The main idea of this book is that human culture and corresponding values are to the large extent defined by the method of energy acquisition and level of energy consumption that are typical for a given society. The 3 main methods are:
- Foraging, when energy just collected from nature by the way of hunting and gathering. This method is conductive to egalitarian cultures with high levels of cooperation including cooperation in bringing down anybody who is trying to use physical or some other kind of superiority to suppress other people.
- Farming, when energy obtained from cultivated crops and domesticated animals. This method, while generally detrimental to individual well-being nevertheless provides for a big hierarchically organized societies that command superior military power easily capable to push away foragers from any territory farmers want to acquire for themselves. Correspondingly such society built on strict hierarchy that is normally accepted by all members of society from king to the slave with somewhat contractual relationship between different layers of society with top of hierarchy either directly connected to gods or being considered gods themselves.
- Fossil fuel users obviously obtain energy from fossil fuels in amount by far superior to two other methods and use industrial methods to produce goods and services. Such societies strictly limit use of force either in form of wars between societies or internal unregulated violence since industrial methods of violence become too damaging to all sides of conflict. Consequently values of such society return to egalitarian roots despite continuing hierarchical structure of society that becomes much less rigid and formal. These societies also implement new notions of human rights and necessity of general welfare for all as necessary core values without which society would become unsustainable.
Chapter 1. EACH AGE GETS THE THOUGHT IT NEEDS
The book starts with an episode from author’s youth when he participated in archeological expedition in Greece and encountered such attitude to women by locals that was completely incomprehensible to him: man’s attitude to his wife as if she was less than human. He constantly returns to this episode to demonstrate how alien could be approach of different culture for individual. This book is an attempt to classify at high level all human cultures over period of 20000 years as belonging to one of 3 qualitatively different group: Cultures of Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil fuel users depending on method of energy acquisition and amount of energy used. Author makes point that generally each culture’s features are very similar to any other culture’s features in the same group and qualitatively different from any culture from another group in its system of values. Moreover these systems of values developed evolutionary and are the most effective in supporting survival based on each method of energy acquisition and use. Author also provides a few interesting graphs based on World Values Survey. Here is the most interesting one:
Chapter 2. FORACERS
Author defines foragers as people living of the nature by collecting all necessities of live by using hunting and gathering. He provides a nice table of geography of archeological evidence of such societies:
Obviously they are highly depended on climate and nature. While these societies practically disappeared, their values and culture are identified via archeological evidence and anthropological research over last hundred years when they were in process of being eliminated by contemporary civilization. These values are highly egalitarian, with nobody being superior to anybody else, high appreciation of sharing as consequence of superiority of cooperative efforts and impossibility of savings.
Chapter 3. FARMERS
For farmers, whose economy based on cultivation, author provides three-pointed star with core being peasants and points representing somewhat peripheral offshoots of farming society:
Farming societies well familiar not only by archeological data, but because they left tremendous amount of written sources, literature, and art. Moreover they are still with us and as recently as 100 years ago they represented the vast majority of humanity. Correspondingly their culture and values defined by strict hierarchy with every individual assigned to some station with low probability of change and strict enforcement of cultural norm. Author makes an interesting point that this method despite depriving individuals of good live: massive evidence shows that farmers have less nutrition, work more, have low levels of health and high levels of mortality; nevertheless allowed humanity to expand and take over all ecological niches that more or less available, while periodically hitting Malthusian limitations. Here is an interesting evaluation of levels of energy consumption:
Another nice graph represent typical structure of agrarian society:
Chapter 4. FOSSIL FUELS
Finally his discussion of Fossil fuel users is supported by practically infinite amount of data because that is what contemporary societies are. The main feature of such societies is their industrial character and consequently tremendous technological and military superiority over other forms of society. It leads to extreme division of labor and expansion of exchange of labor, capital, good, and services either in voluntary form of market or in coercive form of various types of socialism. Author claims that generally values of this kind of society tend to be more egalitarian and he provides some data to support this idea from pint of view of energy capture:
At the end of chapter author summarizes all three type in a couple of nice graphs:
COMMENTS: The remaining 5 chapters of the book present views of author opponents and his response.
Chapter 6. ON THE IDEOLOGY OF IMAGINING THAT “EACH AGE GETS THE THOUGHT IT NEEDS” RICHARD SEAFOOD; Chapter 7. BUT WHAT WAS IT RFALLY LIKE? THE LIMITATIONS OF MEASURING HISTORICAL VALUES JONATHAN D. SPENCE; Chapter 8. ETERNAL VALUES, EVOLVING VALUES, AND THE VALUE OF THE SELF CHRISTINE M. KORSGAARD; Chapter 9. WHEN THE LIGHTS GO OUT: HUMAN VALUES AFTER THE COLLAPSE OF CIVILIZATION. MARGARET ATWOOD
RESPONSE: CHAPTER 10.MY CORRECT VIEWS ON EVERYTHING IAN MORRIS
MY TAKE ON IT:
I like author’s idea to link energy consumption with society’s values via method of energy acquisitions and evolutionary selection of values most conductive for every method. I think that he provided quite good set of examples demonstrating how similar level of energy consumption and method of acquisition led to similar structure of societies and its values regardless of geography, race, and other considerations. The only thing I find missing is a good discussion of future development when energy becomes abundant. What kind of values this situation would cause to develop. Another interesting point missing is a discussion of current effort by elites of contemporary western societies to limit energy consumption by masses under guise of global cooling or warming or whatever. I think that it linked mainly to unconscious, but very strong and probably correct perception by current fossil fuel elites that elimination of energy limitations would cause such dramatic increase in freedom and change on values that they will be bound to loose their elite status and with it power over other people.