Tuesday, 20 May 2014

What Is Energy, Really? Part 2: Energy As Power

When I ride the Greyhound bus into the city of Toronto I never fail to set down whatever I've been reading to watch as the downtown draws near and the bus ascends onto the Gardiner Expressway. From fifty feet in the air I watch the warehouses and grey office buildings of the last dozen kilometres give way to old brick factories and the low barracks of historic Fort York. The shoreline of Lake Ontario appears on my right and then the colossal dome of the Rogers' Centre stadium on my left, next to the mighty bastions of the CN Tower. Billboards stretch skyward while buses and cars scurry below. Finally we enter the financial district, where the marble citadels of the Bank of Montreal, the Toronto Dominion Bank, and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce keep watch over 'Crane City'. Here colourful banners proclaim condominium vacancies in newly built towers of sparkling glass. Many are an easy stone's throw from the torrent of sound and speeding steel that is the Gardiner.

As I watch from my comfortable bus seat as these wonders slide past I enjoy trying to imagine the enormous energies that have gone into creating and sustaining them. I put on my historian's mindset and at the same time flex my muscles, remembering times I've sweated out my own energy doing physical work. How many Roman masons and wage labourers, I wonder, would have toiled to raise the concrete viaduct that now delivers me into the city's heart? How many generations of medieval peasants and craftsmen would have pooled their efforts to construct even one of these majestic spires of coloured glass? How many merchant princes of the Renaissance would have risked everything for the prestige of erecting a tower in their city square even half as tall as those which house the modern oligarchs of high finance? And yet the condos sprout like dandelions all around me, wonder upon wonder, and most of my fellow passengers have not looked up from their phones.

The question that titles this series of posts comes from a whimsical list I posted near the entrance to my apartment several weeks back under the heading 'Big Questions We Need To Keep In Mind'. 'What is energy, really?' came in just under 'How can we deep-fry more things?' as I recall. I wasn't expecting to actually keep the question bubbling in the back of my mind, much less that it would eventually serve up multiple possible answers. If even one of these ways of looking at energy is new to you, then I've done my job well as a wizard of earth and of earthy metaphors.

The way I want to look at the towers along the Gardiner Expressway today is the way a sixteenth-century prince or a second-century Roman emperor would look at them: as symbols of raw power. Every example of ancient European architecture that survives to the present day was commissioned by a ruler or aristocrat both to serve his domain in some functional capacity as well as to display his power. And power in human societies is and always has been expressed as the ability to muster and command energy.

Think of it this way: moving stone hundreds of miles, as well as supporting the kind of advanced economy that produces architects and skilled labourers, requires energy- lots of energy. For most societies in time this has meant the energy of human and animal muscles, with winds, tides, and rivers allowing that energy to stretch considerably farther. Muscles, in turn, require food energy and land on which to grow that food. A man who could command the kind of energy required to construct a Coliseum or a Versailles had power over men and beasts and land, and the things he built communicated this to his subjects and to visiting foreigners far more clearly than words.

Architecture isn't the only way humans express power over one another, either. Ever since we started figuring out how to store up energy surpluses in the form of cultivated grains like wheat, corn, and rice, the more powerful among us have been figuring out how to spend those surpluses as gratuitously as possible. Conspicuous consumption didn't begin with flashy sportscars running on high-octane fuel, nor even with chariot racing fuelled by acres and acres of hay and oats, although there are strong parallels between the two. As long as there has been money, there have been people eager to spend it on energy-intensive goods and services in order to better display their wealth. I could easily have titled this post 'Energy As Money', but money, as we all know, is power, or at least the set of numerical symbols that quantify the power of humans relative to one another. A rich person has more power than a poor person; a powerful person commands more energy than a weak person.

Horses and chariots provide a telling example. In the ancient world horses were symbols of wealth and prestige partly because they cost so much energy to feed and partly because they played an important role in that other rich man's sport played at the expense of the poor: war. Feeding and equipping armies required enormous amounts of grain energy, and thus winning military conquests (that is, capturing new lands from which to tax grain and slave energy) was highly prestigious. Victorious Roman generals were sometimes granted the honour of a triumphus, a costly and elaborate parade through the city streets displaying marching soldiers, chained captives, and the victor himself robed in purple and riding in a four-horse chariot. This cultural backdrop explains in part why the 'triumphal entry' into Roman-occupied Jerusalem by a certain Jewish carpenter in the first century made such an impression on everyone involved: riding a simple donkey instead of four warhorses was a political statement about the attitude a wise ruler should have toward both war and the energy resources of his people.

You may have noticed, in all of this, that the way humans look at energy is very different from the perspective of the animals in last week's post. To animals energy is life, and everything they do is oriented toward conserving it and thereby preserving their lives. To humans, energy is a resource, something we can control and quantify and use as we see fit. The towers along the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto are an expression of our present civilization's confidence in its own power, a power built on highly useful forms of energy that weren't accessible to previous human societies. How the villages of Ganatsekwyagon and Teiaiagon became the town of York and later the city of Toronto constitutes a chapter in the broader story of that power's rise; how the city of Toronto became the Greater Toronto Dominion in my short story The Messengers is a chapter in the broader story of that power's decline and fall.

Because powers do rise, and they do decline and fall. This is as much a law of history as the rise and fall of individual organisms is a law of nature, and it's both a source of unease to those with power and a source of hope to those crushed under the weight of power. The theme returns again and again in the ancient writings of those asking the hard questions of their own societies: in what ways are we mortal humans, possessed of godlike powers though we be, subject to the laws of time and nature? In our own time there are too few people asking this question, although more and more are starting to ask whether there can be reconciliation between the animals' way of seeing and the human animals' way of seeing. These are very, very interesting questions, but before addressing them I have one more way of seeing to try on.


  1. Hi Dylan,
    Again a very interesting read. Awaiting for the next chapter...

  2. I don't know if the two ways of looking at energy you talked about are so different... E.g., if a population of plants or animals has more food (aka more energy) than it needs to sustain itself and no predators, its population, and hence consumption, naturally tends to grow... Eventually it either transitions to a more stable state, or collapses once it gets so large that its consumption exceeds what's available. Why would we think we're so special as to be different from any other population? But more optimistically, it's also possible for a population to find an ecological niche such that it sustains itself in a steady-state, neither growing nor collapsing.

  3. Natalia, thanks again. For the next chapter I'll have to do something really different for Basia's sake :)

    Basia, I hadn't intended to go into population dynamics too deeply here. I think the fact that energy has important social dimensions is worth a discussion of its own, especially since social issues get forgotten all too often in big-picture environmental discussions. But as for your question, this wizard is grinning and nodding.