The Making of Our Polluted Age

Illustration by Tim Robinson.

From the moment that a light gets turned on in the morning, every action of a Western life uses energy. Its easy availability—thanks largely to the so-called fossil fuels—gave us modernity, and now the endless combustion of all that coal and gas and oil has triggered the end of the Holocene and is calling into question the very survival of our civilization. Some of the richest companies on earth have been in the energy business, and geopolitics has long followed the oil derrick. Even our domestic politics is dominated by this industry more than any other; it is, after all, where the Koch brothers made their mint.

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So the wonder is how little attention we actually pay to the subject. In the Western world, we have taken abundant energy so much for granted that it might as well be air or water—only its absence, during a blackout or an oil embargo, really attracts our notice. I only viscerally grasped the meaning of energy when in rural Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, where newly cheap solar panels were providing the first reliable flow of electrons to villages that had never known artificial light or the breeze of an electric fan. Seeing the pure, undistilled pleasure that this small miracle provided was like traveling back in time—or, given the high-tech and sustainable source of this newfound power, traveling forward.

Richard Rhodes’s Energy: A Human History, Matthieu Auzanneau’s Oil, Power, and War: A Dark History, and Kate Ervine’s Carbon all time-travel in both directions, offering us visions of a much cleaner future and tracing the origins of our ominously polluted present. Since this is the great existential crisis of our time, it’s a good sign that a robust literature is emerging, of which these volumes are solid examples. But though much of their discussion is about history, the crucial questions turn on what comes next. As the excitement over the Green New Deal proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (among others) makes clear, that future is very much up for grabs.

In Energy, Richard Rhodes goes furthest back, starting with a London powered mostly by wood. But by the 16th century or so, the demand for energy began to outstrip the supply, and so households turned to coal. From the beginning, coal provided cheap heat, but it also caused trouble. Soon, hundreds of boys were employed as chimney sweeps, and doctors noted an epidemic of “soot wart” among them—squamous-cell carcinoma of the scrotum, where “the sweeps’ sooty sweat collected as they broomed their way up London’s chimneys.” If you fast-forward to Delhi in the present day, estimates are that half of its 4.4 million children have irreversible lung damage from breathing the smoke that chokes their city. The dangers of fossil-fuel use have, from the start, been concentrated among the poorest and most vulnerable.

Burning coal in a fireplace simply substituted for using wood; it didn’t really change the direction of our economic life. That awaited the invention of the steam engine, when the potential energy embedded in each lump of coal could be put to work doing the kind of labor that previously required people or draft animals. Thomas Newcomen invented the first such workable beast early in the 18th century; fittingly, its task was to drain water from coal shafts to make mining easier. (Trains—and hence the transportation revolution—also began in the mines, where the first rails were laid to make it easier to haul up ore out of the earth and to nearby smelters.) But it was with James Watt’s greatly improved steam engine in the second half of the century that the Industrial Revolution in all its smoky glory began to take shape, as Rhodes, writing with the magisterial high-altitude view of the popular historian, makes clear: “The year 1800, the turn of a new century, hinged in Britain between the old organic economy and the new economy of industry powered by fossil fuel.” England, he tells us, was “eruptive with steam”—powering barges and locomotives; “turning drive belts and working looms” in Blake’s satanic mills.

And so it began, this new world of abundant energy. Rhodes chronicles all the important steps that came with the industrial age: the development of electricity, the rise of oil and then cars, the construction of gas pipelines that girdle the world, the splitting of the atom. He is a master of the brief sketch, and so we can go in a few pages from Thomas Midgley, who helped invent the brain-poisoning lead additives in gasoline, to Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the founding member of the royal house that now distinguishes itself by dismembering journalists.

Doubtless because he has devoted so many previous books to atomic power and atomic bombs, Rhodes spends a great deal of this volume on nuclear energy (considerably more than its share of the world’s power production would warrant). Adm. Hyman Rickover, who persuaded the Navy to power its submarines with reactors and headed up the Atomic Energy Commission, is a hero; and Rhodes ends with a couple of chapters that are essentially special pleading for a nuclear-power renaissance, on the grounds that it will be a necessary feature of any post-fossil-fuel age.

