New Energy for a New World

In the early years of this century, it is clear that we need a new global energy strategy, balancing a mix of our existing and newly developing energy sources not only against their harmful effects on the planet, but also against our need to intensify production in some parts of the world, and our concern to restrain population growth everywhere. The economic pressure of a capitalist system powered by an assumption of growth and increasing profits, and concerns about the environmental effects of our dependence on carbon-based fuels, add to the urgency of finding this balance and expediting the development of new or additional sources of energy. It may or may not be comforting to reflect that it has always been thus, – a constant search for new sources of energy that can intensify our production of a surplus that makes possible and necessary our ever-changing social-political and aesthetic cultures.

So where does this new energy come from? It seems to be that there can only be two sources of energy:

  • The transformation of nature, – the raw materials or technologies from which energy can be derived
  • The organization or reorganization of human labour for the transformation of nature to meet our needs

The first group of energy sources is well known, – fire, wind, wood, coal, oil and gas, and electrification. But the ways in which we organize or reorganize our ability to do work, cooperation, controlled servitude, slavery, serfdom, trade and waged labour, – have also directly affected our energy audit and the values that go with it. While technological energy sources are the concern of our material cultures, the organization of our work force is a primary question for our social-political cultures. Egalitarian or oppressive, merit based or case determined, it is clear that the values expressed in our social-political culture arise from the ways in which we organize ourselves as a collective source of energy.

The technological history has often been told, – beginning with myths such as Prometheus, and proceeding to the vast literature available today on oil and gas. What has not been acknowledged is how the values we have to adopt and the beliefs we have to sacrifice or suppress to exploit each new source of energy have affected both our social-political and our aesthetic culture.

The relationship between energy and culture may be expressed in four premises:

  • A culture cannot arise or continue without the energy source that enables the culture to be practiced
  • Getting and retaining access to sufficient energy requires adopting certain values and acknowledging certain priorities, while abandoning, denying or suppressing others.
  • The values and meanings entailed by that energy source become a basic component of the value system of that culture
  • If the energy source changes, then the values and meanings at the base of that culture will change. Energy transition is an engine of cultural change.

The cultural change, usually happening over decades or centuries, is not unlike the experience of the frog that does not notice the water in the cauldron is heating up to the boiling point because it is warmed so gradually; nevertheless, the frog boils to death. Today we frogs are intensely conscious of the need to make decisions about our optional sources of energy. So it is not accidental that the cultural significance of energy sources is being noticed early in the 21st century, or that a museum planner should be noticing it. In the early 21st century we are conscious of a wide array of energy sources, some dating from the beginning of time, others from the relatively recent exploitation of coal, oil, and nuclear energy, to current research and development of renewable alternatives. At this point in time it becomes possible to see the cultural implications of these energy sources.

Museums communicate meanings and values, and often present evidence of the multiple value systems, sometimes in direct contradiction of each other, that are associated with successive energy sources. Museums that range through the whole history of humanity present a cornucopia of meanings and values derives from the influences of all the energy sources discussed in this book, as well as other factors affecting the culture they display. Outside museum walls, the contention between value systems may be benign, or it may be malevolent and threatening. Understanding how many of these sometime conflicting values arise from the energy sources on which they depend may help us to keep the various “conflicts of civilizations” civil.

Barry Lord
Art and Energy
How Culture Changes

Creative connections

Creating Our Energy Systems