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.

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.         



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.


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