Human Values and Energy — Ian Morris

Historian Ian Morris argues that in the evolution of human culture, changes in ethical values have been driven by energy. He thinks that in any given epoch, the dominant energy source sets limits on the kinds of societies that can succeed, and each society in turn rewards specific values.

As far as it goes, there may be some correlation, but he gets it backwards when he tries to base a grand theory on it. That’s my impression after listening to his talk at the RSA.

In the evolution of human culture from pre-history to the present, changes in ethical values have been driven by the most basic force of all: energy.

Morris says that throughout history, humans have found three main ways to get the energy they need – foraging, farming and fossil fuels – and that in each of these epochs, the energy supply available has determined the structure of society and therefore the behaviours valued by that society.

Yes, you could divide civilisation into three epochs as he does, but it seems wrong to suggest that any differences in values are the result of the different amounts of energy captured by human activity.

It is true that humankind started off as hunter-gatherers, or foragers as he alliteratively calls them. Because of the nature of the lifestyle, firm hierarchies couldn’t develop: there simply weren’t enough people in one place to make a hierarchy stick. For the same reason, those societies couldn’t become too unequal because there just wasn’t enough wealth in total for anyone to become extremely wealthy.

Eventually people started farming, because they realised it’s more efficient and allows more energy to be captured (as Morris would have it). But this isn’t what led to changes in values; the change was due to the fact that farming societies stayed in one place for a long time, leading to higher population density — high enough to form hierarchies. That, plus the fact that there was more wealth in general owing to more efficient technology, allowed inequality to increase.

And so it continued. It turned out that hierarchical (therefore unequal) societies are more efficient than equal ones. So most of the world ended up with this sort of society.

Now this isn’t a case of the dominant energy source determining the societal structure. It’s the other way around: the structure of the society is what allows it to increase its energy capture. Morris would have the energy tail wag the societal dog.

But things changed with the advent of large-scale use of fossil fuels. This is the only case where energy availability really has changed social structures. These have been so much more effective than previous technologies, that the efficiency of hierarchical organisation doesn’t matter so much: these days it doesn’t matter so much how efficient our societal organisation is, because the technologies we now have will take up the slack. Similarly, a runner with a more efficient technique will win the race; but if another competitor has a bicycle, then he will win regardless of how inefficient his cycling technique is.

So nowadays, with a lot of energy available to us, there is less pressure pushing us towards unequal hierarchies on the one hand, or lawlessness on the other. Instead, we have more scope to live in ways we enjoy. And since people generally dislike poverty (especially the poor themselves), the lower levels of the hierarchy will rise up, reducing relative inequality. This process has been happening for a while but it still has a long way to go in most of the world.

That’s all fine, but what’s next? One consequence of Morris’s too-neat identification of three energy epochs, especially since he identifies the third with fossil fuels, is that we naturally wonder what epoch will follow after the inevitable depletion of those fossil fuels. The answer is: probably nothing. One plausible future is one where we rely more and more on nuclear power. From an energy and society point of view, nothing will change. This shows that his identification of the epoch with fossil fuels is a red herring: the epoch may have started with fossil fuels but it doesn’t require them. It’s actually the epoch of abundant energy that we are in, but that doesn’t start with F so perhaps that’s why Morris doesn’t see that.

There are other possible ways to continue the abundant energy epoch. Technology might allow us to rely more and more on renewable sources, or some new technology might take the place of fossil fuels. But maybe none of this will work out, and the fossil fuels will run out and we won’t be able to find new sources of abundant energy. This won’t usher in some new kind of “epoch” based on a new kind of “energy capture”. There will just be a terrible adjustment period as billions of people die, and then the lucky survivors will be back on the farm.

I really don’t know how Morris has managed to spin one half-baked idea into an entire book. But based on his talk, I m not inspired to read it and find out.

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