Many readers of Art & Energy: How Culture Changes (The AAM Press, 2014) have asked me, the author, to initiate a blog where the subjects of the book can be discussed. I am delighted to do so because I think the book contains an important set of ideas that can be instrumental in helping us to understand the cultural change that is happening all around us in the context of our history of involvement in cultural change as a species.
This blog will discuss many contemporary issues, especially those associated with today’s energy sources — coal, electrification, oil and gas, nuclear and renewable energy and their concomitant cultures of production, transformation, consumption, anxiety and stewardship respectively. But for this first posting, I think it’s most useful for readers to consider the thesis of the book in its most fundamental anthropological context.
I have been giving lectures on these ideas at museums and universities in Canada and the U.S., and this spring will do some more in Scotland. In doing so I have learned how to state the fundamental thesis of the book in a way that I approximated but did not actually write in the published text. It is what I call an anthropological way of expressing the insight that underlies the book. It is this:
Homo sapiens is the only species that thinks we have to go beyond the energy we get from digesting our food to utilize an additional, external source of energy. At our very beginnings we are the only species that masters fire, our first energy source. As I observe in the book, some of our hominid precursors, probably Homo erectus, may have tended the earliest campfire found to date — if that is indeed what it is — at the Koobi Fora site in Kenya, as early as 1.6 million years ago. A somewhat more certain hominid hearth is dated 800,000 years BP in what is now Israel (see page 26). Homo sapiens, whose earliest discrete hearth, 60,000 years old, is to be found in Kebara Cave, also in Israel, appears to have assumed the mastery of fire as a given condition of life from our very beginnings.
Notice that this is what is truly unique about us. Some other species occasionally use tools; some pair bond, others hunt in packs. And we know that among their own species a significant number of animals communicate with each other in what we should call their language. But Homo sapiens is the only species that thinks we need to access and use sources of energy in addition to the energy we derive from digesting our food.
Why? Why from the very beginning of our species’ existence have we insisted on this external additional energy source — initially the mastery of fire? When we consider the question from the viewpoint of survival of our species — which was by no means assured but had to be hard won — we can see that in addition to keeping us warm in less hospitable climates and widening our food choices due to cooking, the mastery of fire provided what I have called in chapter 3 “the culture of the hearth” — but which could more generally be termed “the culture of community”. This culture of community was (and still is) essential to our survival as a species because our mothers risk their lives (unlike every other species) to give birth to big-brained but helpless infants who can grow old enough to reproduce our species only if they can learn how to be human. We rely very little on instinct and almost entirely on learning for our young to grow old enough to sustain our species — and learning depends on a cultural context in which it can take place. The hearth and the community that gathers around it — whether that is a single family, an extended family, a village or a tribe — provide the cultural context that enables our young to grow to an age at which they will be able to continue the life of our species.
In chapter 4 I have quoted the late medical doctor Leonard Shlain’s Sex, Time and Power to emphasize how challenging survival of our species was, due to the high rate of maternal mortality. We can see it clearly in the so-called ‘Venus’ figures like the late Paleolithic clay and bone dust figure from Moravia reproduced on page 21. All of these figures focus on the big breasts, broad thighs and ample buttocks that ensured a better chance of survival for mother and child alike. In chapter 4 I also suggest that these figures attest to our earliest social source of energy, cooperation among women learning from each other how to improve their chances of surviving childbirth.
So we reached for additional external sources of energy — first the mastery of fire, then cooperation — because we had to, in order to enhance our species’ chances for survival. These external energy sources made possible the culture that was essential to the maturation of a helpless infant who could grow to adult capacity for reproduction only through learning, not by instinct. Thus from the beginning our cultures depend on the energy sources that make them possible, and are shaped by the values that accompany the adoption of those energy sources — at the beginning the culture of community around the hearth made possible by the mastery of fire, and the culture of collective identity that chapter 4 shows was the inevitable concomitant of cooperation and the control of collective labour (starting with hunting) that this social source of energy made possible.
In subsequent postings to this blog I will discuss many more recent subjects — especially the energy sources and their accompanying cultures of today. But for this first introductory posting I hope this anthropological presentation of the Art & Energy thesis helps readers of the book and of this blog to understand better the ways in which our cultures arise from, depend on and feature the values associated with the energy sources that make them possible. It’s important because it reminds us of the fundamental unity of our cultures, our technologies, and of who we think we are.
— Barry Lord, March 17, 2015