←Back: A Brief History of Energy Use

The Global Consumer Economy

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.

A fluorescent light bulb
A compact fluorescent light bulb. It is hard to understate how tremendously lighting has changed our daily 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. Let's examine the importance of each of these in turn.

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.

"With electric light the day in theory has 24 hours instead of 12. People must make new choices as to what to do when. In consequence, time is speeding up and practices change: Women cook only two meals each day and not three as they used to (they now serve leftovers for the third meal). This is also linked to their wish to watch television in the evening and their opportunity to earn money during daytime."

The study went on to list a host of social changes that electric lighting immediately brought about, both positive and negative.

A woman cooking on a traditional stove in Ghana
A woman cooking on a traditional stove in Ghana.

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 illnesses.

Deforestation of Haiti
A satellite image of the border between Haiti (left) and the Dominican Republic (right). Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas. There are a number of reasons for this, but foremost among them are poor land management and a lack of other sources of energy. The result has been that the population cut down almost all of the country's forests in search of firewood for heating and cooking. Deforestation on this scale has terrible long term consequences for the environment and the local people.

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 health."

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. If you have experienced these temperatures you will be aware of how inhospitable they can be without air conditioning. It is then no surprise that the modern air conditioner, invented in 1902 by Willis Carrier, played a huge role in encouraging the settlement of the so-called "Sun-Belt" states: Florida, Georgia, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Georgia and southern California.

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. Historian Gary Mormino, explains these population trends in terms of access to cooling. "Air conditioning was essential to the development of the Sun Belt. It was unquestionably the most significant factor."

Finally, industrialization has revolutionized the way we travel. First railways allowed people to travel perhaps ten times faster than on foot. Automobiles were invented in the late 1800s. They began as toys of the rich, but as prices came down they quickly became the primary source of transportation in the developed world. Today we live in car-dependent societies. In the United States there are 828 cars for every 1,000 people. Canada lags somewhat at 620 cars per 1,000 people, 13th in the world. By comparison, there are 37 cars in China for every 1,000 people.

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 airplane. Nevertheless for those able to pay, the furthest reaches of the globe are now accessible in a matter of hours. Oil-fuelled container ships link the world's economies together, throwing off the shackles of the wind and making journeys in hours and days that had once taken weeks and months.

A woman cooking on a traditional stove in Ghana
The growth in air travel has allowed British Columbians to travel to every region of the globe in a matter of hours.

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. As these means of transportation continue to spread exponentially their effects will be felt by more and more people.

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.

Population Growth Article


"Airplanes and Globalization," The Globalist: Syndication Services.

"Average Temperatures for Phoenix, Arizona". Weather Channel.

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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Yergin, Daniel. The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World. (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), p. 716.

"Zambia's Vanishing Forests." Living on Earth Blog. March 4, 1994.