Here is sample of what to expect from History of Energy, a required class of the REE program…
Midterm Essay Question: Historians point to two major transformations in the way humans live: The Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. Both were associated with major changes in the patterns of energy use. In your essay, outline the key changes in energy use during both revolutions, and compare and contrast their impact on both human society and the environment. Be sure to use specific examples from the readings to support your arguments.
Submission: Score – 100 (out of 100)
A revolution is the fundamental reorganization of an existing paradigm or the establishment of a completely new one. Revolutions can take different forms but are most commonly associated with major transformations in social psychology or social patterns. Many revolutions have occurred since the dawn of man, but historians often underline two, the Agriculture Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, as being essential for understanding the current patterns of humanity.
With the Agriculture Revolution, plants and animals were domesticated, resulting in population growth, stable food supplies and specialization of occupations. From the Industrial Revolution came new modes of transportation, new levels of integration and population explosion. Both changes were dramatic and relatively fast. However, they differ qualitatively. Whereas the Agriculture Revolution was a collective realization on the nature of food production, the Industrial Revolution was ignited with the discovery of ancient fuel potential. A closer examination illustrates both the similarities and this important qualitative difference.
Following the discovery of fire, the early human population flourished and expanded across the globe. The hunter-gatherer methods combined with cooking offered populations more digestible calories, safer food and ultimately more leisure time for cultural development and procreation. However, groups were still restrained by the forces of nature and the movements of animal herds. Feast and famine was still the norm. The variety of nutrients and calories were great when times were plentiful, but when the options were limited, populations would suffer. Consequently, this system of environmental interaction created a natural population ceiling.
Consequently, this new social vantage, initiated from fire control and cooking, promoted the growth of tribes and bands into larger communities. With larger groups came more ideas. Eventually, agriculture developed. It is considered to have happened first in the Fertile Crescent, or modern day Iraq, around 10,000 BCE. While the ancient techniques of cultivation spread out from this primary source, it is believed the understanding of cultivation and domestication developed independently in other parts of the world. The methods of agriculture radically changed social customs and ancient human patterns. One of the effects was a population explosion. A primary reason for this was because populations were more immune to famine than hunter-gatherer societies. Alfred Crosby, author of Children of the Sun writes, “By 4000 BP almost every crop plant and animal essential to civilization today – wheat, rice, barley, potatoes, dogs, horses, cattle, sheep and chickens – was domesticated.”[1, pg 27]. The extensive domestication of these crops and species provided societies a buffer against extreme conditions.
In addition, the energy necessary for survival and burned by human muscles, (Crosby’s “prime movers”), was diverted partially to animals. Furthermore, Agriculture streamlined the human calorie supply. Using animals for physical demanding work, and streamlining food production provided societies with a net gain in energy. With more calories came more time for procreation and more time for leisure. Hence, societies grew and diversified. Crosby elaborates, “By 4000 BP in several parts of the world dense populations of farmers supported city dwellers, hierarchies of specialists with skills like writing, and elites in government, war, religion and manufacturing. With that, Homo sapiens nominated itself as the possible keystone species of the planet.”[1, pg 27].
Fundamental changes in social patterns affect all sectors of a society. Whereas certain benefits are acquired through periods of revolution, negative side-effects are also produced. As civilization centered on a more homogenous diet, made available through an understanding of agriculture, diseases, some related to nutrition deficiency, and others related to increased human and animal interaction, became rampant. Crosby writes, “Hunter-gatherer diets had been varied and richly nourishing – when available. The diets of farmers…consisted of cereal grains and roots, with meat or fish only now and then. These diets were much less nourishing, and brought on dental decay, anemia, and other maladies of malnutrition. Added to these disadvantages were the infectious diseases-smallpox, measles, dysentery, cholera-that sedentary life, dense population concentrations, and constant sharing of parasites and germs with dogs, horses, cattle, and pigs encouraged.”[1, pg 40]. To summarize, population increased and societies diversified. But it was a trade-off. The understanding of disease and health was still in its infancy and therefore the technologies to combat the new afflictions were absent.
