Book Entry: Review: ‘Power Trip’ Ably Guides Us Through the History of Energy

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The classic definition of energy, Michael E. Webber tells us in his illuminating book, “Power Trip: The Story of Energy,” is “the capacity to do work.” As such, energy is “the builder of civilization,” and the history of the world can be seen as a history of our collective relationship to energy.

And yet, as an unseen force, energy remains poorly understood. Indeed, the Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman famously lamented about a half century ago that “in physics today, we have no knowledge of what energy is.” Professor Webber seeks to shed light on this simultaneously ubiquitous and mysterious phenomenon. “Power Trip” offers intertwined essays that chart the history of six key uses of energy — water, food, transportation, wealth, cities and security — and, importantly, quantifies the trade-offs inherent in every significant innovation along the way.

Food production, for instance, was revolutionized in the second half of the 20th century. The introduction of synthetic fertilizers and various chemicals increased crop productivity and reduced losses, but those innovations came with an environmental cost. The parallel shift from labor-intensive to energy-intensive farming also drove huge social changes; less than 20 percent of the population remains in rural areas.

“Power Trip” also reminds us of both the importance of long discarded forms of energy and the social consequences of various advances. How many of us know that wars were once fought over access to salt, a primary means of food preservation long before the availability of refrigeration? And few probably appreciate the role of the Franklin stove in reducing female fatalities from burns (the second leading cause of death among women in colonial times) and indoor pollution. Nor are most of us aware, even today, that indoor air pollution caused by the use of solid fuels in simple cookstoves in many parts of the world is responsible for 2.5 million premature deaths of women and children each year.

The central trade-off that animates “Power Trip,” however, is between the existential imperative of global decarbonization to staunch our march toward self-destruction and the moral imperative of increasing energy access to the “more than one billion people without access to electricity, piped water or sanitation.” Notably, the efficiency improvements in the United States, combined with the slowing of growth in energy consumption, has actually resulted in a reduction in our emissions domestically. The problem, of course, is that to achieve a reduction in overall global emissions while improving basic access to water and power will require significantly more aggressive efforts.

On the questions of what to do and where we are going, “Power Trip” does not provide much of a road map. Professor Webber crams a head-spinning number of lists and imperatives into a 10-page epilogue on “the future of energy.” We are directed to consider “six demographic trends, three technological trends and one overarching environmental trend” and told that, while “there are no universal, immediate solutions,” there are a variety of principles we would do well to follow. Long-term, global thinking is good, old clichés and false choices are bad. Hard to argue with that, but the complex underlying policy issues raised could have used a less perfunctory treatment.

“Ultimately,” Professor Webber argues, “we need some combination of new production, increased energy access, smarter solutions and a cultural emphasis on efficiency and conservation.” This exhortation may just seem like an anodyne slogan but, coming at the end of the book’s careful historical survey, it reflects something much more profound. Effectively addressing our energy challenges will require us to simultaneously confront large political, technological and social obstacles. In short, it is precisely the kind of complex policy problem the current polarized era feels structurally incapable of intelligently addressing.

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