25-3 Book Review: Sustainable Futures

Bruce Podobnik’s Global Energy Shifts offers an altogether different perspective. A historical sociology of energy systems, it highlights the political and cultural obstacles facing any effort to alter existing energy technologies. Podobnik, an associate professor of sociology at Lewis and Clark College, explores the human power relations that shape energy technology. He suggests that competition for natural resources, national security, and prestige have been at least as important as objective economic demand in shaping energy systems. Rooting his broad survey in the so-called center-periphery theory of Immanuel Wallerstein, Podobnik argues that with the advent of the industrial revolution, the control of energy resources became inextricable from national economic development, international competition, and imperialism. The state has continuously played a key role in initiating and subsidizing shifts to new energy resources—first coal, then oil. This has resulted in tremendous inequality in energy consumption, with so-called core industrialized nations using a disproportionate share.

Podobnik employs a spare, urgent style in emphasizing the recent and rapid nature of these developments. Citing data from such sources as the United Nations, the International Energy Agency, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration, he shows how vast amounts of energy have been introduced into industrial economies in a relatively short time. More energy was consumed between 1946 and 1973 than between 1800 and 1946. This breathtaking expansion was not a response to demand, Podobnik argues, but was engineered by petroleum, automobile, and military– industrial interests, particularly in the United States. As governments of industrialized nations directly and indirectly subsidized nuclear, hydroelectric, and fossil fuel–based energy and transportation systems, they encouraged a lifestyle based on massive energy consumption. This habit, claims Podobnik, has fostered conflict and ecological catastrophe as developed but resource-poor northern nations have attempted to exercise hegemony over resource-rich developing nations in the southern hemisphere.

Podobnik’s book makes for engaged but relentlessly grim reading. Unlike Bradford, he does not dwell on miracle technological solutions. Modern energy regimes are tremendously complicated social, economic, and technological systems with deep historical roots, he argues; there are no easy answers to the problem of sustainable energy production. Podobnik does sometimes oversimplify matters. In particular, center-periphery theory is a blunt instrument where nuance is wanted. A number of nations, including Canada, seem to fall on both sides of this dualism. The strength of Podobnik’s work, however, is that it shows how politics and economics cannot be divorced from energy technology systems. The lessons of history, he writes, reveal that such systems are neither static nor “natural” but have been constantly shaped and reshaped by human choices. People decided to engineer energy shifts in the past and will continue do so in the future. Less concerned than Bradford with the mechanics of energy salvation and employing a more cautious and scholarly approach, Podobnik ultimately offers a similar message: the fragile, evanescent nature of modern energy systems should give hope to those who wish to replace the incumbent order with a more sustainable and equitable one.

Matthew Eisler is a historian of science and technology at the University of Alberta and the 2004 Ullyot Scholar at CHF.