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YOU'VE PROBABLY NEVER heard of Fred Cottrell, and that’s a shame. The American sociologist wrote an idea-busting book in 1955, Energy and Society, in which he argued that the availability of energy set and erased the limits of what human beings can do. He revised the essay in 1972, seven years before his death, but few North Americans ever read it.

Today Cottrell is slowly becoming regarded as an energy visionary. For starters, he recognized that flows of energy and their surpluses critically shaped social change and attitudes, more so than money. He was one of the first to explain why high-energy-spending economies concentrated power in big corporations and government. He said surplus energy acted like a farm fertilizer for these social organizations.

The novel thinker also offered a unique definition of capitalism. He saw it as an economic system that promoted high-energy technologies, which in turn expanded the market for cheap hydrocarbons. 

Several years ago, the well-known Boston University geographer Cutler Cleveland posted Cottrell’s forgotten book on the internet. Cleveland called Energy and Society one of “the best books ever written on energy.” I couldn’t agree more.

Cottrell was a former railroad man. He realized that societies whose citizens burned lots of energy behaved totally differently than low-energy cultures. 

Low-energy societies, which run on muscle and solar power, tend to be family-friendly, faith-based and agrarian. Moreover, they typically regard life as a cyclical affair. In contrast, high-energy societies tend to be materialistic, skeptical of faith and they see life as one linear ladder of endless wealth accumulation.

The great cultural divides in civilization arose not from political or class differences, argued Cottrell, but from the quality and quantity of energy spending.

Cottrell also noted that high-energy spending created unequal concentrations of power in the marketplace and the state. Low-energy societies just didn’t build mega-cities, nuclear bombs or national welfare schemes, for that matter.

But rising flows of energy invariably come with a social price. High-energy technologies put so much power in fewer and fewer hands, said Cottrell, “that small social units operating alone are often ruthlessly and unheedingly swept aside if their ends are antithetic to the purposes of those who control the power.”

Cottrell also argued that the growth of big government had little to do with ideology and was largely a by-product of high-energy spending. The more petroleum-fed machines that replaced familial energy – thereby weakening the role of the family in the community – the more the state was forced to take over the family’s traditional energy functions, from education to caring for the elderly.

Last but not least, Cottrell understood that societal values waxed and waned with the flow of energy. He wrote about how cheap fossil fuels had created huge surpluses during the last 100 years, allowing society to invest the windfall in education, health care, fast highways, cheap food, big institutions, space programs and city-making.

Likewise, Cottrell predicted that the shrinkage of these energy sources would undo much of that culture and force an unexpected social contraction. In fact, Cottrell thought that car culture might be the first to downsize.

The sociologist also reasoned that governments, which regulate energy flow in a society, would have to choose between space programs and water purification in the future. But Cottrell also believed that a global energy decline might enable some communities “to achieve what the dominance of forces associated with massive use of energy has denied them.”

In other words, the development of local and alternative energy systems might permit the revival of older and more traditional values and lifestyles “than those provided by the omnicompetent giant corporations.”

Changes in energy flows in a society, of course, carry great uncertainties. “There is no grand scheme to fit all situations,” Cottrell warned, especially in societies where the energy tide is falling. 

Coming soon: Andrew Nikiforuk talks about his latest book, The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude.

Andrew Nikiforuk, a Calgary-based journalist, is the author of the national bestseller Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. His latest book, The Energy of Slaves, looks at how human slavery has shaped our attitudes and values about energy. For more on Andrew visit his website at andrewnikiforuk.com


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