tree, Williamsburg

The World’s First Energy Crisis (Hint: It’s Not Oil)

This post is part of an ongoing series of occasional musings about the larger context in which we currently find ourselves: an energy transition, of which there have been several throughout human history. I have chosen Barry Lord’s important book, Art & Energy: How Culture Changes as our guide, because it sheds much-needed light on the reciprocal relationship between art, artists, and energy transitions through the ages. I also draw inspiration from the emerging field of Energy Humanities, led by Imre Szeman and his colleagues at the University of Alberta and the University of Waterloo in Canada. For previous posts in this series, please check here.

This post is available in Spanish under the title “La Primera Crisis Energética del Mundo (Pista: no es el petróleo)” on Clima Miradas.

My favorite chapter in Barry Lord’s book, Art & Energy: How Culture Changes, is about the world’s first energy crisis. For those of us who lived through the 1973 oil embargo, we would be forgiven for thinking that the world’s first energy crisis was about oil. In fact, the first energy crisis – emerging in the late 16th century and continuing through the early 18th – was about wood.

Just stop for a minute and think about the limited choice of energy sources available to fuel human ingenuity since our earliest settlements. It was wood that fed the voracious appetites of the many fire-based industries invented by sapiens throughout the ages: salt works; Copper, Bronze and Iron age smelters and foundries; kilns for pottery, glassblowing and brick-making; ovens for bread; and open stoves to render tallow for soap and candle making. And let’s not forget the ubiquitous breweries!

But it wasn’t just wood, as in logs or charcoal, that were in high demand. It was whole forests, as Lord soberly reminds us:

The production of steel sword blades required whole forests, especially as it became necessary to achieve higher and higher temperatures. Tin, the key ingredient of bronze, melts at 232°C, but copper needs more than 1,000°C, and iron has the highest melting point – 1,528°C. From the beginning of the Bronze and Iron Ages, one of the major reasons for deforestation even in climates that did not require so much firewood in the winter (e.g., in southern Europe), was this need for large quantities of wood to smelt metals.

The “age of wood” refers to the period that stretched from prehistory to the second half of the 18th century, according to the emerging field of Energy Humanities. I’m reminded of a scene in HBO’s award-winning Game of Thrones of a smoky, wood-fired forge in which Gendry, the bastard blacksmith, is testing one of his renowned swords in front of an unimpressed Arya.

It’s difficult for most of us “moderns” to truly appreciate just how important wood was in pre-industrial societies. Wood was absolutely indispensable, both as a primary energy source and as an important building material; there was simply no other source of heat so readily accessible as a nearby forest. Wood could be credited for single-handedly fueling a cascade of technological and social advancements, including weapons of war, across several millennia. In Chapter 9, Lord cites an estimate that 90% of all trees cut down prior to 1800 were destined to be burned.

In addition to the fire-based industries, whole forests were burned to clear land for farms, for animal grazing, for mills and other development. Forests were also decimated for their timber. Large oaks in particular were prized for ships’ masts. Timber was also the material of choice to construct palaces, places of worship, barns, stables, and fences. Furniture, musical instruments, wagons, boats, and tools were all crafted from wood. And of course, wood was required for cooking and domestic heating. So it was only a matter of time until “a global forest that once was,” according to Shakespearean scholar Vin Nardizzi, was no more.

By the end of the 16th century, the forests surrounding London had been stripped bare. “No wood, no Kingdome” was a cri de coeur published in a 1611 pamphlet that raised alarms about deforestation in late Elizabethan England. It is also the title of the opening chapter in Richard Rhodes’ captivating book Energy: A Human History. We learn that London’s severe wood shortage prompted Shakespeare and his friends, in 1598, to steal the timbers from their old playhouse (while the landlord was away) in order to build their new open-roofed, twenty-sided wooden polygon Globe Theatre on the other side of the Thames. A year later, the Globe opened with its first play: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

According to Lord, although deforestation as a phenomenon was not new, societal concern about it was. He provides a few historical anecdotes that help us understand the growing tensions, starting in the later Middle Ages, between the ruling classes (nobility, monarchy) and commoners (peasants, serfs). The latter were routinely punished with imprisonment, torture, or execution if they were caught cutting wood for their own use on land that belonged to their overlords. However, there was one important exception to this ruling: when the wind blew down a large tree or broke off some of its branches, peasants were allowed to take the wood. Hence the expression “windfall” – an unexpected good fortune that must have meant so much to landless peasants.

Photo by Joan Sullivan

These simmering tensions between commoners and the aristocracy inspired a new oral literary culture – in the form of ballads and legends such as Robin Hood stealing from wealthy land owners (i.e., those who controlled access to forests) and giving to the landless poor (no access to forests).

By 1615, we see one of the earliest attempts at energy conversation: England’s King James I issued a ban on burning firewood for glass production by declaring that “the great waste of timber in making glass is a matter of serious concern.”

One hundred years later, two alternative responses to the energy crisis were proposed in Germany, including finding alternatives to wood (such as peat and coal) and inventing new machines that could produce more heat with less wood.

By the end of the 18th century, mounting anxiety about deforestation across Europe climaxed. Revolution was in the air. According to Lord, the widespread perception of crisis was linked to the privatization of land formerly owned by the commune and available to all: “the sense of uncertainty about the future led people to question the ancien régime, and also to acknowledge the possibility – finally the necessity – of a revolutionary change in the way society was ordered.”

Sound familiar? We sapiens would be wise to learn from the past. Do 21st century citizens have the moxie, like our 18th century forebears, to radically change the way society is ordered? Looking back, we see how humanity has survived previous energy transitions, and it will undoubtedly do so again. Artists can help us get there more quickly, as they have since the age of wood.

Lord ends this chapter by preparing readers for the next energy transition: the transition from wood to coal, an energy source “that would soon shape our world more profoundly than any other.” While coal would effectively “solve” the energy crisis created by global deforestation, it would unleash its own environmental, climatic and public health challenges that persist to this day. The “age of coal” led inexorably to the “age of man” – the Anthropocene.

I will dive into the transition to coal and its associated “culture of production” in a future post.

(Top image by Joan Sullivan.)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.


Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer focused on the energy transition. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art and the energy transition. She is currently experimenting with abstract photography as a new language to express her grief about climate breakdown. You can find Joan on Twitter and Visura.

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