New book blog: How energy shapes society in ‘Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels’ by Ian Morris

Farmers, Foragers and Fossil FuelsIt’s not steeped in technology, but this updated book based on the Tanner Lectures delivered by Ian Morris at Princeton University manages to highlight a link with big social issues that could have significant implications for humankind’s future.

Everyone’s at least aware of the disparity between access to energy that exists around the world, and how precarious the security of supply is, even in the industrialised West. It’s clear we’re reaching a crucial point where a system based on fossil fuels isn’t going to work in the long-term, but what does that mean for society as a whole?

As Morris eloquently illustrates, the situation today is the latest stage in a story that began with hunter-gatherers before developing into a more sophisticated structure with the arrival of agriculture. As the primary source of energy changed, so did human values.

The slightly unpalatable truth is that while regarding democracy and gender equality and non-violence as virtues works in contemporary society, for the ten thousand years before the Industrial Revolution, most people thought the opposite. Archaeology and observations of the few remaining hunter-gatherer societies show that while groups need to value equality to succeed, they also have to be prepared to settle problems quickly and violently. For farming communities, there’s less pressure to resort to violence, but a need to have a well established hierarchy in which everyone knows their place and everyone very definitely isn’t equal.

The idea that a community’s primary source of energy will be one of the most significant factors in shaping its rules and laws isn’t a startling one. It’s a straightforward case of natural selection in which groups that can’t find an appropriate way of working will literally die out. What’s so thought provoking about the analysis by Morris, who as a professor of classics and archaeology fellow at Stanford University doesn’t get preoccupied with the mechanics of energy transfer, is the suggestion that we should be anticipating what happens in the next stage of this story.

If a reliance on fossil fuels has allowed the pendulum has swung as far as it can away from violence and towards equality, what will happen as we shift to smaller-scale renewable resources? If nuclear is going to be part of the mix, how do we resolve where it’s going to be based?

Not comfortable reading, but a thought provoking look at an aspect of energy resources that’s often neglected and which will make you think carefully about how your behaviour would change if one day you turned on the gas or electricity and it wasn’t there any more.

The new, updated edition of ‘Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve’ by Ian Morris is published by Princeton University Press, price £19.95, ISBN 9780691160399

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