 alone — without the consequences being somewhere between “terrible and catastrophic.” Past collapses have been grim, he says, but the possibilities for the next big collapse are much grimmer.

We are all joined together globally in ways we have never been joined before, so if we fail, we all fail together: we have “just one chance to get it right.” This is not the way we will inevitably go, says he, though it is the way we will inevitably go unless we choose to invent and follow some less hazardous road.

But even if we sidestep the big collapse and keep on expanding at our present rate, we will become so numerous and ubiquitous and densely packed that we will transform both ourselves and our planet in ways we can’t begin to imagine. “The 21st century, he says, “shows signs of producing shifts in energy capture and social organization that dwarf anything seen since the evolution of modern humans.”

Science fiction? you may say. Or you may say “speculative fiction.” For a final straw in the wind, let’s turn to what the actual writers of these kinds of stories (and films, and television series, and video games, and graphic novels) have been busying themselves with lately.

A British author called Piers Torday has just come out with a Young Adult book called The Wild Beyond. In April, he wrote a piece in The Guardian that summarizes the field, and explains the very recent term, “cli-fi:”

“Cli‐fi” is a term coined by blogger Dan Bloom to describe fiction dealing with the current and projected effects of climate change. … Cli-fi as a new genre has taken off in a big way and is now being studied by universities all over the world. But don’t make the mistake of confusing it with sci-fi. If you think stories showing the effects of climate change are still only futuristic fantasies, think again. For example, I would argue that the only truly fantastical element in my books is that the animals talk. To one boy. Other cli‐fi elements of my story that are often described as fantastical or dystopian, include the death of nearly all the animals in the world. That’s just me painting an extreme picture, right, to make a good story? I wish.

The recent 2014 WWF Living Planet Report revealed that the entire animal population of the planet had in fact halved over the last 40 years. 52% of our wildlife, gone, just like that. Whether through the effects of climate change to the growth in human population to the depredation of natural habitats, the children reading my books now might well find themselves experiencing middle‐age in a world without the biodiversity we once took for granted. A world of humans and just a few pigeons, rats and cockroaches scratching around… So, how about the futuristic vision of a planet where previously inhabited areas become too hot and dry to sustain human life? That’s standard dystopian world-building fare, surely?

 

Yes, except that right now, as you read this, super developed and technological California — the eighth largest economy in the world, bigger than Russia — is suffering a record breaking drought. The lowest rainfall since 1885 and enforced water restrictions of up to 25%. They can track every mouse click ever made from Palo Alto apparently, but they can’t figure out how to keep the taps running. That’s just California — never mind Africa or Australia.

 

Every effect of climate change in the books — from the rising sea levels of The Dark Wild to the acidic and jelly‐fish filled oceans in The Wild Beyond, is happening right now, albeit on a lesser level.

Could cli-fi be a way of educating young people about the dangers that face them, and helping them to think through the problems and divine solutions? Or will it become just another part of the “entertainment business”? Time will tell. But if Barry Lord is right, the outbreak of such fictions is in part a response to the transition now taking place — from the consumer values of oil to the stewardship values of renewables. The material world should no longer be treated as a bottomless cornucopia of use-and-toss endlessly replaceable mounds of “stuff”: supplies are limited, and must be conserved and treasured.

Can we change our energy system? Can we change it fast enough to avoid being destroyed by it? Are we clever enough to come up with some viable plans? Do we have the political will to carry out such plans? Are we capable of thinking about longer-term issues, or, like the lobster in a pot full of water that’s being brought slowly to the boil, will we fail to realize the danger we’re in until it’s too late?

Not that the lobster can do anything about it, once in the pot. But we might. We’re supposed to be smarter than lobsters. We’ve committed some very stupid acts over the course of our history, but our stupidity isn’t inevitable. Here are three smart things we’ve managed to do:

First, despite all those fallout shelters built in suburban backyards during the Cold War, we haven’t yet blown ourselves up with nuclear bombs. Second, thanks to Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book on pesticides, Silent Spring, not all the birds were killed by DDT in the ’50s and ’60s. And, third, we managed to stop the lethal hole in the protective ozone layer that was being caused by the chlorofluorocarbons in refrigerants and spray cans, thus keeping ourselves from being radiated to death. As we head towards the third decade of the 21st century, it’s hopeful to bear in mind that we don’t always act in our own worst interests.

For everything to stay the same, everything has to change,” says a character in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s 1963 novel, The Leopard. What do we need to change to keep our world stable? How do we solve for X+Y+Z — X being our civilization’s need for energy, without which it will fall swiftly into anarchy; Y being the finite nature of the earth’s atmosphere, incapable of absorbing infinite amounts of CO2 without destroying us; and Z being our understandable wish to live full and happy lives on a healthy planet, followed by future human generations doing the same. One way of solving this equation is to devise more efficient ways of turning sunlight into electrical energy. Another way is to make oil itself — and the CO2 it emits — part of a cyclical process rather than a linear one. Oil, it seems, does not have to come out of the ground, and it doesn’t have to have pollution as its end product.

There are many smart people applying themselves to these problems, and many new technologies emerging. On my desk right now is a list of 15 of them. Some take carbon directly out of the air and turn it into other materials, such as cement. Others capture carbon by regenerating degraded tropical rainforests — a fast and cheap method — or sequestering carbon in the soil by means of biochar, which has the added benefit of increasing soil fertility. Some use algae, which can also be used to make biofuel. One makes a carbon-sequestering asphalt. Carbon has been recycled ever since plant life emerged on earth; these technologies and enterprises are enhancing that process.

Meanwhile, courage: homo sapiens sapiens sometimes deserves his double plus for intelligence. Let’s hope we are about to start living in one of those times.

Energy and Self-Perception

By Barry Lord

This article is appearing in German this month (January, 2016) on the Energies United website. That version includes the images referred to, all of which are reproductions illustrated in Art & Energy: How Culture Changes (The AAM Press, 2014)

 

Who do you think you are?

Who do you think others think you are?

Who do you think others are?

Such questions of perception and self-perception may be answered at every possible level, ranging from the intimate to the generic. Many of the answers are subjective and will change over time. But some responses may be more fundamental than others, meaning that they may have an informing significance for the complete range of possible answers. Those answers that arise from the energy source that makes them possible have to be among the most important of these fundamental formative perceptions and self-perceptions of who we think we are, individually and collectively. This is because each energy source is integral to the cultures that it makes possible, or in some cases necessary.