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Rhodes’s argument would be more persuasive if he didn’t pass over renewable energy so lightly. Oddly, sun and wind, though now the fastest-growing sources of energy on the planet, get just a few pages, some of which are devoted to arguing that part of the problem with both is that the energy they produce can’t easily be stored. But just as history hinged in 1800, something similar may be happening today: The price of solar energy has fallen 88 percent in the last decade, and now the storage batteries developed by Tesla and others seem to be following their own plummeting cost curve. Given the dire nature of the global-warming emergency, these should be seen as breakthroughs that can be seized on by governments wanting to move quickly. Nuclear power, by contrast, keeps getting more expensive.

That said, Rhodes argues persuasively that the risks of atomic energy have been overstated, at least when compared with the dangers of carbon. Because the events at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were so dramatic, he argues, we have a harder time properly evaluating these threats. If something goes wrong at a nuclear plant, it can cause immediate havoc on a huge scale. But a power plant burning coal or gas—and running exactly according to plan—will ultimately help to destroy the climate that sustains human life on this planet.

Carbon is therefore a far greater threat, Rhodes insists—indeed, the most serious pollutant we face—and so it likely makes sense to maintain the nuclear plants we’ve already paid for and built, so long as they can be kept reasonably safe. In my home state of Vermont, I argued for closing the state’s plant, Vermont Yankee, which was shut down at the end of 2014. It was badly maintained, and its owners had lied repeatedly to authorities about things like whether an underground network of pipes carried radioactive waste. However, in the wake of its closing, Vermonters also placed a de facto moratorium on large-scale wind power, not wishing to see or hear turbines spinning on the horizon. But power needs to come from somewhere.

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If Rhodes tends toward the cheerful (“Far from threatening civilization, science, technology, and the prosperity they create will sustain us as well in the centuries to come,” he concludes), then Matthieu Auzanneau’s Oil, Power, and War offers precisely the opposite view. Auzanneau is a former reporter for Le Monde, and his “dark history” provides a relentless account of how the oil industry has polluted every moment of the 20th century, including discussions of oil’s central role in both world wars; accounts of scandals, now mostly forgotten, from Teapot Dome to BCCI; and even a reconsideration of 9/11.

This long tour is conducted in somewhat bludgeoning prose. Chapter titles include “Washington Gives Absolute Power to American Petroleum” and “Grandeur and Decadence: The Explosion of Opulence, Misery, and the Human Footprint.” A better editor or translator might have made it more readable (at the ninth time the author refers to oil as “black gold,” one begins to wince); at the very least, someone should have made it shorter, since at more than 500 pages, it is going to overwhelm all but the most committed reader. (Thank heaven he stuck with oil; had he, like Rhodes, also considered coal and gas, we would have run out of paper.)

Auzanneau’s endless attack on the Rockefellers occasionally crosses the line into conspiracy-mongering (in fact, there is a little too much conspiratorial thinking on occasion—like the assertion, with scant evidence, that the cost of “filling gas tanks” in 2008 “broke the budgets of many modest, indebted American households,” triggering foreclosures and causing the global financial crisis). If you want a truly devastating book on Exxon and its history, Steve Coll’s Private Empire remains the touchstone.

But with that said, thanks are owed to Auzanneau for getting all this down in print, and to Chelsea Green for undertaking its publication in English. It reminds us, as Rhodes’s account really doesn’t, of an essential fact that we should never forget: The immense wealth generated by the fossil-fuel industry has translated into unassailable political power. An exasperated Franklin Roosevelt remarks at one point in the book, “The trouble with this country is that you can’t win an election without the oil bloc, and you can’t govern with it.” As Auzanneau notes, in a sentence as accurate as it is ineptly translated, “The need to cozy up to the heirs of the industrial and financial powers of oil never ceased to forcefully exercise its constraints on American politics.”

