Burning Up. A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption

Pirani, Simon
London 2018: Pluto Press
Anzahl Seiten
272 S.
£ 75.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Paul Warde, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge

There are very few general histories of energy use. This might seem surprising, given that „energy“ is such a widely debated topic, and has been a significant issue at least episodically in politics since the 1970s. Now, of course, its eminence is underpinned by concerns about climate change and the necessity of a „transition“ away from fossil fuels and towards renewables. It is in this context that the few general histories of energy have been written. These have generally been provided not by professional historians, but analysts and social scientists who have above all been interested in modelling transition and using the past as a source of data in understanding or even predicting contemporary and future processes – something with a long history in energy analyses, in fact, stretching back to the nineteenth century. The danger with this kind of work, from a historian’s viewpoint, is that it decontextualizes the specific historical circumstances of change, and has a tendency to privilege technological shifts in explanations, partly because information on these is more accessible and less complex than political decision-making and the social forces that govern the adoption and use of technologies.

On the other hand, there is no shortage of histories of the energy sector, above all fossil fuel extraction and electricity generation. These frequently focus on particular countries or businesses (sometimes paid for by said businesses), and take specific case studies (coal; oil; individual mines; national policy; crisis response). Often the early history of fossil fuel use, prior to the Second World War, is much better covered than later periods, although much historical study of colonial and postcolonial societies incorporates extractive industries, without making them the centre of analysis. Increasingly, historians have also taken up the experience of energy use and its services as a topic: heating, comfort, cooking, lighting. Again, this reflects both the availability of information, and the style in which historians are accustomed to work: locally, contextually, and developing a narrative with multiple perspectives.

There is perhaps a third mode of „energy“ history: the polemical. Outside of academia, its most frequent appearance is in the hagiographic portrayal of companies or individuals, sometimes autobiographical. Within more left-leaning academia, one often feels the explanation for our current (bad) state has been decided long before any research was undertaken, which then serves largely to provide elaboration of the shapeshifting villainy of capitalism. Sometimes rather conspiratorial speculation, rather alien to more usual academic history and indeed to the classic analyses of Marx, Weber or Schumpeter, is thrown in for good measure. The defects of such literature are obvious, and it has little resonance with economic historians, but its virtues can lie in the desire to excavate more systematically broad political and economic imperatives that can act compellingly on a large scale. As such, these histories of energy-as-capitalism grapple with the problem that any energy history has to face: how can the history of something universally used but unequally distributed not be simultaneously a history of everything? And how can one plausibly write such a history?

Historian Simon Pirani’s new global history of fossil fuel consumption seeks to draw the best out of all of these strands of writing: an extraordinarily ambitious, but arguably necessary task for our times. With the main text coming in at 197 pages it is not even long, and thus is inevitably introductory in tone. The focus is explicitly shaped by our present and future concerns. It genuinely aspires to be global, escaping from the strong bias in much of the literature towards the West and particularly the United States. It seeks to embrace both quantitative approaches and an anthropological and political understanding of behaviour.

How to achieve this? Pirani divides the book into three sections, called „Contexts“, „Chronologies“, and „Reflections“. The first section contains four chapters that might be said to introduce the reader to the first two types of energy history outlined above: they cover fossil fuel use before 1950, changes in energy technology, the social history of energy use, and „consumption in numbers“, that is the provision of global quantitative data, sometimes by specific countries, on supply and consumption. These are useful but short primers, with some welcome notes that are often lacking in other post-war histories (such as military consumption), but the non-quantitative chapters are heavily shaped by literature on the United States. The second part, „Chronologies“, takes us through six short chapters covering the post-war boom, the 1970s crises, electrification, the recovery of the 1980s, and the rise of the BRIC economies in the 1990s and 2000s. Perhaps inevitably, there is a degree of repetition here from the more thematic chapters, but this is a very laudable and rare attempt to provide genuine balance in its portrayal of different parts of the planet. The final part, „Reflections“, is divided into three chapters. The first, „interpretations and ideologies“, covers very broad views that one could take on the history recounted: was it driven by population change, as neo-Malthusians alleged most prominently in the immediate post-war decades? Is an ideology of „consumerism“ to blame, or a more top-down one of „growth“? That each receives a couple of pages at most tells us we cannot expect detailed evaluations here, but rather a pointer to the broadest lines of thought. The second chapter, „Possibilities“, evaluates the history in the light of the contemporary question of how quickly transition can be achieved, pointing to the theorists of gradual change (Arnulf Grübler and Charlie Wilson) or the possibility of rapid shifts (Benjamin Sovacool). A final chapter delivers some conclusions from Pirani himself.

Pirani states that his main a goal is to emphasise that energy transition requires structural changes. Growth in consumption cannot be reduced to either „consumerism“ or „population“. Neither does technology automatically shape new worlds, or particular ideas of social or personal good magic up the means to achieve them. History is a messy, iterative process, where all these interact. This case is well-made, and few historians would dispute it. An end to, or serious reduction in fossil fuel use, must therefore be accompanied ‘by developing sustainable technological systems better to meet human need’ – although one might ask whether earlier social and technical engineers did not also think they were doing this.

As a pioneer, this book will surely win a wide readership. I suspect its value will be greatest for those unfamiliar with the economic or energy history of the period. Indeed historians, who are not well represented in the bibliography, are perhaps not the target audience. In covering so much ground in so small a space, and without its own driving thesis being revealed until near the end, much of the work is descriptive and occasionally verging on the superficial. One could quibble with details, inevitably: 1972’s “Limits to Growth” for example did not put resource scarcity on the agenda of political elites, as it had been repeatedly raised in debates for decades beforehand – a different question would be why “Limits to Growth” gained wider resonance when so little of its content was new. Pirani cites the six main processes shaping increased fuel use as urbanization, industrialisation, changes in labour processes, electrification, and household consumption. Isolating these features sometimes makes space for little observational gems, such as the importance of gendered expectations of housework in driving technological „solutions“. Yet generally the themes are both so familiar and so disparate that one might wonder what is gained by gathering them all together. Is „energy“ itself, or „fossil fuels“ a good category for historical understanding? Today, our intuition is that this must surely be the case, but how to do so remains, like all history, a work in progress.