So a person may perceive herself as a single mother, a graduate student and a talented amateur musician. But each of these personae may nestle comfortably within an over-arching self-perception, which is provides a the cultural context within which these various persons interact.

Perceptions of who we are, including self-perceptions, are cultural constructs. They are coherent only in the context of the cultures they are part of. As I hope I showed in Art & Energy: How Culture Changes (The AAM Press, 2014), all of our cultures are dependent on the energy sources that make them possible. And each energy source brings with it certain cultural values that accompany that energy source – either as a value that is necessary to adopt in order to access and use that energy, or as a value that the energy source makes possible. Some of these profoundly affect our self-perception and our perception of others.

The most obvious example is the energy of slaves, the dominant energy source of the ancient world. In order to access and use that energy, entire societies had to perceive some people as having the right to buy, sell and control the lives of others, while slaves were perceived as having no rights over their own lives, nor even of their children’s lives. Ancient religion, philosophy and culture, implicitly in most cases, explicitly in some, accepted these values which most of us find so unacceptable today. First-year philosophy students often ask, “Why didn’t Socrates (or Confucius or Buddha) have anything to say about slavery?” The reason is that this culture of domination had to be accepted as long as the energy of slaves was the primary energy source on which the civilization relied. There are said to have been 10-20,000 slaves working in the mines of Athens at the time that Plato was writing – and the mines were needed for coinage, as David Graeber observed in his 2011 book Debt: the first 5,000 Years. None of the religious or philosophical leaders of any of the cultures that depended on slavery as a major source of energy questioned those values because without them entire civilizations could not be sustained.

Slavery began as a source of energy with the exploitation of captives seized by warring bands of hunter-gatherer groups. But like all energy sources it was initially secondary, so its culture of domination was at that time limited to those captives and their owners. The dominant energy sources of the hunter-gatherer period were the mastery of fire, the first natural energy source that we found we could control, and cooperation, our first social means of enhancing our energy efficiency. Control of fire extended our habitat and our range of foods, but it also made possible the culture of the hearth, where we were able to nurture our sense of community, as stories, songs and dances around the fire brought together groups that could eventually extend beyond kinship ties to constitute a band of individuals who shared in that communal culture. The mastery of fire made possible a culture of community around the hearth – a culture that was needed to provide the learning context in which children could develop into young adults capable of reproducing our species – a process for which we relied not on instinct but on learning, a unique attribute of homo sapiens.

This culture of community around the hearth was reinforced by the discovery of how cooperation could enhance the effectiveness of our use of energy. This social source of energy is usually related to hunting, given that as individuals men are poorly equipped to hunt (having neither the speed, strength, teeth nor claws needed), yet by cooperating we became the most effective hunters on the planet. However, it is important to observe that cooperation among women was even more important: replenishing itself with a new generation is a fundamental drive of all species, but homo sapiens had some particular challenges to doing so. The size of our infants’ skulls needed to contain our brains at birth is life-threatening to the mother (which is not true of any other species). Given Palaeolithic conditions maternal mortality would have been horrendously high. The only solution possible was cooperation among generations of women, initially within a family, then in a kinship group, in some cases eventually involving tribal or village specialists who might be known as shamans or simply as skilled midwives. Women had to work together, cooperating to save each others’ lives, and those of their babies.

Thus cooperation among women was essential to survival of our species, which was by no means assured. Men’s and women’s perception of who women are would have been strongly affected by this struggle to preserve not just their own lives but that of the next generation as well. That is the perception of women that is so unmistakable in the carved or molded figurines that are our first three-dimensional representations of Palaeolithic people. Sometimes called “Venuses”, they are indeed evocations of beauty, perhaps to be shared and shown around the communal hearth, but the beauty has to do with big haunches, breasts and bellies, physical proof that such women could sustain the life-threatening experience of childbirth. The figure molded from clay and bone dust found in Dolni Véstonice in what is now Moravia, which is our earliest known ceramic human effigy (31-27,000 BP), is typical – no facial features, but a very strong emphasis on the breasts, the buttocks and the hips. In all of these earliest representations of women they are perceived as the heroines of survival of our species that they were. Whether they were carved by men or women we cannot know, but that they were perceived in relation to the promise of their capability for child-bearing appears certain.

Domestication of plants and animals eventually transformed hunter-gatherers into farmers almost everywhere, especially as animal power brought its culture of domesticity to groups who had to become as sedentary as their livestock. Water power was another important energy source for the ancient world, both for watering crops and for making it possible for some people to live in cities. Class differentiation became important components of perceptions and self-perceptions, beginning with the perceptual gulf between farmers and city-dwellers who were reliant on the water sources for their ability to live in their urban setting.

By that time, however, the energy of slaves was assuming a dominance on which ancient cultures worldwide were dependent as late as the seventh century CE. Subsequently, as slavery became less energy-efficient in northern climes, during the Middle Ages advances in agriculture made greater productivity and larger populations possible in northern China as well as northern Europe, resulting in a culture of property in land that was rooted not just in farm fields but more specifically in access to forests, where firewood, the dominant energy source of the time, could be found but was usually controlled by a land-owning noble. Terrible punishments were reserved for peasants who were bold enough to chop down a tree or even lop off a branch in forests owned and controlled by the nobility or the crown.

Coal and the industrial revolution that came with it provided another well-documented example of our perceptions of ourselves and of each other being totally changed by the energy source that makes the cultures that depend on it possible. Prior to the coal-based industrial revolution the majority of the population was perceived in relation to the land and the mediaeval culture of property with its dependence on firewood: people might be serfs or peasants working the land in fealty to the land-owning nobility at the other end of the social scale. As Marx and Engels vividly observed, the culture of production that came to us with coal, coke and steam swept all of those relationships aside. In social class terms, people were now perceived as either capitalists, owners of the mines, mills and railways, or proletarians toiling in them. The culture of production depended not only on heightened class consciousness but on a strong work ethic and a disciplined work force: self-discipline is the most effective kind of discipline, and by the mid-19th century all of the industrialized countries had legislated universal public education for children – including the exemplary self-discipline of homework. Such a legal requirement had never previously been conceived as appropriate for children – yet by the mid-19th century it was ubiquitous, resulting in widespread social and cultural changes everywhere. Energy transition is an engine of cultural change.

