Sound-bite history reconsidered

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I am generally not a fan of sound-bite history.  In this age of information overload and attention deficits, however, I suppose we must consider ways of packaging history in short, audio-visual formats in order to reach a larger public audience.  Richard Heinberg’s Post Carbon Institute video, “The Ultimate Roller Coast Ride,” is a worthy effort in this regard.  A creatively animated survey of “300 Years of Fossil-Fueled Growth in Five Minutes,” the video opens and closes with the distinctive bass line from the late Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” The disturbing environmental message of another Reed song, “The Last Great American Whale,” might have better served the purposes of this production, which is to frighten us about the grim future we face barring radical changes to our energy lifestyle.

Heinberg, an American journalist and educator who is a Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, packs a lot of information into 300 seconds.  He discusses the energy transitions in history from wood to coal to oil, notes the technologies that ushered in the energy-intensive industrial revolution, and lists the long-range environmental effects that have brought us to “the verge of collapse!”  But such a compressed narrative as this cannot avoid sweeping statements that work against historical understanding, which is about breaking down generalizations, questioning simple explanations, and shading in nuances.

There are many problematic historical claims in this film.  For example, the environmental movement was not “born” with the energy crisis of the 1970s, as the narration asserts, but gathered strength well before it.  Oil companies did not move to “drill in miles of seawater because the easy oil is gone,” but started drilling off the edge of the continental shelf in the 1980s when oil was in abundant supply.  The erosion of demand from the economic crisis of the late 2000s made it appear that global oil production “stalls out” in 2010, when this video was made.  In the three years since, though, it has continued to grow, buoyed mainly by breakthroughs in unconventional oil development in North America.

Heinberg’s larger point about the “end of easy oil” has some validity.  The history of the oil industry, however, is replete with examples of “hard” oil becoming “easy” oil.  In the late 1950s, many people in the industry considered drilling in more then 50 feet of water impossible.  Now, drilling in several thousand feet of water is routine.  Where many kinds of subsurface petroleum traps were once undetectable before applying the drill bit, now geoscientists can visualize them with 3-D seismic imaging before ever puncturing the surface.  Finding a way to extract oil and gas from shale and tight sandstones was long considered hopeless.  Now it is the basis for the revitalization of the industry in the United States and potentially around the world.  Proclaiming the end of easy oil, as the video does, essentially assumes a cessation in technological development.

Heinberg does credit the importance of technology to the history of energy and industrialization, mentioning such notables as Faraday, Tesla, Drake, Daimler, Haber, Bosch, and the Wright brothers.  But his tour ends in the early 1900s, omitting a century of energy innovation that generated broad-based wealth and economic benefits.

Moreover, Heinberg fails to mention the progress in energy conservation and efficiency achieved by many nations in recent decades.  The United States consumes as much crude oil today as it did in 1979, despite having an economy six times as large and a population that has grown by 50 percent.  Yet according to this presentation, the last half of the twentieth century apparently has known only environmental destruction and misery – global warming, mass pollution, ocean acidification, species extinction, and the loss of ancient forests and topsoil – exacerbated by the depredations of globalization and financialization.

Of course we should be mindful of the purpose of this video and its intended audience.  It is not meant for academic peer review.  Rather, Heinberg packages history in a way that will shock people into awareness about the energy challenges facing human civilization.  “It’s amazing how far we’ve come in 300 years, just three human lifetimes,” he states near the end of video.  He is not interested in documenting how far we have come, however, but in emphasizing that we’ve come too far.

I applaud the effort to raise consciousness about the need for action on energy issues, especially toward greater efficiency, conservation, and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.  I do not agree, though, that the lesson of energy history translates into alarmist warnings of scarcity and societal collapse that are imminent without swift alterations to deeply entrenched energy systems.  Heinberg’s wishful thinking about the need to “learn to live without fossil fuels” and “adapt to the end of economic growth as we know it” only contributes to the noise and hyperbole that polarizes debates on energy.  Short, online films such as this can be a useful medium for combining history with advocacy.  But for those seeking practical, expert analysis of the problems, I would steer them instead to the videos featured in the Rational Middle Energy Series.

The sobering lesson that history has taught us is that energy transitions take time, decades at least.  To imply otherwise, as Heinberg’s video does, undermines the search for workable solutions.  Speeding up history will not hasten the next transition.  Fossil-fueled growth, regardless of how seriously we attempt to transition away from it, will last a lot longer than 300 years.  It certainly takes longer than 300 seconds to explain.

~ Tyler Priest is Associate Professor of History and Geography at the University of Iowa.

1 comment
  1. Josh Wachuta says:

    This is a fine illustration of the danger of succumbing to generalizations and alarmism while trying to put history to use in the crowded new media landscape. Historians should work to promote deeper, more contextualized understandings than that offered in Heinberg’s video. Given that Dr. Priest used this post to critique a video questioning oil use and to promote the Rational Middle series sponsored by Shell Oil, however, it would have been appropriate if he had disclosed his own past public history work with Shell and the Association of International Petroleum Negotiators. Collaborations with business are commendable, for if public history is to be relevant to broader society and policy, it should participate in shared initiatives with business and government. At the same time, we as public historians must be reflective about how institutional priorities impact the production of history, and surely that requires transparency.

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