Review: Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity’s Unappeasable Appetite for Energy

Text: Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity’s Unappeasable Appetite for Energy. By Alfred W. Crosby. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. 208pp.

The experience of reading Children of the Sun feels more akin to a fable than a history volume, even the title rings of fairy tale. As if meant to be read aloud Alfred Crosby fills his text with intriguing and often humorous accounts that serve to compliment the overall story he endeavours to tell; each chapter ends with a “coda” that sets aside historical analysis in favour of engaging narrative. Indeed, “narrative” is the correct word to describe Crosby’s survey of human history which is structured so that every section presents a problem which our protagonist, humanity, must overcome lest they fail in their mission to consume ever increasing quantities of energy. Migration into inhospitable environments results in people learning how to cook. The felling of forests requires a need to mine for coal. The hunting of whales to near-extinction for their oil requires the creation of electric bulbs, and so on. The text even pulls off a traditional literary-style ending as Crosby brings us ‘full circle’ with a discussion of how prospective nuclear fusion will replicate the prime energy source upon which humanity has relied for all its history, the sun.

In terms of achievement in adding material to the historical literature in this field of study, Children of the Sun is light. Most of the text consists of a patchwork of previous work, some of it his own, that has been drawn together and then explained and interpreted by Crosby so as to create his narrative. However, this description does not do service to the brilliance with which Crosby has managed to so eloquently combine multiple fields of research under his one large umbrella. Physics, geology, anthropology, biology, archaeology and others find a home together in between these pages wherein Crosby dips his toe into each of these separate pools of knowledge and pulls out only the appropriate information that he needs. The use of all these disciplines collectively creates a sense of grandeur that effectively convinces the reader of the importance of Crosby’s world. The history of energy seems to pervade all aspects of our universe from guinea pigs to Phileas Fogg and the historical sections of this book have a great deal of pace that do well to match the increasing speed of humanity’s developments over time. To compliment this approach Crosby uses numbers as a technique with which dazzle his audience as the reader sees an exponential growth occurring before their eyes. In 1682 people were calling 14 waterwheels on the seine that supplied 75-124 horsepower the “eighth wonder of the world”, in 1834 steam engines were providing 33,000 horsepower in the cotton mills of Britain. In 1900 the world produced 100 million barrels of oil, in 2000 it produced 20 billion. Crosby’s story is one on which the stakes are consistently raised.

Humanity may be the protagonist of the narrative in Children of the Sun, but it is not necessarily the hero. The human ability to innovate and invent its way out of problems throughout history is extraordinary, but there is the air of tragedy in the way all humankind’s energy problems seem to be those which it creates for itself through its own exponential demand; such a notion could also be interpreted as untempered greed. Crosby likens energy to a drug which humankind has become unable to stop taking for fear of the crash, and with every hit of increasing strength they make it harder and harder to revert to old ways of life. His final coda asks whether a 2003 blackout in New York, which caused momentary chaos throughout the city, might be a ‘premonitory vision’ of a future energy crisis. Crosby makes great effort to show the reader the fragility of our energy networks and reminds us that power on-demand is an abnormality of history, not a commonality, and there is no precedent which says that all could not collapse around us. However, it must be said that ultimately Crosby takes an optimistic approach towards his subject matter, preferring to consider solutions than lament over difficulties. Children of the Sun wants to inspire its readers, to be the handbook by the side of problem solvers of the present which enlightens them as to the history behind, and the significance of, future environmental action.

To facilitate this optimistic approach Crosby has had to re-work concepts that he developed in his earlier works such as Ecological Imperialism. Prior to Children of the Sun Crosby had taken a pessimistic view over humanity’s influence on its own history. The argument being that the influence of forces such as bacteria, flora, fauna, and the weather have had a more defining impact on the course of history than the person, shaping human decisions which they believed were primarily their own. Children of the Sun still carries these themes (we are constantly reminded of the utter dominance of the sun in all things from fire to fission), but it develops them in a direction so as togive homo sapiens greater agency than Crosby has previously ascribed to the species. The focus now is on co-dependence between humanity and the natural world, rather than on humanity’s inferiority to it. Whether with dogs, maize, or horses (which Crosby claims humanity may have saved from extinction) humanity has managed to further exploit the energy of its age with the assistance of the natural world; these have been our protagonist’s allies in Crosby’s narrative. Another consistent theme with Crosby’s earlier works is that of the environment for change, how humanity is only ever pushed to innovate if forced to by circumstance, otherwise we are content to be ‘no more than a parochial kind of ape’. Children of the Sun’s stance on this is that the human’s genius is that it is able to create the environment for itself in which it is pushed to innovate. The unsustainable expansion and consumption of humankind forces invention.

Sometimes narrative acts as a deterministic and negative force behind historical work but it is clear why Crosby has constructed Children of the Sun in this anecdotal style. In the tradition of big history for which the author is so well known, Crosby has written an alternative “origin story” for humanity. The simple and straightforward tone works well for communication around the kind of fundamental issues that Crosby faces in the text that would be lost in a more finnicky and academic format. In many ways Children of the Sun delves to the elementary roots at the heart of Crosby’s earlier works around ideas of consumption, destruction, and propagation and simply focusses down on energy as the central driving force at the heart of these themes. The text’s relative simplicity also serves to widen the audience to which Crosby writes and thus disseminate the moral lessons contained within this text as broadly as possible. Indeed, moral teachings have always been an aspect of Crosby’s writingsbut on a far more implicit level, with the author seeking to draw the reader’s opinion in a particular direction but never explicitly stating intent (an extremely common feature of historical work). Completely conversely, Children of the Sun explicitly proclaims its judgements as incontestable truths, simply stating in conclusion that ‘the way we live now is new, abnormal, and unsustainable’. This is a refreshing approach which leaves the reader with no ambiguity as to the author’s intent and thus allows them to make more informed decisions about their own judgements of the text and its ideas.

However, it is unfortunately true that when Crosby turns from historian into contemporary commentator in the third and final section of his book that the pace of the earlier text falls away. The prospective and uncertain nature of future developments forces a dryer and less confident literary style which fails to enthuse in quite the same fashion as the rest of the text. Many readers may also not enjoy Crosby’s transformation into moral philosopher during this section and feel as though they are being told what to think without being allowed to make up their own minds. On the other side of this there will be readers that wish Crosby did more in this last section to insert urgency around present environmental issues; as it stands Crosby’s optimism leaves the reader concerned but not worried about the current energy conundrum, confident that human innovation will prevail in one manner or another.

Crosby’s fable is a complex story told simply. As a yarn for modern times it weaves a narrative which keeps its reader engaged as they wait to see how humanity will overcome the next obstacle in its path, each higher than the last (although the end is somewhat anticlimactic). As a historical text it is an informative and interesting survey whose greatest achievement is to draw together multiple disciplines which so often are left apart. As a moral guidebook it is a refreshingly straightforward philosopher that looks to the future as a place of uncertainty, but also of optimism.

Author/Publisher: Louis Lorenzo

Date of Publication: 20th of November 2018

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