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    • Document type
      Review (monograph)
      Author (Review)
      • Spier, Fred
      Language (Review)
      Language (Monograph)
      Author (Monograph)
      • Droste, Dietrich
      Energiemangel als Antrieb der Menschheitsgeschichte
      Eine energetische Gesellschafts- und Geschichtstheorie
      Year of publication
      Place of publication
      Number of pages
      VIII, 690
      Subject classification
      History of science, Social and Cultural History, History of technology, Historiography
      Time classification
      until 499 AD, Middle Ages, Modern age until 1900, 20th century, 21st century
      Regional classification
      Other countries, World
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Dietrich Droste: Energiemangel als Antrieb der Menschheitsgeschichte. Eine energetische Gesellschafts- und Geschichtstheorie (reviewed by Fred Spier)

sehepunkte 11 (2011), Nr. 5

Dietrich Droste: Energiemangel als Antrieb der Menschheitsgeschichte

In this smart and perceptive book, Dietrich Droste analyzes human history from the point of view of the energy used and exchanged by both humans individually and human societies collectively as the main driver of their history. As the title indicates, Droste sees the lack of energy as the most important stimulus to innovation, thus leading to a number of major energy transformations whereby humans step up their energy use and, in doing so, increase their power over both nature and their fellow humans. In 662 pages, the whole time line of history is covered with the aid of this perspective, from early human evolution in Africa all the way down to the Hitler's Third Reich.

Before embarking on this long journey, Droste explains his theory in detail. Whatever humans are doing, he says, they will always need energy to execute their plans, ranging from food and air to today's fossil fuels. This quest for energy is what drives humans, and in consequence, also human history. This is not a new point of view, Droste tells us. Belgian chemist Ernest Solvay and German natural scientist Wilhelm Ostwald were already important pioneers in this field.

Droste's innovative addition to the energy approach to human history is his emphasis on, and careful elaboration of, the importance of energy exchanges between and among individual humans and human societies as a force driving human history. In Droste's view, all the things that people do to each other can be seen as exchanges of some sort, and all of them have an energy component, without which these exchanges would not have been possible. These exchanges range from the most intimate moments to the most brutal warfare. Because very often people seek to optimize their use of energy and resources, there is an in-built tendency to innovate through competition, which leads to an ever-increasing use of energy throughout human history.

With the aid of this theoretical approach and showing a great amount of detail, Droste marches through history, beginning at our earliest existence as scavengers, gatherers and hunters millions of years ago, followed by the agricultural revolution, state formation in Mesopotamia and Egypt, the Greek city states and the Roman empire. Next Droste discusses the emergence of Europe, industrialization in Great Britain, which was followed by the spread of industry and the expansion of European empires around the globe. He concludes his analysis with a long discussion of the "Third Reich." This is where Droste's account of history ends, even though both in his theoretical chapter and his final considerations he applies his theory to more recent events, such as the current financial crisis.

I very much applaud the approach Droste has taken to analyze human history, which he does with great care and sensitivity to detail. But I have a few comments. According to the title, the book is about "human history", yet in practice Droste follows the so-called Western civilizational trajectory, from Sumeria down to modern societies. Other societies only come into play while influencing this trajectory. One would like to hear more about Africa, China, India, or Amerindian societies, to name a few. Yet even though these societies are lacking, I do not doubt that Droste would be able to analyze them, and many others, in a similarly convincing manner.

The book is clearly written from a German perspective. Not only does the bibliography consist mostly of German authors, Droste also uses 150 pages - about 1/4 of the book - to analyze the "Third Reich" from his energy perspective, often in an illuminating way, which will hopefully contribute to examining this difficult period in history with some more (and much needed) detachment. This German perspective is both a strength and a weakness. Apparently, Droste is not aware of the energy approaches to history that have been developed by, for instance, Leslie White, Vaclav Smil and Eric Chaisson, which might have helped him to refine his approach. But his German emphasis is also a strength. It helped me to learn, for instance, not only about Droste's theory but also about German and Belgian pioneers in this field that I did not yet know. In my view, this German focus does not detract in any way from the value of the theory put forward by Droste, most of which I find very persuasive and well-illustrated in a clear and accessible language.

I am not completely sure whether it is the lack of energy, or whether it is rather the search for matter and energy, that has driven human history. This may be only a semantic issue that does not detract from the points Droste tries to drive home. But I still wonder whether the lack of energy has always been the major driver of human history. In retrospect, after having gone through an energy revolution that enabled humans to control more energy, it may seem that the poorer conditions that had prevailed previously stimulated these folks to look for new skills and resources. Yet there have also been a great many periods in history during which people lived with relatively low levels of energy that did not lead to energy revolutions. Is this lack of energy just before a revolution as its main driver therefore possibly a projection on history in retrospect? It seems to me that the lack of energy as the driver of history merits some closer investigation.

Also in cases when resources were becoming scarce, cause and effect may not have been that straightforward. For instance, Scottish inventor James Watt did not suffer himself from a lack of energy when he improved Newcomen's steam engine and, in doing so, produced the first effective steam engine. Watt simply saw new opportunities. These opportunities were seized upon by a growing middle class that suddenly saw ways of improving its position by industrializing production. But I don't think that at that time the English middle class was going down as a result of a lack of energy. The trees were surely becoming scarce in Britain, but people were successfully switching to coal, which was not scarce, even though it was sometimes hard to mine because of the often high ground water level. That is where Newcomen's steam engine had come to the rescue; it helped to pump this water out. As I see it, the industrial revolution was therefore rather a result of a new technology that had developed more or less by accident while indeed some resources were becoming scarce. Interestingly, industry took off in the United States very quickly also, even though the Yankees still had plenty trees on the Eastern Seaboard, which fueled their trains and factories for decades before coal took over.

Similar arguments can be made for early humans roaming the African savannas for almost 2 million years before they began to make tools. According to Droste, they started making tools because of the poor levels of energy these humans had access to. But surely, a survival period of 1 or 2 million years without tools does not point to a nagging lack of energy. I wished we had such a bright long future ahead of us right now. It rather seems to me that by beginning to walk upright (a very energy-efficient way of moving around on grasslands) as part of the transition to life on the African savannas, which were forming as a result of long-term climate change, humans unintentionally freed their hands. Over the course of time this allowed them to develop new skills, thus improving their control over energy.

Yet I do feel that the general idea of a lack of energy often stimulating people to look for new options has some clear merits. This idea may simply need further refinement. More in general, I think that Droste's careful and detailed analysis of the importance of energy exchanges, often in competition, and the resulting rise of control over energy as the main driver of human history is a most important insight. Well done, and very much recommended.

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