In 1873 Edouard Manet painted a picture of his favourite model (and mistress), Victorine Meurent, looking up at us from a book she is reading. She is seated at the back of a garden, beside the young daughter of Manet’s friend, dressed in her Sunday best, looking through the wrought iron fence at the steam rising from the rail yard that has taken over the valley immediately below. It’s entitled The Railway, and that is indeed what it’s about – but it is first and foremost a figure painting of two individuals who appear to be unrelated to the industrial background scene. It is of course the contrast that interests Manet, especially between the little girl’s dress and the rail yard, with a play between the volume of steam and the spread of her satin skirt. Victorine is in still greater contrast, turning her back on the industrial scene below, although we know she must be hearing it as she sits reading, cuddling the little girl’s puppy in her lap. In the foreground all is soft and intimate; in the background the harsh and noisy culture of production has taken over.

Manet was clearly attracted by the contrast, both formal and substantial, between the background and foreground of his canvas – smoke and silk, production and leisure. Compositionally and thematically, with the little girl’s back to us, his focus is on his model’s upward glance. How shall we describe the look on her face? It is certainly one of questioning, perhaps challenging: could we describe it as a look of estrangement from the industrial scene and its noises behind her? Is it an early example of that sense of alienation from the productive process felt increasingly in the late 19th century by people like these two figures who are not directly part of the social class division between capitalist and worker created by the coal-fired culture of production?

Most evocatively expressed by Manet’s friend, the poet Charles Baudelaire, this sense of alienation from the prescribed social class consciousness of the industrial revolution has its roots in the latter half of the 19th century.  In 1879, a few years after The Railway was painted, Thomas Edison perfected the first commercially successful electric light bulb. This application of both hydro-electric and fossil fuel sources of energy began a massive inflection of the coal culture’s perception of who we are and can be: if we could change night into day, what couldn’t we change? Electrical appliances in factory, home and office changed the role of women decisively, while advances in communications and entertainment changed how and what we know about each other. Eventually air conditioning (changing the climate!) and in our own time digitization have extended this change into every aspect of our existence. Wherever it has reached – and still is reaching rural parts of India today – electrification brings with it a culture of transformation. The challenge to perception is to see yourself and others as potential agents of change.

Thus the 20th century became the first in which many millions of people believed that it was possible for them to change the world. Social and political “isms” proliferated. International modernism was the expression of this culture in the arts. Oskar Schlemmer’s painting of the famous Bauhaus stairway in Walter Gropius’ building at Dessau evokes this culture directly through the rising figures of the students whose images exemplify some of the radical new ways of teaching design that the Bauhaus invented – such as solid geometric analysis of structure, surfaces respecting the qualities of materials, eschewing all ornament, following function with form, and utilizing the primary hues, blue, yellow and red.

The challenge to become a change agent, not just in the arts but in all aspects of economic and social life, made this culture of transformation that originated with electrification a focus of anxiety and stress such as inter-generational conflict, world-wide.  In the visual arts it is first most eloquently expressed by Van Gogh and Edvard Munch, continuing through such widely different styles as expressionism and surrealism, eventually very powerfully stated by Francis Bacon in the 1950s, the decade when it came to be identified with another source of energy – nuclear.

Meanwhile, steadily growing in importance were the fossil fuels that came to dominate energy usage from the 1960s forward. The abundance that they brought with them made possible the culture of consumption that flashed furtively in the “Roaring ‘20s” but really took over in the last four decades of the century just ended. For the first time people perceived themselves and others as consumers. We are all too familiar with the results.

Ed Burtynsky’s 1999 photograph of a tire graveyard in California at once records the culture of consumption and questions it. Renewable energy, even tinier then than it is today, had appeared and had put on the agenda the culture of stewardship as an alternative. Today Pope Benedict issues encyclicals and COP21 in Paris assembles the world of nations to examine climate change and try to find a way to work toward this new culture that will eventually supplant consumption as and when renewable energy is allowed to replace fossil fuels. Burtynsky’s awesome image implies the question rather than pointing to a positive alternative; today it is our task to help each other to determine what it means to be a steward of the earth, of our own bodies, and eventually of each other. So we end with questions as we began:

What does it mean to perceive ourselves as stewards of the earth, rather than consumers?

How does our stewardship of our bodies enhance this perception and self-perception?  (Consider the fitness industry as just one instance of this dimension).

What can it mean to become stewards of each other?

The so-called energy debate is really a conflict of cultures. It is one of the fastest-growing dialogues in the world today. You are invited to participate. Contribute to this services and/or to my blog, which is at artandenergybarrylord@wordpress.com .

 

Property & Energy

Property & Energy

By Barry Lord

“Property is theft”, the French 19th century political philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proud’hon famously proclaimed. It is also the basis of much law. It has been with us at least since the beginning of the transition to agriculture. Acquiring, inheriting or selling it remains a major event in the lives of many of us, as has been the case for many generations of our precursors.

Yet property has repeatedly changed, both in its content and in its role for each of us. It is changing right now, as renewable energy’s culture of stewardship and its sharing economy confront the marketplace assumptions of the culture of consumption that oil and gas have made possible. To understand those changes, we need to begin with the energy sources that make the cultural importance of property possible, and necessary.

Private property was not a cultural value of foragers. Hunting and gathering groups would fight if necessary to protect their hunting or gathering grounds, or might strive to extend them. In this sense we may think of their rights to that territory as a collective sense of property allied to their culture of collective identity which was rooted in cooperation as a way to make their use of energy more efficient – most dramatically so in transforming their hunting capability by forming cooperative hunting bands.

Public or private, property becomes vastly more important as soon as fields are being cultivated, especially once they are seeded and await harvesting. Maintaining control of its fields through a harvest cycle has to be a concern for each agricultural society. Inheritance rights immediately become important for each kinship group and every village. If fields are irrigated, property rights to the entire irrigation system must be assured, usually by the governing authority that provides the necessary superstructure that makes possible the distribution of the farmers’ product to its market, however that is construed.

Property rights in agricultural societies extend as well to the animal power that is a major energy source for most – an energy source that requires the herders to become domestic themselves. The culture of domesticity reinforces the value of property. It’s not just about land, it’s about a home on the land, and pastures, fences, sheds and barns.

Ownership of draft animals is akin to ownership of the other energy source that became the dominant energy source of virtually all ancient societies – the energy of slaves. Although paid labour also had a role to play in some, slavery was the constantly renewable energy source that made possible the great cultural achievements of almost all the ancient world. Slaves could be acquired through conquest, purchase, breeding, and especially through debt slavery – the practice of enslaving debtors or their families who were unable to pay the debts that are an inherent economic feature of any society dependent on seeding fields and the uncertain harvests that may or may not follow.

