Books for Sustainability Nerds Volume II

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A Review of Richard Rhodes’ Energy: A Human History

How do we make energy for all? Well, Science Historian Richard Rhodes’ Energy: A Human History attempts to answer that question by looking at the past 500 years of European and North American history. More of a read for policy wonks than technocrats, Energy won’t bring new insights to the technology, but it does offer valuable stories about people—the scientists, patrons, entrepreneurs, politicians, and other instigators who shaped what energy is today.

Today, conversations surrounding renewables, fossil fuels, and nuclear energy have hyper-politicized energy. Yet, from the deforestation of England’s forests in the 16th century to today’s nuclear debates, Rhodes’ work reminds us energy has always been a hot-button topic (pun intended) for hundreds of years.

What’s the major takeaway from 500 years of energy history? We can and should create energy for all. Rhodes advises diversifying our energy to create more efficient systems and more carbon-free emissions. And Rhodes has faith in our ability to create that ideal energy system. “[Science and technology] are the only institutions human beings have yet devised that consistently learn from their mistakes,” he writes.

Within Rhodes’ account, we can appreciate how much Pittsburgh has pioneered energy-wise. Southwestern Pennsylvania encapsulated the larger movements in Western civilization’s energy consumption. A coal town for hundreds of years, energy trends uniquely shaped the region into a major center for manufacturing, and in turn, Pittsburgh revolutionized energy as both a model for innovation and a warning for other regions. Because of Pittsburgh’s coal and manufacturing, “America discovered air pollution in Pennsylvania,” explains Rhodes. Yet, because of its “Smokey City” legacy, Pittsburgh was one of the first cities to reduce pollution by switching to local gas. Furthermore, it’s manufacturing attracted energy investors and instigators such as George Westinghouse, whose radically shaped electricity infrastructure. Later, the region even hosted one of the first nuclear power plants and subsequently, one its first nuclear power disasters. Pollution from the coal and fossil fuel industry built an active green movement, which has grown a burgeoning renewable energy industry in the area.

If the local connection doesn’t sell you, Energy also has a plethora of facts for your inner sustainability nerd. For example, did you know that Queen Elizabeth imprisoned coal-users for causing odor? A canal modeled from a block of English cheddar presented at a 19th-century town meeting. Early railroads literally put the cart before the horse, giving them a chance to take a load off.

Energy is an inspirational read for climate-nerd policy wonks, the Pittsburgh proud, and fun fact loving. Any suggestions for green reads? Any nerdy energy history facts? I’d love to hear them via email.

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