Relative to any major changes that happened before, The Agriculture Revolution happened very fast. Prior, the discovery of fire may have occurred over 100,000 years ago. The Agriculture Revolution began roughly 10,000 BCE; by 4000 BCE all major species of plants and animals were domesticated. Compared to the more recent Industrial Revolution, however, The Agriculture Revolution came at a crawl. This is illustrated by the major qualitative difference between these revolutions. To understand this difference, The Industrial Revolution needs to be examined in this context.
The birthplace of The Industrial Revolution is commonly attributed to Great Britain. Great Britain was in a unique position during the 17th and 18th centuries. The country was sitting on an abundance of coal and the price of wood was climbing. In fact, from 1500 to 1630, the price of firewood rose 700 percent [1 pg. 69], putting pressure on coal mining. Coal slowly became the dominant fuel source for Great Britain. As mines became more extensive and coal deposits harder to obtain, new machines were invented to the streamline the process. Thomas Newcomen of Great Britain invented the first coal powered steam engine built primarily to pump water out of coal mines. The effectiveness and utility of the design sparked innovation and imitation for centuries, eventually spawning the diesel engine and the internal combustion engine (ICE).
In tandem with the development of the ICE and the diesel engine was the increased exploitation of another fossil fuel – oil. First pumped out of the ground in the U.S. after American George Bissell used his insight to apply a traditional salt boring technique to its extraction, oil was initially valued for one of its many derivatives. Originally distilled by Canadian chemist Abraham Gesner in 1853, kerosene quickly replaced declining sperm whale oil, (due to over-whaling), as the dominant lighting fuel. Later, gasoline, another derivative of oil, and unrefined oil were both utilized extensively with internal combustion and diesel engines, respectively.
The introduction of fossil fuels like kerosene, for twenty four hour lighting, and the utilization of oil products for rubber, lubricants and mass transportation changed everything. Oil businesses formed, like John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, which became a multinational, integrated company and the archetype corporation. As World War I ensued, many new weapons and mobile machines based on oil were invented. Tanks were designed in World War I and were instrumental in breaking the German line at the Battle of Amiens and assisting the Allies toward victory. Cars, trucks, and railways were further developed and used extensively by both the Allies and Central powers. Airplanes, powered by oil, were refined and produced in great quantities. They were strategically invaluable for both sides. Diesel powered submarines, developed by Germany were used effectively to ambush supply and oil tankers in route to Great Britain.
In WWII oil played an even more central role. The Nazi war machine was supplied with fossil fuel by nationalized company I.G. Farben. I.G. Farben produced synthetic fuels from its massive endemic coal supplies. By 1940, the synthetic fuels plants provided 46 percent Germany’s total oil supply. Foreign oil acquisition was a primary goal for both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in their quest for dominance. In parallel, the U.S. supply of oil to the Allied forces was instrumental in keeping the pressure on Germany and Japan in the sky, on the ground and on the water. Ultimately, it played a vital role in victory.
Similar to The Agriculture Revolution, The Industrial Revolution fundamentally transformed social patterns. Twenty four hour lighting had never been experienced before. The birth of fossil fuel powered transport gave people unprecedented mobility in the air, on the sea and across the land. Wars were fought on scales never before seen, and death tolls reached horrific levels. In total, causalities in WWII are estimated at around 60 million, even higher than the 37 million causalities from WWI.
However, in contrast, The Agriculture Revolution developed over thousands of years whereas The Industrial Revolution transformed societies in a couple hundred. The difference was in the energy source. All energy, used by human muscles and those of animals, before and after the Agriculture Revolution, was derived from biomass. So, from one aspect of the definition of revolution, it was then, a fundamental reorganization of an existing paradigm.
The Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, is defined by the other aspect. It was the establishment of a new one (paradigm). The primary source of fuel moved from biomass to fossil fuels. Activities normally reserved for human and animal muscles, muscles powered by biomass, were given to machines like trucks, cars and trains that burned fossil fuels. Other abilities, not intrinsic to humans, like flying and underwater traveling, were made possible with fossil-fuel-burning planes and submarines. Both of these revolutions transformed society and both are fundamental in understanding the modern patterns and psychology of humanity.
1. Crosby, Alfred. Children of the Sun : Norton, 2006.
2. Yergin, Daniel. The Prize : Free Pres