In his magnum opus, Debt: the first 5,000 Years (Melville House, 2011), anthropologist David Graeber underscores my contention in Art & Energy: How Culture Change (The AAM Press, 2014) that the energy of slaves was the default energy mode of the ancient world. The Bronze and Iron Ages depended on mines, especially those that needed coinage to pay their soldiers. Mines everywhere were worked by slaves: Athens’ mines alone are said to have required between ten and twenty thousand slaves annually in the time of Plato, who himself had to be rescued from an auction block by a fellow philosopher during a visit to another city.

Slavery was not just another energy source; it was the go-to source of energy throughout the ancient world east and west – so easily renewable through conquest, breeding and the impoverishment of subject populations that it discouraged any interest in alternate forms of energy, even when they were discovered. Graeber demonstrates the centrality of slavery as an energy source for Rome by drawing on the scholarship of Roman law, which he shows was focused on controlling property in slaves, who were regarded in legal terms as things. Roman law, which became and remains so influential world-wide, was written mostly in the late Republican and early Imperial period.

Europe north of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea was where slaves for Egypt, Greece and Rome were to be found in more or less unlimited supply. Once transported south, Britons, Franks and Goths joined the millions throughout these Empires. Property in them had to be absolute, and was of course reserved by Roman law for Roman citizens. Since slaves were defined as things around which property law was formed, individual slaves might be tutors for slave-owners’ children, dancing girls, household drudges or consigned to the mines for hard labour and short life spans. Manumission was always possible, but depended entirely on the will of the slave owner. Domestic slaves often became part of the household, and could be entrusted with developing shops or other enterprises for their owners; some of them were subsequently freed.

Graeber observes that in the later Empire Goths became more important as mercenaries serving in the Roman Legions, and slavery gradually receded in importance. By the 7th century, just as Islam was rising, the energy of slaves lost its dominance not just in Europe but throughout the ancient world. India reverted to the caste system that stubbornly remains today, despite its being made illegal. In China and Europe north of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea peasants and serfs were increasingly bound by their debts to land-holders.

In Art & Energy I point out that large-scale agricultural slavery is not efficient in cold winters, when slaves have to be kept warm throughout these cold and non-productive months by burning increasingly scarce firewood, a problem that intensified as the crisis of deforestation became the world’s first energy crisis in the late Mediaeval and early Modern period. This energy efficiency issue explains why the European countries that made such high profits from the slave trade did not introduce large-scale slavery in their homelands; even when the British were establishing plantations in Northern Ireland, they did not populate them with slaves, as they did on their Caribbean and Virginian plantations.

Most historians would agree that land was the measure of wealth in mediaeval Europe. Most of the population defined themselves and others in relation to their land ownership or lack thereof – people were land-owning nobles or else they were peasants who worked the land in Western Europe, or serfs tied to land-owning nobles’ estates in Russia. Everyone else was defined relative to these major groups.

This feudal structure is usually related to mediaeval agriculture, which made great improvements in efficiency during the Middle Ages, facilitating rapid population growth even before but especially after the Black Plague. However, when we examine the mediaeval period from the viewpoint of the energy that made its culture possible, land ownership and control was much more focused on the forests where firewood, the dominant energy source, was to be found. Magna Charta was actually two charters, the second of which was the Forest Charter. Medieval history is all about peasants suffering terrible punishments for daring to cut down trees on the property of their own lords or others. Firewood was burned directly for heat or used as the raw material for charcoaling, the beginnings of industry.

Hence the culture of property is identified in Art & Energy as the dominant mediaeval cultural value that came to us with dependence on firewood. Of course firewood was important long before the Middle Ages. The difference is that in the ancient world it wasn’t the dominant energy source – slavery was.

In the absence of slavery, firewood became the dominant energy source, reinforcing the cultural value of property, focused on ownership or control of the forests where this energy source was to be found. Graeber shows that this was equally true of feudal China as of Europe. From the 7th century C.E. forward the energy of slaves was no longer dominant; whereas India supplanted it with the caste system, feudal Europe and China replaced it with the fealty relationships of peasants to overlords.

The culture of property, with all of its associations with inheritance for land-owners and fealty relationships for peasants, became as dominant as the oil and gas values of consumerism are today. In both eastern and western Europe the Church, Catholic and Orthodox, became obsessed with its own property ownership, as Martin Luther and others decried. The mediaeval jurists who revived Roman law in the mediaeval period did so by transferring the focus of property law from slaves to land ownership. For them property in land was assumed to be at the centre of Roman jurisprudence.

As Marx and Engels so tellingly observed, all this changed utterly as pit coal replaced the depleted stocks of firewood, making possible the Industrial Revolution and the culture of production. People were now perceived not in relation to the land but to the ownership of the means of production and/or their place in the mass production process. Capitalists who could establish the infrastructure needed for mines, mills, railways and factories replaced land-holding aristocrats, while a class-conscious disciplined work force of proletarians replaced the peasantry; of course these changes were not immediate and were never universal, but in fact it is surprising how pervasive and swift they were. Property law became focused on the ownership of the means of production, particularly the shared ownership among capitalists that created the stock market; as I show in Art & Energy, the joint stock company and the stock exchange arose because of the need to spread the risk of the long voyages of the age of sail, powered by wind as the energy source, and provided a legal structure in which mutual investments by enterprising individuals in coal, coke and steam could profitably be made. This was the infrastructure of capitalism that was needed to organize the investment in mines, mills, factories and railroad track that were the sinews of the age of coal.

From the last two decades of the 19th century forward electrification encouraged us to believe in the culture of transformation – the belief that it was possible to change the world as electricity had done and is still doing — including challenges to the value of property itself. But the major change to our understanding of property was fostered by the culture of consumption that became ubiquitous thanks to oil and gas as our energy sources, especially after they replaced coal as the dominant energy source in most industrialized countries in the 1960s and early ‘70s. Gas stations initiated brand loyalty cards, which were quickly copied by other retailers and then taken over by the banks as credit cards, enabling us all to become and to see each other as consumers. The acquisition of things and experiences became values in and for themselves. Property extended into many aspects of our lives – consider concepts such as “intellectual property,” or the “pre-nuptial agreement,” addressing property and inheritance rights even before the marriage vows are signed.

