The impact of exploding energy use upon human society is nowhere more obvious than in the way we go about our daily lives. Remember sitting in the cold with flashlights and candles during the last electricity blackout? Now imagine if that blackout were permanent; past the point where all the batteries for flashlights and cell phones died. Let's keep going: Imagine that you, and everybody else, had no gasoline for your cars. Few if any stores would be open without power. Those that tried to stay open would quickly be left with empty shelves, deprived of gasoline powered vehicles to deliver their stocks. Where do we get food? How do we keep warm at night? How do you visit your friends the next town over? Now one begins to grasp the role energy plays in our lives.
When most people think about their consumption, they return to
consumer products: cars, electronics, clothing, food, makeup and myriad
other items that can be purchased at a store. And while access to many
of these items would be impossible without an industrialized economy,
individually they have a comparatively small impact on our daily lives.
There are more basic ways that industrialization has absolutely
transformed our lives, so that the life of an average person before the
energy revolution would seem positively alien to us today, and vice
versa. Energy analyst Daniel Yergin believes these transformative
aspects are access to lighting, heating, cooling and transportation.
Prior to the light bulb, lighting came from candles, oil and gas lamps, the sun and the moon. Therefore for most of humanity's existence the day ended when the sun went down, and began when the sun came up. Most British Columbians have never lived in an era before electric lighting and will have little clue as to what this kind of life is like. This is what makes a study by anthropologist Tanja Winther on the effects of electrification in an African community so fascinating.
The study went on to list a host of social changes that electric lighting immediately brought about, both positive and negative.
Heating has also had an enormous and surprisingly profound impact upon
people's quality of living. Prior to oil, gas or electric heating, heat
had to come from a central fire place which burned wood. Heat for
cooking came from charcoal. In pre-industrial societies proper
ventilation is often lacking and quickly leads to dangerous health
conditions. Homes that rely on wood and charcoal for heating and cooking
have "typically 10 to 100 times the long-term levels [of small
concentrated particles] recommended by the World Health Organization."
These particles lead directly to pneumonia, bronchitis and emphysema. As
this continues to be how a large part of the global population lives
today, indoor fires pose a major health burden to many developing
countries. The WHO attributes between 800,000 and 2.4 million premature
deaths a year to indoor burning, while millions more suffer chronic lung
When large numbers of people rely upon wood for fuel huge pressure is
placed upon local forests. Production of charcoal has been blamed for
massive deforestation in Sub-Saharan Africa, and contributed to the
catastrophic deforestation of Haiti.
When people switched from indoor burning to central heating from gas, electricity or oil for heat, profound improvements upon the quality of people's social lives and mental wellbeing were observed. A study by the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth found that for those living in homes without central heating, dealing with the cold came to be one of the central aspects of their lives. Families were often confined to a single room, the one with the fireplace. Interviews showed that people living in these homes experienced lower self-esteem, a diminished desire to maintain the house and felt a depressing lack of control over their situations. This contributed directly to stress and personal relationships fraught with conflict.
After these homes had central heating installed, all of these measures
improved markedly. When the whole house was warmer and drier, people
felt freer to move throughout the house. As the study notes,
"Opportunities for leisure and study improved, there was increased
motivation to maintain the house and this resulted in more social
interaction. There was a perceived improvement in relationships and
These social impacts of course only apply to regions where it becomes cold enough to worry about heating. In hot, arid regions, the converse is true with cooling.
The development of cooling has had one major well-documented impact: it
encourages people to live in dry, hot regions. Phoenix, Arizona has an
average high of 39 degrees Celsius in July.
Before the Second World War population growth in these states lagged
behind the rest of the United States. After the war, when the air
conditioner became affordable enough for mass deployment, the
populations of these states exploded. Between 1950 and 2000 Texas grew
by 13 million people to a total of 20 million. Florida's population
skyrocketed by almost 500%. Arizona's by 584%. Clark County, in Nevada,
(home of Las Vegas) 3,000%. To put this in perspective, the population
of the entire United States grew only 86% from 1950-2000.
Finally, industrialization has revolutionized the way we travel. First
railways allowed people to travel perhaps ten times faster than on foot.
Commercial air travel developed following the Second World War and now
around 18,000 commercial jet airliners fly the world's skies. Still this
most expensive form of transportation, far from gaining the traction of
cars or trains: only 5% of the world's population has ever been on an
These new fossil-fuel dependent forms of transportation get us farther,
faster than ever before, simply because fossil fuels are so energy
dense. Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the United States' nuclear
navy, tried to quantify the immense power's our civilization had
unlocked. A single locomotive engineer, he figured, had at his disposal
the energy equivalent of 100,000 men. A jet pilot: 700,000 men.
Humanity's increasing mobility is leading to a number of obvious social
impacts. Everything from vacations to globalization, urban sprawl, and
mass migrations, all have been made possible by rapid transport. Rapid
transport has been cited for an obesity epidemic and facilitating the
spread of infectious diseases.
Industrialization has made almost all of our lives astonishingly better. With more energy at our disposal we British Columbians have access to goods and services that would have been unthinkable in any previous time period, with leisure time to spend as we like. Thanks to lighting, heating, cooling and transportation, our lives would be virtually unrecognizable to someone born before the Industrial Revolution, or in one of the world's many developing regions today. While improving our lives, more energy means there is more of everything to go around, leading to a population boom unprecedented in human history. Learn about humanity's remarkable population growth, and energy's contribution to it in the next chapter.
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Basham, Meryl, Steve Shaw and Andy Barton. "Central Heating: Uncovering the impact on social relationships and household management." Peninsula Medical School at the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth. 2004.
"How electricity changes daily life in Zanzibar - Interview with anthropologist Tanja Winther." Anthropologi.info: Social and cultural anthropology in the news, Nov. 27, 2008.
"Motor Vehicles (per 1,000 people)." World Bank.
Gulli, Cathy. "The Big Chill: How Air Conditioning Changed the World." Maclean's Magazine, May 31, 2010.
Robert E. Lang and Kristopher M. Rengert. "The Hot and Cold Sunbelts: Comparing State Growth Rates, 1950-2000." The Fannie Mae Foundation, 2001.
Smith, K.R. "Health impacts of household fuelwood use in developing countries." Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2002.
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Stacy C. Davis, Susan W. Diegel, and Robert G. Boundy (June 2011). Transportation Energy Data Book: Edition 30. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, U.S. Department of Energy. pp. 3-9
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