If the readings which we have done so far have taught me anything, it is that there is much in the very idea of an American culture that is constructed and fabricated. The idea of homogeneity in the 1950s, as both an ideal and a possibility has been central to many of the readings that we have done, but I have found that this week’s text readily fits in with that narrative, of constructed American identity surrounding both technology, and more importantly, consumerism. The central argument of Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America is the premise that the growth of fossil fuel-dependent energy was neither natural nor inevitable but instead a product of a series of decisions specific to both time and place. Christopher Jones works to create the argument about the commodification of energy during the nineteenth century in the United States into unraveling the historical development of coal production, oil transport, and dams into America’s energy history. He takes the stance within his argument that it was not the need for electricity that drove the need for these fossil fuels, but instead the discovery of these fossil fuels that led capitalist ventures both by private individuals and by the government to encourage people that the need for energy was much greater than it was. Practicality became the key to making money through the technology, with efficiency and commercial use leading the way into the homes of Americans.
The discussion in the introduction about the calculated switch, by some, from organic to mineral energy as economic in nature, and the way in which he furthers that argument by bringing his discussion from the past to today, worked well. Usually I am hesitant of historians who try to bring their arguments about the past and try to teach overriding lessons about the present (and I am even more aware of this now that I am thinking about my own arguments surrounding the creation of an American identity in conjunction with technology during the 1950s), but Jones does it in a way that is tasteful and is not reaching, which is the most important aspect of his approach to me, as far as that is concerned. Much in the same way that we had discussed in many of the environmental histories which we have read, there is also this running theme of putting things off for the next generation to deal with, but in the case of many of these mineral energy sources, it goes deeper than that, because there is also a push for the next generation to become dependant on these energy sources, so that they are forcing the issue to be put off further.
There are many different types of history running through this text, as many of the most compelling histories are. There is an economic history of the concerted effort to make mineral energy both marketable, and create a demand for it. But then there is the history of the creation of infrastructure to make these energy sources viable in new markets. But also there is a history of the transportation efforts that made the movement of these materials possible. Before mineral energy became the main energy source, energy sources were local, and had to be, and the idea that there was a major change in infrastructure in order to make mineral energy possible was new to me. This is a social history in so much as there is a tracking of social changes that made mineral energy such a demanded product. But mostly, this is an environmental history, which would make sense given the subject matter. I am going to openly admit though, that I had a hard time relating this piece to any of the work which I am currently doing, since it occurs so much earlier in the American timeline of events than where I am focusing.
November 21, 2017 at 3:48 pm
In a capitalist system, discoveries are made and people profit from those discoveries as they develop them into products for consumers. We found coal which led to industrialization that had not occurred before. Petroleum the same. Facebook/Amazon/Google/Microsoft/Apple the same. Created products that fuel demand. Many times we do not look into the future to see potential harm, or we do see the harm and ignore it. In many business schools in the past, like when I went, these “success” stories were studied to see the rise and fall or just the rise. We do have a history of pushing problems off to future generations, and a lot of this I generated by greed, but we cannot stop exploring for new opportunities, which need some financial incentives or people won’t keep looking.