In our own time renewable energy is bringing with it a culture of stewardship of the land and of our own bodies. We see the potential of regarding ourselves and others as stewards, rather than consumers or owners of property. The “sharing economy” suggests that access for sustainable use may be seen as more important than ownership in future. Air’b’n’b has shown that many people are willing to share their homes with strangers. Uber is a somewhat more dubious example, as it discards all traditional employment relationships between the company and its drivers, whose cars are earning remarkable profits for Uber’s owners from their drivers’ willingness to share; Uber’s conflict with the taxi industry is just one of many confrontations that we can expect as the renewable energy culture of stewardship contradicts the assumptions of the oil-and-gas-based culture of consumption. With Pope Francis himself condemning consumerism, the field is open for a wide range of new stewardship economic relationships, including new inflections of the cultural value of property.

Still another dimension of the culture of stewardship is the importance of storage as a value in and for itself. Energy storage and data storage are primary cultural values in our age. Hackers may violate either, and authorities prescribe harsh penalties for them, just as peasants were so viciously punished for chopping down trees in their overlord’s forests. A vibrant “Anonymous” organization is dedicated to trying to keep access to data bases in the public domain, as opposed to denying access for us in the name of ‘security’. The culture of anxiety that is so closely associated with nuclear energy adds urgency to the revelations of data bases that result. The legal issue may be seen as the question of who can hold property in a data base compiled by inputs from a public who are then denied access to it.

Renewable energy is in the early stages of energy transition. What its culture of stewardship can mean as the 21st century continues is an important subject for future postings on this blog and many others. Readers are invited to contribute their own perceptions as renewable energy and its culture of stewardship gradually take more substantial form.

Energy & Culture: Two Theories Converge

Energy & Culture: Two Theories Converge

By Barry Lord

It’s exciting – as well as reassuring to both — whenever two scholars working in different disciplines discover that they have reached parallel conclusions about a new field of inquiry. Anthropologist Ian Morris and I have to thank Margaret Atwood for pointing to the congruence between the conclusions reached in Professor Morris’s Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve (Princeton University Press, 2015) and those in my book,  Art & Energy: How Culture Changes (The AAM Press, 2014).

This congruence is clearly signalled by our subtitles: “How Human Values Evolve” and “How Culture Changes”. Morris’s focus is on ethics, while mine is on aesthetics, but both of us are concerned with cultural change, with both books aimed at showing how changes in cultural values originate, take hold and are in time supplanted by others. Linking the two theses together as Atwood did suggests the possibility of a more general theory of value – what used to be called “axiology” – or (a bit more modestly) at least a general theory of cultural change.

“I am convinced … that the sources of energy available to a society set the limits on what kind of values can flourish,” writes Morris, “… energy capture is the motor driving the big pattern.” (p. 10). In Art & Energy I use a similar mechanical metaphor: “Energy transition is the engine of cultural change.” Our common subject is how cultural values arise from the energy that makes them possible.

The following Tables and comment on them provide a systematic comparison of the two books, showing in simplified form how compatible Morris’s necessarily broad-brush cultural values are with the still generalized but somewhat finer-grained cultures of each energy source in my book. Morris has focused on certain key variables – cultural values reflecting peoples’ attitudes to hierarchy and violence – whereas the cultures associated with each energy source in my book range more widely. Nevertheless, it is striking how compatible the cultures that I describe as arising from the multiple energy sources of each of Morris’s periods of energy capture are with his descriptions of the fundamental values focused on his key variables.
Foraging

Morris: Mode of Energy Capture  Morris: Values for that mode of energy capture  Lord: Energy Source Lord: Cultural Values associated with that energy source
Foraging Egalitarian, sharing, sceptical of hierarchy; gender role definition but not hierarchy; tolerant of violence Mastery of Fire Culture of Community around the Hearth
Cooperation Culture of Collective Identity: those who are cooperating vs ‘the others’

A significant difference between Morris’s approach and mine is that for each of his periods he refers to energy capture in general, making no distinction between the digestion of food as an energy source – a process that we have in common with all other animals – and reaching outside that process for an additional and external energy source. My analysis by contrast notes that this reaching for external energy sources is a uniquely human activity which we do because it is only by means of these energy sources that we can create and sustain the cultures that are essential to us, since as a species with big fast brains we chose to rely on learning rather than instinct to bring our helpless infants up to an age where they can reproduce our species. Professor Morris writes that “… once we had our big, fast brains, cultural evolution became a possibility too” (p. 139); I say it became a necessity because we had to have a cultural context within which this learning could take place, so that our species could be reasonably assured of enduring. Some of our hominid ancestors – either Homo Ergaster or Homo Erectus – appear to have begun this process by mastering fire, which extended our habitat and gave us greater food choices, but also made possible a culture of community gathered around the hearth, where (as tale-teller Margaret Atwood notes in her response to Morris’s book) as Homo sapiens we could tell stories, sing and dance to enable our children to learn to become adults and care for the next generation.

Summarizing his thesis about all three periods, Professor Morris writes “… in each case, modes of energy capture determined population size and density, which in turn largely determined which forms of social organization worked best, which went on to make certain sets of values more successful and attractive than others.” (pp. 139-140) As regards social organization, Art & Energy differentiates between the well-known natural sources of energy and the less frequently acknowledged social sources that create energy gains due to the way we organize how we work together. Cooperation is the earliest of these: many anthropologists have emphasized cooperation among men as the only way we could become effective hunters, but following Dr Leonard Shlain’s Sex, Time and Power: How Women’s Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution (Viking, 2003) I observe that cooperation among women was even more essential to our survival as a species, as the only way we had to help women survive childbirth. We are the only species where the female risks her life to give birth to our helpless big-brained infants, a risk of maternal mortality that was far greater among Palaeolithic people. Cooperation initially among kindred women, later with specialized midwives, was essential to our survival; our earliest carvings, such as the so-called Venus of Willendorf, with their big breasts, buttocks and thighs model women who could survive childbirth, hopefully along with their children.

Somewhat paradoxically the cultural value that cooperation among both men and women fostered is the culture of collective identity – the necessary distinction between those who are cooperating and ‘the others’. Given foragers’ tolerance of violence as a means of settling disputes, a cooperative band of hunters could readily become a warrior band in order to seize or defend a hunting territory. With or without violence, in order to be effective their cooperation would have had to morph into some degree of control of our collective labour by at least an ad hoc leader, although Morris is right to insist that such arrangements were accepted among foragers only for the purposes of the expedition, and did not result in permanent hierarchies.

Although most forager groups were small, Professor Morris notes the Jomon culture of Japan and the northwest coast native people of North America as larger groups where a more robust hierarchy was developed because of the sheer plenitude of natural resources for those peoples. My book also notes the Jomon as a society that developed the mastery of fire into sculpture fashioned by our first fire craft, ceramics, and the northwest coast North American native societies for their totems and other carvings that celebrated the collective identities of the clans – beaver, bear, raven and so on – who cooperated to get things done together within each nation.