Auzanneau devotes little of his book’s vast acreage to climate change. He’s more worried about “peak oil”—the idea that dwindling reservoirs may lead to a permanent oil shock, with civilization-rending consequences. This fear is likely misplaced: The consequences of global warming seem to be coming ever faster, and the fracking boom has suspended a reckoning with oil scarcity. But in any event, the crucial point is that Big Oil’s political power has delayed—perhaps fatally—the chance for meaningful change in our energy system. We now understand, due to the intrepid reporting of the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalists at InsideClimate News, that Exxon and the other major oil companies knew everything that we needed to know about climate change by the 1980s. They used that knowledge to make their own plans for the future (for instance, drilling campaigns in an Arctic they knew would soon melt), but concealed it from the rest of us behind a vast and expensive bulwark of denial and disinformation. In so doing, they managed to prevent action for at least a quarter-century past the moment when science had reached a strong consensus on the subject—and that quarter-century may well have been the crucial period for addressing climate change. If this is the case, the brief oil era will be inscribed in a geological history that will be easily readable by geologists millions of years into the future—assuming, of course, that we have a future.

Kate Ervine, a professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, offers a much slimmer and in many ways more useful volume. Carbon begins with a sturdy chronicle of the growth in fossil-fuel use—and precisely because of its brevity, the key points stand out, chief among them the tight links between energy use and increased economic growth, and between economic growth, inequality, and injustice.

No better example exists than global warming, and Ervine’s account of the climate crisis will help readers understand why “climate justice” has become a rallying cry. This is true globally, and it is true domestically as well. Poor and vulnerable communities, usually composed of people of color, bear the brunt of the side effects of our fossil-fuel use, and Ervine is acute in her descriptions of what makes the tentative and voluntary Paris accords so different from, say, the robust rules governing the World Trade Organization. “Unlike trade agreements that seek to extend the current global political economic system,” she writes, “addressing climate change requires that we confront that system and the fossil capital so deeply embedded within it. At its core, the issue of carbon is an issue of power all the way down.”

This understanding prepares Ervine well for evaluating the various options before us to attempt to stanch the flow of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Her thorough account of carbon-trading schemes underlines their essential flaws: “Uncertainty, low prices, overinflated baselines, gaming the market, substandard auditing, unrealistic assumptions.” If we’re going to put a price on carbon use, she argues, a straightforward tax makes more sense, “at levels sufficient to generate meaningful revenue…to fund aggressively zero-carbon transitions that might benefit society as a whole while paying climate debts.” As it happens, such a proposal was on the ballot in Washington State in the recent midterm elections, and it was initially popular enough to scare the oil industry into breaking the state’s record for campaign spending. In the end, the industry’s scare ads were enough to sink the proposal and delay the day of reckoning a little further. (The Yellow Vest protests across France are another reminder that trying to balance the carbon books on the backs of ordinary people will prove a difficult haul.)

Ervine is also rightly dismissive of ”solar radiation management,” the vast geoengineering scheme that would pump huge quantities of sulfur into the atmosphere to blot out some of the incoming sunlight. This approach could, among other things, alter the world’s weather patterns enough to cause droughts and even famines across precisely the places already most harmed by climate shifts. Ervine is equally dismissive of using natural gas as a bridge fuel and of the value of green consumerism. (You will not think about your reusable grocery bags with the same pride once you’ve read her carbon numbers.)

Which leaves us with movement building. “Dealing with climate change is fundamentally political,” Ervine writes, “with political mobilization and collective action promising a much greater impact than going it alone.” And “when we mobilize politically to demand…system changes, the greater reach of these changes, while good for the climate, also promises greater social and ecological justice.” Ervine does an excellent job of explaining one such virtuous cycle: a law passed in Germany that supports community control of the big renewable-energy projects funded by a feed-in tariff. Absent such a robust community stake, similar efforts elsewhere—including in Ervine’s home province of Nova Scotia—have proved less politically durable. When your community is the one making the money, the sight of a windmill on the horizon is less objectionable. In fact, it might even seem like a beacon of the future.

Though the 2018 midterm elections were fought largely on the issues of health care and the need to check President Trump’s abuses of power, the great unresolved issue of the 20th century for Americans is the onset of climate chaos, which guarantees that energy will be front and center in our politics for years to come. That’s why these lessons are so important: This is the biggest challenge that humans have ever faced, and after waiting so long to do something about it, we have no margin of safety left for taking routes that turn out to go nowhere.