Book review – Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption

Fossils fuels have powered civilization since the Industrial Revolution, and their consumption has exploded in the last few decades. But for all the prosperity that coal, gas, and oil have brought, there are many downsides, not least amongst these climate change. So how did we get here? Usual explanations point at individual consumption and population growth, and I would be quick to agree. With Burning Up, Simon Pirani, a visiting research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, basically says “not so quick, things are not that simple” and provides a deeply researched history of fossil fuel consumption.

Burning Up

Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption“, written by Simon Pirani, published by Pluto Press in August 2018 (paperback, 255 pages)

Okay, that is not quite what Pirani says. In his own words: “fossil fuels are consumed through technological, social, and economic systems”. Coming to this topic as a biologist with little background in economics, this mantra, repeated throughout the book, was one that needed some unpacking.

Burning Up is divided into three main parts. The first four chapters provide context, giving a brief history of fossil fuel use before 1950, how fossil fuel is turned into energy (electricity or refined fuel), and how its use has changed over time in different countries and in different industries from the 1950s onwards. It is these last seven decades that are the focus of this book, as this is a period when population and consumption ballooned (see The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene Since 1945).

These chapters already reveal many trends and facts I was not familiar with. Such as America’s trendsetting role in road building and private car ownership, ahead of the rest of the world. With it came the ugly invention of planned obsolescence, the purposeful decision to design products that break prematurely, locking consumers into a cycle of buying more stuff (see also Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America). Or the incredible amounts of energy that are lost when fossil fuels are transformed into electricity and transported through power lines (one figure quoted on page 26 puts the global (!) loss in 2000 at a mind-boggling 63%, leaving only 37% available to industry and consumers). Or the staggering amounts of energy used by industry for the production of steel, aluminium, and concrete (the last one was already highlighted in The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization for its huge demand for sand). Or the design choices made by architects and engineers how, for example, public buildings and houses should be heated. Or how urban planning decisions, the resulting urban sprawl, and the lack of investment in public transport created a dependency on cars. Or the heavy electricity toll exacted by the data centres powering the internet and other modern communication technologies.

I could go on, as Burning Up offers many more insightful examples. But they all highlight areas where the average consumer has little knowledge of the inefficient use of resources and the egregious waste of energy, let alone has leverage to bring about change (though I would argue that consuming less can address some of these).

“With private car ownership […] came the ugly invention of planned obsolescence”

The second and largest part of the book is a detailed chronology of fossil fuel use from the 1950s onwards, taking the reader through the post-war boom, the oil crises of the 1970s, the economic recessions of the 1980s and the continued rise in use during the 1990s and 2000s. This is interrupted by a section on electrification (i.e. the development of electric grids) in several countries around the world. The later chapters also address the inability of governments to address climate change by limiting fossil fuel use. The third part reflects on the assumptions that Pirani has made (you could almost start the book by reading this chapter after the introduction), and his suggestions on what is needed for society to move away from its dependence on fossil fuels.

The chronology of part 2 reveals many fascinating trends that support Pirani’s contention that population growth does not correspond directly to fossil fuel use. Economic growth, and with it a higher standard of living, are perhaps a more influential part of the equation where fossil fuel use is concerned. Though, I would argue, the fact that we now have such a large population is what makes this increased affluence so impactful.

Equally, the victory of neoliberalism – the political reforms that favour free-market capitalism and, in the UK, have given us the (cough) “wonders” of privatised public transport and the likes – has had a huge impact. Profit motive and economic growth remain the guiding principles for companies and governments alike. Vested company interests often oppose technological developments that could make for efficiency gains and reductions in fossil fuel use (the example of engineers indicating that cars could be ten times more efficient is but one of many). Governments similarly have continued to subsidise fossil fuels for decades and have been guilty of creative bookkeeping with emission targets and carbon credits once negotiations to curb climate change got going. Especially with China now the world’s largest producer of globally exported consumer goods, a new round of finger-pointing has started over who should be responsible for the ensuing environmental effects of consuming the vast amounts of energy required to make all this stuff.

“Governments have been guilty of creative bookkeeping with emission targets and carbon credits once negotiations to curb climate change got going.”

I admit that I did not find Burning Up an easy read. For a large part that will be my lack of background knowledge in economics and international politics, so I found some of the subject matter a bit obtuse and dry. But that does not take away that Pirani convincingly shows that fossil fuel use is indeed also determined by economic, social, and technological factors, and not just by population growth and individual consumption.

What it especially clarifies, I think, are the historical patterns that have resulted in our societies functioning the way they do (the economic factor); in people’s expectations of what makes a good life, and the energy-guzzling stuff they need to make it happen – from cars to household electronics to air-conditioning (the social factor); and in our existing infrastructure, such as power stations and electric grids, and the choices made when designing consumer products (the technological factor).

Burning Up is a deeply researched book of vast scope that provides a rich context to the basic notion of “climate change happened because we burned fossil fuels”. Though the subject matter might make your head spin in places, Pirani does a great job of putting the mind-bogglingly large numbers involved in context. If there are any doubters left who think that we could not possibly influence something as large as our planet through our actions, feel free to pummel them over the head with this book.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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