The culture of collective identity, fueled more by controlled than by cooperative labour, has gone much farther in the farming and fossil fuel eras, strongly reinforced by religion in the former and the nation-state in the latter period. Its often fanatical patriotism and religious zeal has become counter-productive to progress in societies preoccupied with it. The culture of stewardship that is currently incoming with renewable energy is likely to weaken these separate identities, with its focus on our common need to care for the entire planet. Stewardship is inherently global.         

 


Farming

Morris: Mode of Energy Capture  Morris: Values for that mode of energy capture  Lord: Energy Source Lord: Cultural Values associated with that energy source
Farming Accepts strong social, economic, political and gender hierarchies and forced labour reinforced by religion. Violence is reserved for the state, not tolerated among individuals. Animal Power Culture of Domesticity: “Before we could domesticate, we first had to become domestic.“ — Archaeologist Ian Hodder
    Slavery Culture of Domination
    Waterpower Culture of Urbanism
    Firewood Culture of Property
    `Wind in our Sails` Cultures of Investment and Individualism

 

Farming obliged the formerly itinerant foraging bands to become sedentary, adopting a culture of domesticity in order to domesticate plant and animal species, a process that Morris also describes because it increased energy capture so prodigiously. As an exception, he notes that the Eurasian Great Plains from Manchuria to Hungary did not support much agriculture, but did sustain pastoralism; these horse-borne cultures also qualify my own description of domesticity, which must include their wider range of mostly itinerant movements as well as the otherwise universal need for the keepers of most domesticated livestock to settle down beside them.

Although slaves were initially taken in raids between foraging groups, slavery as an economic and social institution is shown in Professor Morris’s book (along with paid labour) to be a key part of the hierarchy that farming societies needed in order to organize their capture of higher levels of energy effectively. In my book also the energy of slaves is seen as the ‘default’ mode of many ancient farming societies, almost universally accepted because it was so obviously necessary to the creation and maintenance of their cultures. Morris observes that classical Athens, the early Roman Empire, Song and Ming dynasty China and Mughal India all achieved very high levels of energy capture, including the potential for fossil fuels, but that they did not create an Industrial Revolution. In my book I suggest that the reason for this was the relative ease with which energy capture could be intensified by acquiring more slaves, at least in Athens and Rome, discouraging interest in the development of alternate energy sources. Thus when the Greek scientist Hero of Alexandria (10-70 CE) published plans for a rotary steam engine, it was apparently intended as a child’s toy.

Waterpower was critical to agriculture for irrigation, especially for mono-crops, but it was also essential for the increasing number of people living in cities. Hence I suggest that the culture of urbanism arises originally from the waterpower on which it absolutely depends. Urbanization is a major subject for Morris also, as it requires such a high level of energy capture. Both of us note that the population of ancient Rome approached one million, sustained by sophisticated Roman aquaculture. I also observe that India’s earliest urban civilization in the Indus Valley had to be abandoned once that river’s watercourses relocated away from where the cities had been situated.

Firewood and charcoaling focused the culture of property on ownership and control of the forests, especially in the colder climate of Europe north of the Mediterranean, where it resulted in the world`s first energy crisis, deforestation. Morris does not reference this crisis, which was the primary reason to go underground for the Silva Subterranea of pit coal in England. Instead, Morris attributes the transition to fossil fuels in northwestern Europe primarily to the energy capture advantages made possible by global trade, which I also emphasize in reference to improvements in the rigging of ships to capture wind energy more effectively. Art & Energy shows how shared investment in ship-building was devised to lessen the risk of catastrophic losses on these perilous voyages, first in the Armories of Venice and Genoa, later in Britain and the Netherlands, culminating in the late 17th century in the joint stock companies and stock exchanges of Amsterdam and London that initiated today’s capitalist share-holding system.

The investment instruments were therefore conveniently in place to finance the prodigious infrastructure of mines and mills and miles of railway track that coal, coke and steam demanded over the next two centuries. But choosing the risk of an investment is always an individual’s decision. Art & Energy shows that this culture of investment had to be also a culture of individualism, creating a new interest in individuals and their narratives, as seen first in Renaissance portraiture, then flourishing in the late 16th and throughout the 17th century throughout western Europe with the invention of opera in Italy and of the novel by Cervantes, in the plays of Shakespeare and his peers, in the philosophy of Descartes (existence proved by individual consciousness), and the great paintings of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals and so many others. Individualism flourished most wherever investment drove first global trade, then industry.

 


Fossil  Fuels

Morris: Mode of Energy Capture  Morris: Values for that mode of energy capture  Lord: Energy Source Lord: Cultural Values associated with that energy source
Fossil Fuels Tolerant of wealth inequities but otherwise increasingly egalitarian, resisting economic, social, political and gender hierarchies. Increasingly opposed to violence after frequent warfare. Coal, coke and steam: the Industrial Revolution The Culture of Production: Coal and coal-based manufacturing require a disciplined work force, inspiring class consciousness and an emphasis on self-discipline, which in turn inspired universal public education. Romanticism and realism in the arts.
Electrification: technically an application rather than a source; today only 15% from hydro power, with the rest from other sources The Culture of Transformation: electrification everywhere has inspired millions with confidence in our ability to change the world. International modernism in the arts, other `isms` in politics.
Oil and natural gas The Culture of Consumption: people seen as consumers. Universal credit and branding of experiences and celebrities. Post-modernism in the arts.

Morris discusses two variants of societies with fossil fuel values, which he characterizes as liberal and totalitarian, noting that both proclaimed their goal as widespread equality – political democracy for the liberal societies, economic equality for the others. My analysis parallels his with an emphasis on how the culture of transformation that accompanied the revolutionary benefits of electrification has inspired millions to believe that they could change the world, primarily through ideology (which is also extensively discussed by Morris), as well as creating the architecture and art of international modernism that surrounds us today.

Professor Morris refers to fossil fuels generically, without distinguishing between them. By contrast, I insist on the radical difference between the culture of production that accompanied coal and the culture of consumption that came to us with oil and gas. Coal mines, coal-fired steel mills and steam-powered factories required a disciplined work force, resulting in an emphasis on social class consciousness and a strong work ethic – valuing work in and for itself. The major cultural change that ensued was the 19th-century legislation adopted in all industrialized countries enforcing universal public education, including homework — early training in self-discipline. Oil and gas has no need for such a culture: a small number of workers can sink a well and once the pipeline is laid the locus of value shifts from production to the consumption end of the transaction. OPEC meetings don’t worry about unions and strikes as the coal barons had to; their agenda is about controlling supply and price per barrel – issues of consumption.

Once oil began to replace coal as the dominant energy source of most industrialized countries from the early 1960s onward, it therefore became necessary for us to see ourselves primarily as consumers: brand loyalty cards were used first in gas stations, but soon became the ubiquitous credit card. While coal had given us universal public education, oil and gas brought us universal credit. Public schools, libraries and museums were the major institutions of cultural change in the coal-fired culture of production, whereas the plastic card in your wallet (itself an oil product) has been the largely unheralded leading cultural change device of the second half of the 20th century, at least until it was superseded in the last few decades by the personal computer.

After fossil fuels

Morris: Mode of Energy Capture  Morris: Values for that mode of energy capture  Lord: Energy Source Lord: Cultural Values associated with that energy source
“Alternative energy” is referenced, but fossil fuels are assumed to remain. Continuing antipathy to hierarchy and violence, but threats of collapse due to uncontrollable migration, state failure, food shortages, epidemic disease and climate change. Nuclear Energy The Culture of Anxiety
Renewable Energy: solar panels, wind turbines, thermal power, etc. The Culture of Stewardship of the Earth and of the Body

Dr. Morris’s closing chapter speculates about the possibility of a high-tech future that extends the exponential growth of energy capture still further, but acknowledges the threats to civilization due to the ‘five horsemen of the Apocalypse’ noted in the Table above. In her response to Morris, Atwood adds two additional threats – collapse of the oceans and bioengineering, which could be used for better or worse. Both of them are expressing the widespread culture of anxiety that affects most current discussions of the future, especially those that take account of climate change and global warming.

The changes in our cultural values that arise from the energy sources that make those cultures possible are fundamental, deeply rooted in how we see ourselves and others. Prior to the Industrial Revolution people were primarily characterized as peasants, serfs or aristocrats in relation to their ownership and control of land, or lack thereof, especially of the forests where firewood that peasants were allowed to use was increasingly difficult to find. As Marx and Engels pointed out, the age of coal swept all of that away, as class consciousness defined almost everyone as proletarians and capitalists, with others in between, but with everyone conditioned by the work ethic and the need for a disciplined work force. Beginning with Edison’s light bulb in 1879, electrification’s culture of transformation went much further, challenging us all to become agents of change, empowering women thanks to its applications in homes and offices, and ultimately inspiring confidence in a wide range of ‘isms’ intended to change the world. For the first time in history many millions believed that their ideologies could transform the world for the better. Then beginning in the ‘Roaring ‘20s’, but really taking hold after oil and gas replaced coal as the dominant energy source from around 1960 onward, the culture of consumption has encouraged us all to forget those more demanding roles, and to see ourselves and others primarily as passive consumers, each equipped with our credit cards so we can keep buying more.

All of these adjustments have been stressful, affecting who we fundamentally think we are or should be, stimulating the proliferation of a culture of anxiety, often resulting in inter-generational strife within families. These anxieties were exacerbated by the proof that the coal-based culture of mass production could also generate mass slaughter in World War I, and the still deeper discoveries of what kind of people we could be at Auschwitz and Hiroshima in World War II. The development of peaceful applications of nuclear energy in the 1950s with its accompanying threats of meltdown and problems of waste storage provided a focus for this culture of anxiety, which has been reinforced at Chernobyl and Fukushima. It has become almost impossible to have a rational conversation about nuclear energy, even though it may have an important role in accomplishing the transition to renewable energy sources. Meanwhile reasons for anxiety have multiplied, as Morris’s chapter, Atwood’s comments and my chapter in Art & Energy on the culture of anxiety all attest.

Yet my analysis of energy transitions and their effect on cultural change indicates that the renewable energy of solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal wells and other technologies, like every other energy source, will once again renew and reorient our cultural values. The culture of stewardship of the earth and of the body that accompanies the transition that is currently underway will bring new positive values into steadily greater prominence. Storage of energy and of data, for instance, has now become a primary value. Sustainability is already the objective of our most advanced architecture. More and more we will be encouraged to see ourselves as stewards of the planet and of our own bodies – and we will need to find out how we can become stewards of each other.

Some of the effects of this transition are bracing to contemplate: fashion, for instance, may go out of fashion. Instead of discarding millions of garments annually to make room in our closets for the next big thing, we will seek out clothes for all seasons. A sharing economy will supplant the present preoccupation with acquisition. Access for use of commodities, energy or data will be seen as more important than ownership, especially if the usage is sustainable and reduces waste. Hackers are in a pivotal cultural position, as on the one hand they are a threat to the value of storage, while on the other they are contesting government control of data in favour of popular access to it.

In its opposition to consumerism the culture of stewardship makes common cause with some contemporary religious leaders, ranging from Pope Francis through the Anglican Bishops of the north of England to some of the American Christian fundamentalists. Could it also appeal to less bloodthirsty Muslim fundamentalists as well, since their objection is equally to the secular consumerism that looks to them as if it is all of what western culture is about?

What all this may mean for the social-political organization of our future is a subject for writers like Margaret Atwood to contemplate. It will be some time before renewable energy can get anywhere near replacing oil and gas as our primary energy source. But it’s clear that stewardship of the earth and the body is an incoming cultural transition that is already with us and will grow stronger as renewable energy spreads. President Obama’s recent announcement of a green policy to counter global warming is the latest big step in this direction; the climate change conference in Paris towards the end of this year will be another.

On the other hand, we need to remember that most of the cultural values that have arisen from prior sources of energy are still with us. Although Morris’s analysis is strongly bound to the periodicity of his sequential levels of energy capture, my approach in terms of energy sources allows for the continuity of these values, which remain relevant as long as we are still in need of that energy source. We still enjoy the products of the fire crafts, we turn to cooperation whenever floods or earthquakes force us to do so, and we continue to rely on animal power and waterpower on the farm and in our cities. Coal is still king in many places, and electrification (however fueled) continues to bring its transformative culture to new communities in Africa and India daily. Unfortunately the energy of slaves is still important to some communities, especially if we account for the forced labour of women and children. Accordingly, the cultures of community, collective identity, domesticity, domination, urbanism, property, individualism, the discipline of the production process, the ambition to transform the world and anxiety about all these changes remain with us today. The culture of consumption will also be with us for at least as long as we choose to continue using oil or natural gas.

