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Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies

Author(s):Nye, David E.
Reviewer(s):Melosi, Martin V.

Published by and EH.Net (August, 1998)

David E. Nye.

Consuming Power: A Social History of American

Energies. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998. xii + 331 pp. Illustrations, notes, index. $25.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-262-14063-2.

Energies. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998. xii + 331 pp. Illustrations, notes, index. $25.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-262-14063-2.

Reviewed for H-Business by Martin V. Melosi , University of Houston

Energy in Big Gulps

In this synthetic work, David E. Nye not only expands his list of valuable works on energy and technology, but takes the logical step in the existing literature from studying the production of energy to examining the consumption of energy. Surprisingly, in a society like the United States that has always taken the use of energy in big gulps, scholars have most often chosen to focus on the development and growth of energy industries (oil companies, mining companies, lumbering), the technology of production, and the economic consequences of same. Few historians, with the exception of Mark Rose, Harold Platt, and now Nye, have given sufficient attention to how we consume energy and what this tells us about our culture. Nye views consumption of energy in three ways: (1) “the literal demand for energy”; (2) “the rising demand for more goods”; and (3) the possibility that energy demands “can be ecologically destructive” (p. 12). The third view is, however, more of a consequence of the first two than a descriptive category.

Nye intends to give attention to “ordinary activities”–creating businesses, home-making, living in communities, seeking pleasures, purchasing goods–and how they “changed as people constructed new energy systems, from Colonial times to the present.” He disavows the notion that “more energy is better” or that “more energy equals more civilization.” Instead, he intends to make clear that “as Americans incorporated new machines and processes into their lives, they became ensnared in power systems that were not easily changed” (p. 1).

As a good historian of technology, he avoids technological determinism, placing an emphasis on human choice and culture in the selection and use of energy systems. “Human beings select the machines they use and shape them to fit within different cultures” (p. 3). And like other historians before him, Nye accepts Thomas Hughes’s notion of “technological momentum” for large systems which suggests that while these systems have some flexibility in their initial phases, they become less so over time. Some economists call this “path dependance” which emphasizes the notion that choices made early–in the application of a technology in this case–become more difficult to alter over time. Nye also gives primary attention to large energy systems–water power, steam power, electricity, the internal combustion engine, atomic power, and computerization–and their individual technological momenta. The systems approach, shunned for several decades after the 1930s or so, has had a resurgence in recent years as a mechanism for understanding the intersection between technology and culture.

The chronology in the book is driven by a relatively conventional focus on a succession of energy systems–wood, coal, petroleum, electricity–without attempting to suggest discrete stages. Nye emphasizes overlapping series as opposed to an Age of Coal or and Age of Oil. Such a view is a realistic assessment of how energy sources are developed and used. He also makes the insightf ul observation that each energy system “has been used to shape distinctive domestic patterns, work routines, urban structures, and agricultural methods, imparting particular rhythms and contours to the everyday round” (p. 8). This reinforces the notion that energy systems become less flexible as they mature.

The first section of the book, “Expansion,” treats the period of European colonization or conquest in North America. Accepting a tenet of environmental historians, Nye views European settlement from the perspective of redefining nature as resources and then transforming them into commodities–lumbering and the manufacture of iron, for example. The application of energy technologies, such as water power, also disrupted food-producing activity, such as fishing and agriculture (a process of economic trade-offs benefitting the new settlers at the expense of Native-American peoples). These “energies of conquest” also transformed activities like agriculture from subsistence into market economies. While not going as far as Alfred Crosby in suggesting the development of a Neo-Europe in North America, Nye emphasizes how a shift in values the European conquest impulse used energy as a tool to remake the physical and economic environment of aboriginal Amer ica. The production of cotton cloth and woollen goods in the northeast United States through the use of water power in the nineteenth century was an extension of these initial impulses. Cotton cloth and woollen goods were the first mass-produced product s in North America, heavily dependent on an energy-intensive technology, notably the water wheel. This was a regional, as opposed to national, phenomenon, however. In the South, the slave economy continued to rely heavily on muscle power, and in Nye’s view, did not maximize production. He uses this regional dichotomy in the use of energy to reinforce the notion of “the centrality of culture in determining which technologies will be adopted and how they will be used” (p. 59).

In the central section of the book, “Concentration,” Nye turns to the Industrial Revolution. He is particularly interested in how steam power came to the city through transportation and then manufacturing. What begins as a relatively traditional recitation of the impact of the railroad, quickly turns to an examination of differences in regional transformation in the application of coal and steam. Whereas locomotives and other forms of steam power were closely linked to urban development in the North, in the southern states steam was primarily utilized in the countryside in rural sugar mills and sawmills, for example. This is a good observation, although somewhat generalized given the fact that urbanization in the South developed later than in the Northeast and cannot be treated as comparable in status. But Nye makes the point that the new energy technology served many functions and had several consequences. For example, the ability to concentrate factories through the application of steam power produced more destructive envi ronmental consequences than the dispersed waterpower uses of the cotton and saw mills. Of course, the impoundment and redirection of water and the use of rivers and streams as sinks produced their own kinds of environmental threat.

