Reviewing “Energy: A Human History,”
Updated: May 23, 2020
In a recent interview with TIME, Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian, made an appeal to open-mindedness:
Fundamentally, when people have to use new kinds of energy, they resist it. To the extent people are capable of opening up their minds to new kinds of energy, we’ll be better off. His latest book, “Energy: A Human History,” abounds with examples of such energy transitions, and of the initial resistance these new forms of energy faced.
According to Rhodes, there is a lacuna in our approach to energy. Specifically, “The current debate has hardly explored the rich human history behind today’s energy challenges.” This book was written, in part, to overcome that lack of humanity — and it succeeds.
Rhodes is at his best covering the sweeping changes that the energy industry has seen over the centuries. He traces the evolution of energy from its humble origins in wood-burning Elizabethan England to its emergence as the master resource of the 21st century.
Other books, such as Vaclav Smil’s “Energy & Civilization: A History,” or Ian Morris’ “Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels,” have explored similar themes. What sets Rhodes’s history apart, though, is his accessibility and his humanity. His writing is less academic and more relatable that that of his peers. And he puts a human face on the figures whose discoveries have revolutionized energy. In fact, the book could be considered a biography of sorts, cataloging the lives of James Watt and Benjamin Franklin, among others.
Given how much ground he has to cover, however, Rhodes makes a few questionable digressions. For instance, he tends to overemphasize certain subjects, such as the use of horses in the 20th century, which he spends an entire chapter describing. He also dedicates far too much time to the details surrounding “engine knock” in automobiles. While these meanderings do detract from the narrative momentum of the book, they do not derail the overall reading experience.
The book’s true value comes from Rhodes’s broad perspective and the lessons he gleans from the history of energy transitions. He reminds us that advancements in energy are not just a path to economic growth, but the path to human progress. Due to centuries of invention, discovery, and adaptation, “the air is cleaner, the world is more peaceful, and more and more of us are prosperous.” Indeed, an open-minded approach to all kinds of energy has made the modern world what it is today.
Nevertheless, not everyone is convinced by this optimistic outlook. Energy skeptics — both past and present — are a constant companion throughout the book. “Coal to many Elizabethans,” Rhodes writes, “was the Devil’s excrement, as nuclear energy is today to many who oppose it.”
In his final chapter, Rhodes discusses these divisions and laments the politicized landscape: “As with so much else in American life, energy sources have become politicized, with Republicans embracing nuclear power and Democrats rejecting it, a state of affairs unlikely to save the planet.”
It seems that we are firmly divided on these issues. Yet, with characteristic optimism, Rhodes shows the way forward. He reinforces the fact that, whether it comes from a windmill or a nuclear power plant, electricity is needed to light the way. “Ultimately,” Rhodes concludes, “beyond all arguments about which technology is greener … the great human project … is the progressive alleviation of human suffering.”
As Rhodes reiterated in his interview with TIME:
We are undergoing probably the largest energy transition in human history. We are facing the need to decarbonize our entire energy supply. And no one seems quite prepared to take it seriously.
To the extent we are capable of opening up our eyes to this energy transition, and taking it seriously, we’ll be better off. Thankfully, we have Richard Rhodes to guide us.