History 155b: The United States of Energy— Power, Labor, and Technology in American History

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History 155b: The United States of Energy—

Power, Labor, and Technology in American History
Classroom: Olin-Sang 116  Instructor: Philip Wight

Tues/ Thursday, 3:30-4:50  E-mail: Pwight@Brandeis.edu

         Office Hours: Monday, 12-2pm, Rabb 360

Early percussion rigs drilling in Pennsylvania, late 1800s (Office of Fossil Energy, Dept of Energy)

There is no substitute for energy. The whole edifice of modern society is built upon it...it is not ‘just another commodity’ but the precondition for all commodities, a basic factor equal with air, water, and earth.”

-E.F. Schumacher, Energy International, September 1964  

Americans were the first people to become mass producers and mass consumers of oil, the most powerful fuel and versatile substance ever discovered.”

-Tyler Priest, “The Dilemmas of Oil Empire,” Journal of American History, 2012

All power, social as well as physical, derives from energy…History is largely the story of the capture, transformation, and application of this solar energy.”

-Edmund Russell et al., “The Nature of Power: Synthesizing the History of Technology and Environmental History,” Technology and Culture, 2011

Course Description
A typical American history course covers the canals, railroads, steamships, factories, and automobiles that unified the nation and created our modern patterns of labor, life, and leisure. Yet, the actual sources of energy behind these impressive innovations are most often overlooked. The ownership, extraction, transportation, and consumption of crucial energy sources—wood, animals, wind, water, coal, oil, and natural gas—are too-often an after-thought for historians and citizens alike. A central shortcoming of American historical inquiry reflects a prevalent assumption in modern society—that a steady flow of abundant energy is assumed. We demand continuous and cheap energy as a basic constituent of modern life; paradoxically, citizens seldom think about the energy inputs required for our enormous prosperity. The current wealth of energy makes its centrality invisible. We typically focus on energy use only in times of crisis. This course aims to redress that oversight—an oversight that is proving to be problematic for contemporary society. Understanding America’s energy flows is central to a vital conception of the nation’s past, present, and future. “The United States of Energy” focuses on these energy flows and infrastructures—the material constitution— that underwrote the history of American civilization.

This upper-level undergraduate course will focus on the relationship between American history and energy. Combining environmental, social, and material histories, this course aims to look not only at the macroeconomic forces that shaped energy history, but also how new energy sources transformed people’s daily lives and lived experiences—from the emancipation of slaves, to urban living and factory work, to suburbanization and white collar jobs. The class also intends to highlight how social ideas of energy, “progress”, “freedom” and the “public good” shaped consumption and infrastructures like highways, housing, and public transit.

Learning Goals
By the conclusion of this course, students will have broadened and deepened their knowledge of American history by understanding the vital role that energy played in the nation’s development. They will learn about the different phases of American energy history, and the dynamics of these transitions. Participants will have analyzed the course themes and questions (see below) and have a clear idea of how the nation arrived at the present in respect to energy and the environment. They will understand the evolution and path dependence of contemporary energy regimes. Finally, students will have improved their ability to construct arguments and write persuasively.
Course Themes
* Liberation and Dependence          * Energy Infrastructures and Path Dependence

* Crisis and Continuity                    * Economic Externalities (carbon pollution, soot, ect.)

* Interplay of Supply and Demand  * Relationship between Energy and the idea of “Freedom”

* Energy and Economic Growth      * Accretion and Obsolescence in Energy Transitions

* The Invisible Fuel: Efficiency       * Behavior vs.  Technology in Energy Efficiency
Central Course Questions
What is the difference (and relationship) between energy and power?

How have Americans (and humanity) historically utilized various energy sources?

What is the relationship between energy and everyday life?

Do energy resources exert their own agency or power, or is that power socially constructed?

How have energy transformations occurred throughout U.S. history?

How does the flow, delivery, and ownership of energy sources (via transportation infrastructures) affect society? How do these infrastructures create “path dependence”?

Does a growth in energy correspond to an increase in living standards, wealth, and health?

How do certain forms of energy condition specific kinds of public and private life?

What is the relationship between the “American Dream” and cheap energy?

How do these ideas inform the political debates over energy and the environment?

Does climate change challenge contemporary notions of progress, modernity, and democracy?

What does the history of past energy transitions suggest for the de-carbonization of the economy?

Student Participation and Expectations
Students are expected to maintain full attendance, and actively contribute to each class’s discussion. Students should come to class having completed and contemplated the assigned readings, ready for discussion. Generally, for each hour of class, students will have 3 hours of at-home reading. Each student will be asked to begin a class discussion once or twice. Participation will also be gauged by a ~2-page response paper or source exercise (6 total, top 5 counted). Attendance/ class participation, and response papers/ source exercises constitute 25% of each student’s grade. 4 Credit Hour Course.

As participation is central to success in this class, attendance is mandatory. Any unexcused absences beyond the first may result in a significant markdown of a student’s participation score.


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