Using Energy’s Past to Predict the Future

warm the world on coal

One of the many reasons that historians reconstruct the past is so that we can understand our present, and perhaps even make some predictions about the future.  When I was writing my recent book, Home Fires: How Americans Kept Warm in the 19th Century, I hoped that readers would be able to make the connections between that story during the Industrial Revolution and the prolonged energy crisis that we face today. Of course, the circumstances are quite different, but it’s my opinion that we can use the experience of Americans during that earlier energy transition–particularly the ways in which consumers adopted fossil fuel technology in generating domestic heat–in order to guide us through the necessary weaning off those same fossil fuels.

So I was really pleased to read Ruth Graham’s recent article in the Boston Globe on energy transitions.  In an interview a few days ago, Graham posed some great questions that made me think about how Home Fires could relate to a wider audience.  I hope that I answered them well, although I can’t help but feel bad about the pessimistic note I offered at the article’s conclusion.

I really do hope that we can make the jump to solar, or wind, or some other type of renewable energy form soon, but the evidence suggests that it takes quite a long time to change consumer preferences in essential functions like home heating.  As it turns out, Americans were quite picky about how they stayed warm, and even though the United States had massive coal reserves, it took some time for fossil fuels to dominate the American hearth.

Is there any reason to believe that the future will be different?  I hope so, but the historian in me has some reservations.

About Sean Adams

I'm the Hyatt and Cici Brown Professor of History at the University of Florida. At UF, I teach courses on the Early American Republic and the History of American Capitalism. I've published books and articles on the history of the coal trade, and recently completed a book that examines the origins of America's fossil fuel dependency in the 19th century.
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