Does Our Obsession with Future Energy Demand Blind Us to History?


512zhKictzL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_When I created H-Environment Roundtables in 2010, I hoped to generate some thoughtful discussions about books I wanted to read… a pretty modest aim! I did not anticipate how much I would learn, and how many fascinating people I would meet in the course of editing … let’s see… 32 of them! The first one appeared in January 2011 and today, at the end of 2015, I am signing off and handing over duties to Chris Jones. In fact he has already shepherded a few to completion. I think it’s fitting that my editorship should end with a discussion of his award-winning book, Routes of Power. Not only is it a provocative study, but it feels like the right way to hand over the reins as I step out of the role of editor. Here is my intro to his roundtable:

Projections of future energy demand often drive arguments for increasing the pace of extraction or investing in infrastructure. Credible estimates of future demand are hard to come by, yet they are critical for justifying new ventures such as oil pipelines, fracking, or nuclear power stations. The International Atomic Energy Agency, for example, has invested considerable resources into finding plausible scenarios that require experts to make assumptions about future “social, economic and technological evolution,” so that the agency can use these projections to convince governments to adopt nuclear energy.[1] A different organization, the International Energy Agency—created in the wake of the 1974 oil crisis, to promote energy security among its members—in 2014 projected demand to grow by 37% by 2040.[2] As we imagine what kinds of energy choices to make today, we stare into the crystal ball of demand scenarios to try to predict the future.

Does our obsession with future energy demand blind us to the lessons of the past? In Routes of Power, Christopher F. Jones shows how the construction of new transportation networks sparked America’s appetite for abundant, cheap energy. Far from satisfying existing demand, these new “routes” established from 1812 to the Great Depression era transformed the United States in ways that no projections could have anticipated. The availability of new forms of energy—in other words, supply—explains historical trends better than assuming that a pre-existing trajectory of energy consumption had to be met.

Routes of Power already has won the 2015 Edelstein Prize, for outstanding scholarly book, from the Society for the History of Technology. His discussion of the nation’s first commercial oil pipeline was featured on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. Scholars will be discussing the book’s claims for many years to come.

I invited Sarah Mittlefehldt to comment on Routes to Power because of her current project on renewable energy advocacy, in which she explores the interface between environmental stewardship and civic engagement. She is Assistant Professor at Northern Michigan University. Her previous book, Tangled Roots, presents that relationship through a different kind of inter-state system—the Appalachian Trail—driven to completion by a network of people devoted to collective engagement with nature. Blending government leadership with local engagement, the trail’s path to development involved an extraordinary degree of public-private cooperation.[3]

Our second commentator is Gwen Ottinger, whose work engages with the connections between the oil industry and environmental justice. She is Assistant Professor at Drexel University. Her book, Refining Expertise, shows how scientists’ and engineers’ portrayals of themselves as responsible, committed citizens undermined the ability of individuals near a Louisiana refinery to raise public health and environmental concerns. Ottinger’s work highlights the impotence of local activism in the face of so-called corporate responsibility, and calls for greater public participation by citizens in crafting regulatory laws.[4]

Offering our third comment is Stephanie LeMenager, the Barbara and Carlisle Moore Professor of English and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon. Her book Living Oil is a cultural study of the legacies of petroleum, drawing on museum exhibits, films, photography, fiction, and several other sources. In addition to revealing how oil is a dominant force in shaping American culture, she calls attention to today’s era of “Tough Oil,” marked by the attempts to continue American lifestyles amidst increasing environmental and human costs.[5]

Our final commentator is Sara B. Pritchard, Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. Her work on “envirotech” explores the nexus of environmental history and STS. Her book Confluence examined nuclear power development in France, particularly developments along the Rhône River. She shows just how ineffective local actors were in highlighting negative effects of environmental transformation or in resisting changes that were mandated by a centrally planned state.[6]

Before turning to the comments, I would like to pause here and thank all the roundtable participants for taking part. In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.

Here is the link to the full roundtable:

A direct link to the pdf is here:

[1] International Atomic Energy Agency, Model for Analysis of Energy Demand (MAED-2) User’s Manual (Vienna: IAEA, 2006). Available at

[2] International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2014

[3] Sarah Mittlefehldt, Tangled Roots: The Appalachian Trail and American Environmental Politics (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013).

[4] Gwen Ottinger, Refining Expertise: How Responsible Engineers Subvert Environmental Justice Challenges (New York: New York University Press, 2011).

[5] Stephanie LeMenager, Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[6] Sara B. Pritchard, Confluence: The Nature of Technology and the Remaking of the Rhône (New York: Harvard University Press, 2011).