Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies by David Nye

David Nye’s book Consuming Power is an ambitious project to both tell the history of energy systems in the US and account for how increased energy expanded the US consumer culture, especially during the latter half of the twentieth century. He provides an informative and engaging history of the transformations from muscle-labor power to water, coal and steam generated power, and finally electricity. Each successive energy system brings increasingly abundant potential energy, changes in the ordinary daily practices of individuals, and changes in geographical and societal organization. This history is rich in detail and persuasive in demonstrating how energy underpins the particular character of society and the economy. Nye’s attempt to tie in an explanation of the “culture of consumption” is somewhat less convincing, however. While the rise of new products, excess capital, leisure time, and the manufacturing of desire through advertising all accompany an explosion of available energy in the 20th century, the reader is left feeling lost in a complex argument with many causes and effects. Better sign posting on the part of Nye would facilitate a clear path through the complex webs of causality between energy and culture. In the end, the book is valuable insofar as it provides a detailed narrative of energy systems transformed the American economy and landscape in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Consuming Power explicitly challenges what Nye simply calls a “determinist” account of historical change, particularly with regard to energy technologies. Nye argues that some energy systems gain “technological momentum” and do so not because they are an inevitable natural force. Instead humans select the machines they use from various options available to them for a variety of contingent and political factors. Furthermore, new technologies are interpreted and shaped to fit people’s needs in historical contexts. Consuming Power describes how particular energy systems are shaped by humans and gain dominant positions in society.

A central thesis of Consuming Power involves the growing amount of energy Americans have at their disposal to do work. Nye does an excellent job of providing interesting conversions of energy from one system to another. For example, when considering the shift from muscle power to water power, Nye notes that with the development of a 500-horsepower water turbine a mill has the equivalent of 1000 horses, though without the need to feed horses and care for them with additional personnel. In addition to geographically freeing production from rivers, steam coupled with coal dramatically increases the energy available to construct steel and concentrated urban centers. With gasoline and electricity, Americans find themselves in the historically curious position of having an overabundance of energy. Nye notes how in 1970 the “average household commanded more energy than a small town in the Colonial period” and how a television consumes more kilowatts in an hour than a team of horses could provide in a week. Consuming Power puts into perspective our intense energy dependence for the infrastructure we take as granted today.

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