Much to his credit, N ye does not simply focus on the production of goods through the use of coal and steam, but turns attention to the home and to the amenities available in nineteenth-century America. He makes some brief remarks possibly too brief about energy becoming “inc reasingly a matter of social class” (p. 97), and the degree to which some products were most readily available to middle-class white Americans. It might have been valuable, however, to dwell a little longer on economic, as opposed to social, class struct ure as a determinant of energy use. He nonetheless makes a good case about the emerging high-energy society seen not only in the city, but on the farm. The farmer’s tools, his increasing dependence on the railroad, and the rising market economy connected agricultural America to the process of “consuming power.” Nye likewise links energy use to the rise of the corporation, although this argument seems a little strained. No one would doubt the transforming power of corporate concentration, and Nye falls in line with Alfred Chandler, Robert Wiebe, and all the rest in making this point. However, there is somewhat of a chicken-and-egg problem in singling out energy use and development as a core reason for business concentration. Nye seems on stronger ground when he relates the use of coal, steam, oil, and natural gas to the development of industrial systems. Electricity more than Nye’s substantial attention to Ford’s assembly-line technique was particularly influential in the development of sophisticated, complex industrial systems. It also revolutionized the household as Nye rightly contends.

In the third and last section, “Dispersion,” domestic consumption of energy in America’s modern era takes center stage. “Just as electrification transformed the possibilities for manufacturing, it energized the popular culture that was emerging at the end of the nineteenth century” (p. 157). Not only were Americans consuming telephones, radios, and motion pictures, but also attending Coney Island, a place much less effete in its conception of what people wanted than the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In essence, Nye argues, the new popular culture “did not trickle down from above as a simplified version of elite culture, nor did capitalists and moralizing soc ial reformers impose it. It emerged in response to demands for lively entertainment” (p. 160). And it was made possible through the application of new and abundant sources of energy. The advent of the automobile seemed to have similar roots in popular taste, but not without the superstructure of an industry poised to provide mass-produced motorcars, of course.

Nye follows the consumption trail to present-day America. Along the way, he points to several important changes: Farm life became more comfor table in the high-energy society, but farmers were being marginalized in the food-production and delivery chain. The retail centers of consumption migrated from central cities to suburban malls. New energy sources, such as atomic power and the wider use of natural gas, made the United States “the most highly powered society in the world” (p. 202). Television became an “environment.” Computers were springing up everywhere. Even the much ballyhooed energy crisis of the 1970s faded in memory by the 1990 s. Energy consumption kept apace with the high-energy lifestyle of middle Americans despite changes in international patterns of oil production and transport.

None of these facts are particularly striking or new. But Nye is not attempting to shock us with factual revelations. He is concerned with reinterpreting the familiar, building an historical periodization around themes of energy consumption, and placing great emphasis on choices made “about how people shape technologies” (p. 255). In several re spects, he has succeeded in doing just that with this book. Nye is a talented synthesizer and an important commentator on American society and culture. That he recognizes the intimacy between how American culture evolved and its use of energy is an impo rtant theme too often ignored in more traditional renditions of American history as a political or economic saga. Consuming Power is well-balanced in its chronology, in its treatment of major economic and social changes, and in its efforts to capture the essence of the American consumer culture. The emphasis on “choice” as the central factor in applying and using energy technologies sits squarely at the core of recent thinking about the history of technology that discounts technological determinism and “autonomous technology” and applauds the social construction of technical systems. This is a laudable impulse, but it is one that needs more refining in the book under discussion. A basic question not well answered is “Whose choice?” Is there a percep tible distinction between the decision of the manufacturer who employs electrical power in his factory and the decision of the consumer who buys the product made at that factory? What are the realms of choices available to manufacturers, consumers, and governments when it comes to energy? How can we distinguish between choices? How does the regulatory apparatus of the nation affect energy choices?

Beyond determining the gradations of choice, Nye and indeed the rest of us who do research in this area of history need to balance our understanding of what “choice” means with the realities of path dependence, that is, the constraints placed on choice by imbedded systems not easily modified, removed, or discarded. If David Nye was intent on forcing us to think in different ways about energy, consumption, and society, he has succeeded. Consuming Power, however, should not be the last word on these subjects, but a starting point for additional reflection.


Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):General or Comparative