Section I – The Importance of Energy to our American Culture
Cultural anthropology provides the needed framework for understanding the energy security challenge now squarely facing Americans—specifically, the anthropological study of the relationship of culture to energy undertaken by American anthropologist Leslie White.
A. White’s Law provides the framework for understanding our energy security challenge
White establishes these two key thought anchors:
- Culture, as White defines it, “consists of tools, implements, utensils, clothing, ornaments, customs, institutions, police, rituals, games, works of art, language, etc.” In other words, culture is what separates modern man from living in a cave, gnawing at uncooked food, and living a short and brutish existence. Culture can be defined as standard of living. Almost everything Americans do is done within the physical expression of culture.
- Energy, as White uses this term, is “the capacity for performing work.” Work (whether by humans, animals, or machines) is what produces the products and supplies the services that constitute culture and enable us to live prosperously.
Bringing culture and energy together, White defines his law of cultural evolution as “Other factors remaining constant, culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the instrumental means of putting the energy to work is increased.” “Instrumental means” is a fancy way of describing the technology embodied in the products and services forming our standard of living and the industry producing these products and services.
His arguments are summarized on Wikipedia as:
- Technology is an attempt to solve the problems of survival.
- This attempt ultimately means capturing enough energy and diverting it for human needs.
- Societies that capture more energy and use it more efficiently have an advantage over other societies.
- Therefore, these different societies are more advanced in an evolutionary sense.
While this line of thinking is exceptional, White expressed his law with a simple symbolic expression that is very understandable:
E • T → C
- E is the energy used to produce the goods and services consumed. E can be expressed either as the energy used per person (per capita) or the total energy used by the political unit (e.g., the United States).
- T are the technologies, using modern energy forms, used to produce the goods, services, and energy at a particular point in time, as well as the technologies embedded in the products. Technology is the application of science through engineering and manufacturing.
- C is the standard of living achievable, at a point in time, using available design, manufacturing, and product/service technologies when supplied with sufficient energy of the correct type.
The symbol “•” is used to express the interaction of energy with technology. It is not a symbol indicating multiplication. Likewise, the symbol “→” is not an “=” expressing equality; it is better understood as indicating yields.
B. America’s energy security challenge is to meet our children’s energy needs
White’s Law, with just five common symbols, captures the fundamental essence of the challenge America (and the world) has this century to REMAIN civilized. America’s energy security challenge this century is: Will America have enough energy of the right type, combined with sufficiently capable technology, to yield an acceptable standard of living for our children and grandchildren?
With the life expectancy of Americans now commonly stretching into the 80s, many of today’s newborns will easily live to see the opening of the 22nd century. Thus, as a society of responsible adults/parents/grandparents understanding the clear implications of White’s Law, our national energy security planning horizon now stretches at least to 2100. In terms of White’s Law, we are, therefore, responsible to see that the following relationship holds true:
EAmerica in 2100 • T2100 → CAmerica in 2100
CAmerica in 2100 ≥ CAmerica today
Expressing this in terms of per capita energy consumption (e) and the U.S. population:
(eAmerican in 2100 x PopulationUnited States in 2100) • T2100 → CAmerica in 2100
The philosophical beauty of this formulation of America’s energy security dilemma/challenge is that it allows us to dissect this dilemma/challenge into its pieces, study them, understand them, and use this information to formulate an implementable engineering solution that will make the above expression valid. The starting point is to understand America’s population growth through 2100. Population size is the primary consideration in assessing U.S. energy security.