The concept of energy as we now understand it—a conserved quantity that represents the ability to do work—has been with us for less than two centuries. Yet its central role in human affairs dates to the time of the first humans, its role in shaping the physical and biological nature of the Earth dates to the planet's birth, and the story of Big Bang itself is told in terms of energy and matter.
Advances in our understanding of energy have produced unparalleled transformations of society, as exemplified by James Watt’s steam engine and the discovery of oil and its use as a fuel. Formalization of the concept of energy and identification of the laws governing its use by 19th century physical scientists such Mayer and Clausius are cornerstones of modern science.
The study of energy has played a pivotal role in understanding the creation of the universe, the origin of life, the evolution of human civilization and culture, economic growth and the rise of living standards, war and geopolitics, and significant environmental change at local, regional and global scales.
Virtually every discipline investigates some aspect of energy, including history, anthropology, public policy, international relations, human and ecosystem health, economics, technology, physics, geology, ecology, business management, environmental science, and engineering.
Nowhere is the central importance of energy more demonstrated than in W. Fred Cottrell's Energy and Society. Published originally in 1955, Energy and Society is among the first integrative treatments of the connection between a society's energy conditions and the evolution of its culture. Put simply, it is among the best books ever written on energy. Among the notable features of the book is the development and application of the concept of energy return on investment (EROI) is the ratio of the energy extracted or delivered by a process to the energy used directly and indirectly in that process. A common related term is energy surplus, which is the gross amount of energy extracted or delivered, minus the energy used directly and indirectly in that process.
Cottrell was the first to demonstrate that economies with access to energy sources with a large energy surplus have greater potential for economic expansion and/or diversification than those with access to lower quality fuels. The history of the expansion of human civilization and its material standard of living is directly linked to successive access to and development of fuel sources with increasingly greater energy surpluses. The transitions from animate energy sources such as plant, biomass, and draft animals, to wind and water power, to fossil fuels and electricity enabled increases in per capita output due to increases in the quantity of fuel available to produce non-energy goods. The transition to higher surplus fuels also enabled social and economic diversification as increasingly less available energy was used in the energy securing process, meaning more fuel was available to support non-extractive activities.
Over the years Cottrell revised Energy and Society, but he never re-published the book. His son Bob Cottrell discovered the revised manuscript after his father died in 1979. Bob enlisted other friends and family members as well as staff at the Scripps Center at Miami University in Oxford Ohio to pull the manuscript together. We owe all of these individuals a debt of gratitude for making this important revised work accessible to to the general public. The book's ideas and message are even more relevant in 2009 than they were in 1955.
Cutler J. Cleveland
Professor of Geography and Environment
Encyclopedia of Earth
The Encyclopedia of Energy
This is a chapter from Energy and Society: The Relationship Between Energy, Social Change, and Economic Development (e-book).
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