Thus a general theory of cultural change as a function of energy capture and energy sources will need to account for both these continuities and the sequential nature of the changes in energy capture that Dr Morris has tracked. It’s a subject that suggests the possibility of a general theory of values and cultural change that can give us a subtler and more empathetic understanding of the roots of our cultural diversity, both historically and today. Our two books may be only the beginning of a most fruitful inquiry.

The Culture of a World without Oil

Here is the text of my response to Margaret Atwood’s “It’s Not Climate Change, It’s Everything Change”, which is the post that follows immediately after it. The original exchange was featured on Medium/Matter.

IN RESPONSE TO

It’s Not Climate Change — It’s Everything Change

The Culture of A World Without Oil

By Barry Lord

 

Margaret Atwood’s brilliant contribution to this discussion analyzes the salient features of the climate change that we can now recognize as the inevitable outcome of the culture of consumption that oil and gas made possible. An Encyclical from Pope Francis was the most recent mainstream identification of this linkage, specifically focused on its cultural implications. As Atwood observes, my 2014 book Art& Energy: How Culture Changes (The AAM Press) demonstrates how all of our external energy sources have been accompanied by cultural transitions, from the mastery of fire and the culture of community around the hearth that it made possible to the culture of stewardship of the earth and the body that we are adopting as we switch to renewable energy.

Now we have daily news of the struggle between that incoming culture and the still dominant oil-based culture of consumption on which we are so dependent. By the culture of consumption I mean a culture that values buying things, experiences and brands in and for itself; we were shopping long before oil and gas, but their plenitude stimulated an entire way of life, especially associated with the automobile, that initially became visible after the First World War in the ‘Roaring Twenties’ (cf. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby), but really took over after World War II as oil replaced coal as the dominant global energy source beginning in the early 1960s. Supplanting the coal-based culture that depended on a disciplined work force, oil and gas made possible a widespread culture that has certainly benefited many, but which rested on ultimately unsustainable assumptions. Whereas people in the coal culture were defined in relation to the production process (as workers or capitalists, for instance), in a world powered by oil and gas we were all encouraged to see ourselves simply as consumers.

The challenge today is to define and describe the emerging culture of stewardship of the earth and the body that is so closely associated with renewable energy. A world without oil will have to be a world with fully developed renewable energy sources and the culture of stewardship that goes with them. Solar panels, wind turbines and geothermal wells provide energy by means of technology only. No fuel is needed. Once the apparatus is installed, there is nothing more to buy. The culture of consumption will no longer be rooted in our energy supply.

Even more important, by fully utilizing a global two-way power grid every building can become a producer as well as a consumer of energy. This depends on a means of storage so that we or others can access power when we need it, not just when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. Storage of energy and of data (which can be seen as a kind of congealed energy) becomes a significant value in itself, resulting in stern penalties for hackers and a global grass-roots struggle to retain access to data banks in people’s hands and minds, rather than in the exclusive domain of governments.

Access for use and capacity to store and share the goods of this world is what matters for stewardship. Acquisition, consumption and ownership are secondary. Mutual stocks collectively owned by all concerned may accordingly become the preferred model, rather than the private investment fortunes of today. A circular economy can be conceived, whereby the real cost of all products is redeemed through multiple uses of everything: there would be no such thing as a ‘waste product’. Already we see a fledgling ‘sharing economy’ — Airbnb, Uber and much more — growing stronger daily.

In a world without oil, shopping will no longer focus our culture as it does today. Fashion will be transformed into trading, swapping and adapting our clothes to function effectively in every season. Currently millions of garments are discarded annually in every industrial country, and sending them to third world countries destroys the indigenous clothing industries there. Binge shopping and the annual Xmas celebration of consumerism will increasingly be questioned or rejected by a growing number of people committed to a culture that abhors waste.

Stewardship will characterize our attitudes to our bodies as well as the planet. Commodification of body parts for commerce may no longer colour our passions with such force. Already the fitness industry, which has grown to ubiquity in the same decades as renewable energy has been gathering force, fosters a concern to sustain our bodies holistically. In place of the fetishistic exploitation of ‘private’ body parts to sell sex, soap or sailboats, I have predicted that the culture of stewardship of the body will encourage tolerance for public nudity, especially as widespread obesity is increasingly recognized as another deplorable outcome of the oil-based culture of consumption.

Performance art in which the artist’s body is his or her medium and earth art in which natural properties are celebrated already characterize our visual aesthetics. Musicians, poets and novelists will be situating their lyrics and plots in new contexts. Anxiety will persist, especially since nuclear energy will almost certainly be part of our renewable package; but we will be anxious about a wider range of concerns as we try to find out what it really means to be stewards of each other.

These predictions are generally consistent with the post-fossil fuel world that Ian Morris projects in the other book that Margaret cites, his Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve (Princeton University Press, 2015). Stewardship and sustainability will be supported by the greater equality (including gender equity) and the resistance to violence that Morris foresees. It is always exciting (and reassuring) when two scholars working from different assumptions and in diverse disciplines reach broadly parallel conclusions.

The picture that emerges from this cultural analysis is less dramatic than any of Margaret’s dire alternatives. This is because it is a picture consistent with our anthropology and history. From our beginnings, homo sapiens has been the only species that evolved by employing external sources of energy additional to the food we eat; we do so because we require those external energy sources to create our cultures, which are essential to us because they provide the context for our otherwise helpless young to grow into adult human beings with the capacity to reproduce our species. Our big-brain commitment to learning rather than instinct for our survival as a species meant from the beginning that we are always going to be totally dependent on the energy sources that make possible the cultures within which we can teach and learn.

Thus our current dependence on oil is not an aberration, it is the norm. Every energy source has brought certain cultural values with it — think of slavery and coal as two of the most obvious examples. Art & Energy traces the entire history of these transitions. In a world without oil, renewable energy will take the place of oil and gas, and we will eventually become as dependent on the culture of stewardship of the earth and the body as we are today on consumption. Undoubtedly there will be downsides to the new culture that we cannot yet anticipate. We are going to be learning how to see ourselves and others as mutually interested collaborative stewards rather than essentially competitive consumers. The stakes are high: as the planet’s only species committed to learning, in order to save our habitat we now have to learn sustainability.

Barry Lord is the author of Art & Energy: How Culture Changes (The AAM Press, 2014) and Co-President of Lord Cultural Resources. His blog is at artandenergybarrylord.wordpress.com