An American power trip

Consuming Power
November 6, 1998

Aldo da Rosa finds the pursuit of power fuels the growth of a nation.

David E. Nye, professor of American Studies at Odense University in Denmark, and a prolific author, has a predilection for provocative titles. Electrifying America, an earlier book, carries an obvious double meaning and so does Consuming Power, the book reviewed here. Unfortunately, one of the meanings is thermodynamically incorrect because it is impossible to consume power. Confusion between energy and power is common and one can forgive Nye, who does not claim to be a physicist but who might be a bit more careful. In the introduction, he equates 1 kilowatt to 14hp (off by one order of magnitude). Such errors are invoked occasionally to support an argument as when, in chapter 7, he has old TV sets drawing 1.4 kW (an ancient 24-inch, 25-tube colour set was more likely to draw less than 400W). However, although the confusion reappears a number of times throughout the text, it does no harm to the story being told.

Americans use energy at the rate of 11kW per capita, versus 0.8kW for the rest of the world. This imbalance inspired Nye's work. To equal the United States, planetary energy use would have to rise by 6,400%. Political correctness suggests that Americans lower their standards; ideally, the rest of the world should raise its usage. Neither is practical. That the task would be hugely simplified if the world population were to decrease is rarely mentioned by planners. Solutions of the energy dilemma invariably start with a technological suggestion. Complicated economic, ecological and cultural interactions, make it impossible to model reliably the resulting impact, and new ideas are tried without valid predictions of how they will play. Witness the early enthusiasm for nuclear energy. History can tell us what worked and some of the reasons why. Herein lies the value of Nye's effort.

The book will interest history buffs and is a must for technologically inclined readers who want to keep a sure footing on the realities of energy problems. Nye argues that no deterministic forces guide the development of energy systems. In terms made popular by the Santa Fe Institute, all these activities operate at the 'edge of chaos' and the final outcome is the result of myriad individual preferences and decisions. Nye also recognises that certain technologies develop their own momentum and succeed even in the face of better competing solutions. This is the 'Betamax' effect, where this superior technology lost out to the entrenched VHS. This momentum is a consequence of the positive feedback factors suggested by Brian Arthur's economics. In a book, diffusely organised, in which many arguments are repeated in different chapters, Nye describes the evolution of energy systems in the US in a manner that grabs the interest of the reader. In doing this, he proves refreshingly not politically correct, balancing technology, economics, culture and ecology in an even manner. The author tries to identify the influence that the adopted energy solutions exerted on the development of the US, a task made specially difficult by a two-way interaction: while at any moment, complex cultural and economic circumstances dictated the choice of energy systems, at the same time, the chosen systems modified the very society and the culture that created them.

Nye starts by pointing out that Europeans arrived in America with overwhelming energetic advantage over the natives who used only human muscle power (75W). The colonisers had oxen and horses (500W) and sailing ships which used wind energy at a rate some 200 times larger than that obtainable from the muscles of the crew. The immigrants' dependence on iron implements and other manufactured items led them to develop a local industry. Increasing energy use became a part of their culture. Early in American history, waterwheels supplied more abundant and cheaper industrial energy than animal muscle, although the latter, for a long time, dominated agricultural activities. For the generation of heat, domestic or industrial, wood was employed. The absence of major dams meant that waterwheels were of limited power, forcing industrial activities to spread out along available rivers and creeks. The consumption of wood required a continual expansion into new lands as settled areas became gradually deforested. These energy choices dispersed the population and promoted the penetration of the hinterland. Transportation was assured mostly by navigation along the coast and through interior waterways. The expertise necessary to build the races of waterwheels was extended to the constructions of canals that further improved communication. In mid-1800, coal penetrated the market, gradually displacing wood as fuel; by the turn of the century coal began to be partially replaced by oil and natural gas. The US had the good fortune to be endowed with vast fossil fuel reserves.

By the middle of the 19th century, steam power was surpassing water power in popularity, thanks not only to the growing availability of coal but mainly because it allowed great flexibility in choosing the location of the factories. Manufacturing was concentrated in industrial cities located strategically with respect to markets and to sources of raw materials (principally coal). However, this centralisation did not stop the westward expansion. Much more recently, the population de-concentration allowed by the widespread electrification of the country and the use of the automobile de-emphasised the importance of the central city, shifting a good deal of activity to the suburbs and to more rural areas. This phenomenon is now being greatly accentuated by the growing availability of electronic communication systems. Energy system choices and their consequences were not uniform across the country. In the North, the constant striving for new technologies created the proper environment for innovators and inventors. In the South, plantation mentality and reliance on the muscle power of the slave forged much more conservative attitudes, slowing progress. The North valued inventiveness, the South, conformity.

Nye summarises these trends by 'periodising' the social effects of different energy systems in the US. In his first stage, the Native Americans relied solely on human muscle. In the second, European colonisers brought domestic animals and sailing ships and built waterwheels. The third period triggered industrialisation thanks to large dams supplying water power. Steam engines marked the fourth period; electricity, oil and natural gas, the fifth. Emerging now is a sixth period, searching for renewable energy sources.

Throughout his book, Nye argues that at every stage, choices made inevitably led to a growing dependence on energy. Nye analyses the many cultural factors that led to the present situation. He fails only to mention the (plausibly) most important one - the pressure of a rapidly growing population.

Aldo Vieira da Rosa is emeritus professor of electrical engineering, Stanford University, California.

Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies

Author - David E. Nye
ISBN - 0 262 14063 2
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 331

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments