The Evolution of Urban Energy Systems

Originally written for SOC 3470: Sociology of Human Development with Professor Rae Blumberg, Fall 2019

Cities are the global cores of population, main consumers of resources, and central producers of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The United Nations reported that 55% of global population live in cities today, and that number will increase to 68% by 2050 (UN DESA). Billions of the world’s populations live in urban cores, meaning that resource, material, energy, and waste flows flux in and out of these central nodes, creating complex issues and externalities which contribute to climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that if the average global temperature of Earth rises above 1.5°C then our world could reach a tipping point that could cause catastrophic effects on our environment, making our plant nearly uninhabitable. If the global society doesn’t begin to mediate its GHG emissions, then the warming of the planet will continue. Climate change creates more frequent and ferocious weather patterns, effecting economies, resources and human societies’ very way of life. There needs to be a focus on core global population centers where GHG emissions and consumption is high. By understanding the evolution of urban energy systems, there will be a clearer understanding of how societies became dependent of fossil fuels and how the current flaws of these systems originated. Our urban energy systems should have more adaptive cyclical flows of urban input and outputs that will create cities that fight climate change and form sustainable and resilient urban cores.

Cities evolved alongside technology which shaped the way that energy cycled and flowed in and out of these urban cores. Initially, urban energy systems were typically only responsible for space heating and cooking. As urban complexity and technology evolved, the city became responsible for a slew of jobs such as space heating/cooling, lighting (indoor and outdoor), electric power for appliances, mobility services, communication, etc.

Evolution of Societies and Energy Systems (Rutter, 73)

Rutter’s chart highlights the evolution of energy systems alongside population cores. Each transition of energy system marks an important moment in human history. Each transition brought an increase and intensification in energy usage and an emergence of new complexity in the organization of energy flows. In a similar theory, Nolan, Lenski and Bloomberg explain the greatest factor in the evolutionary development of societies is based on the evolution of subsistent technologies.

Diagram of the Evolution of Societies (Nolan, Lenski, and Blumberg)

The earliest human societies were hunting and gathering societies. These early nomadic societies relied on foraging the land and hunting animals to survive. Within these early societies, “fire was the first important natural force to be brought under control” (Nolan and Lenski, 80). The impact on the Earth was relatively low with early human societies since the population was low, their extraction of earth’s resources was very low, and the emissions they generated were next to nothing. Fire, from an energy stand point, was mainly used to heat food and provide light at night. Furthermore, there were nearly no externalities in this energy system. People directly foraged their food, with no middle entity to transport these energies from producers to consumers. These societies had a sustainable way of life.

There was a shift from foraging societies to horticultural societies, with the invention of the plow, and then the transition to agricultural societies with the invention of the plow. With the rise of the hoe and plow, societies could harness the energy of people and animals to produce a food surplus, allowing people to settle the land (Nolan and Lenski, 140). With this food surplus from the simple energy, urban cores formed with the settlement of societies. The urban cores of these societies continued to utilize fire for heating, lighting, and also to clear fields for harvesting, but at larger scale than foraging societies. These societies main means of energy fuel are “wood and combustible biomass” (Rutter, 73). The flow of resources was managed in a way to contribute to the growth of the biomass. This system of energy began to develop methods that were less sustainable than foraging societies since the populations of civilizations were organized in more core-like formations. Instead of foraging societies of around 40 people, horticultural and agricultural societies contained anywhere from 1500 to “over 100,000” people (Noland and Lenski, 70). Although the subsistent technologies evolved to allow societies to develop, settle, and reorganize cultural, economic, and social systems, their energy systems still relied on biomass. Agricultural societies were highly stratified, so the resources and surplus of food went to the king and trickled down the upper class. People of lower classes were working to collect biomass to be turned into energy to give power to the upper class. While the energy system didn’t produce many harmful emissions, the system wasn’t sustainable since it didn’t provide for the people, it was set up to provide energy to the top percentage of power structures.

Industrial societies arose out of early capitalism, shifting societies away from the agricultural society typology. Professor Rae Lesser Blumberg explained that the innovation of smaller mercantile societies produced capitalism which shook main civilizations away from agriculture. With this came the pivotal energy system transition was from “biomass to coal,” as societies began to extract fossil fuels from the planet to mechanically power their cities (Rutter, 74). As societies’ core population organized into more traditional cities, more people could be supported. For the first time, people could rely on mechanical energy for transportation instead of energy from animals. This came at a cost. Coal, steam, and fossil fuels that are extracted from the Earth have a biproduct of greenhouse gas emissions. Industrialized societies discovered “new stores of energy, machines, and materials” like electricity, fossil fuels, oil/ petroleum products, radios, etc (Nolan and Lenski, 204). The system of capitalism incentivized the extraction of resources to make more profits, ultimately creating a system where unsustainability is celebrated. Furthermore, with the emergence of industrial cities came another onslaught of issues. A biproduct of industrialization is dealing with public health as machinery and emissions produce negative health effects as they worsen the air quality.

The transition from mechanical and industrial cities to modern cities intensified the problems and externalities of the urban energy systems. As technology and scientific discoveries increased, cities could function on electricity and traditional fuel sources.

The energy demands for the domestic, commercial and industrial sectors of urban communities are now largely met by electricity and natural gas brought in through the wires and pipes of national grids. This has the advantage of physically removing many of the externalities of the energy system from the city (e.g., pollutants from combustion in electricity generation) (Rutter, 78).

The flow of energy was then more complex, being interwoven by a series of grids. While the transition from mainly coal to electricity and natural gas removed some externalities, this type of energy system, which William Sherman calls the “thermodynamic city of combustion”, continues to focus on a method and philosophy of extraction and exploitation of the planet. The “thermodynamic city” is “formed in relation to heat” with a new economy based on industry “chemically transforming materials by heat” creating harmful biproducts and transportation relying on this “combustion-driven” economy (Sherman, 97). Furthermore, these cities are “categorized and striated according to discrete functional flows”. At this point in history, the city has an energy system that pollutes and industries that are grabbing at earth’s resources hand over fist to increase production and thus profitability. Social factors like the world wars and globalization shifted the means by societies interacted, increasing technological innovation and creating complex socio-political organization which affected the way flows of information occurred (Nolan and Lenski, 201). By creating products and manufacturing that is based on chemical transformations, these societies not only released emissions harmful to earth, but again, harmful to the realm of public health as workers inhaled toxic fumes that created cancers and chronic health issues.

Contemporary urban cores have been founded on a history of processing earth’s resources in a way that creates a multitude of issues. Modern cities rely on the “extraction and processing of resources from natural systems to generate economic value resulting in the accumulation of waste materials and substances in the atmosphere, biosphere and hydro-sphere faster than they can be replenished or processed” (Thomson, 220). Again, the information age energy systems are unsustainable by the means of harming earth with emissions. The average citizen of the modern city doesn’t have to think about where the energy, materials, or resources they use come from, or where the waste they produce goes. The striated flow of energy and waste is simply provided as an easy service by a company. Consumers are cut off from the systems of production and execration. Therefore, this takes the consumer out of the conversation on how to produce better solution to urban flows. Since the creation of the national and regional grids of electricity and power, the flow of energy is dynamic and complex behind the scenes, but from the view of the city is linear: flowing in from a source. Similarly, waste is taken out of the city. This seemingly linear movement of energy, material, resources, and waste through a city creates a multitude of issues.

While most developed “information” societies are attempting to utilize more sustainable energy sources like wind, solar, and hydro power, the majority of the world still relies on traditional fuel sources.

The cities of developing nations are experiencing many of the same drivers seen in 18th and 19th century Europe. Specifically, these countries are seeing rapidly urbanizing populations, which leads to the increased demand for energy services that come with rising standards of living. Existing biomass-based energy systems will struggle to cope with these demands, and there will be a need to access new more efficient modern energy services such as electricity and fossil fuels. (Rutter, 79).

As climate change increases, developing societies whose urban energy systems are based on biomass, fossil fuels, etc. will experience more difficulty meeting the energy needs of all their people. As the effects of climate change continue to worsen and occur more frequently, urban energy systems need to be more resilient in order to be up and running even in emergencies. If energy systems don’t begin to transition to more sustainable systems, then all societies will be in serious danger, especially less developed nations with less capital to rebuild.

Throughout the history of societies, civilizations have evolved alongside technology. Societies’ urban energy systems have also developed in order to meet the needs of growing populations. With the transition from each urban energy system, societies began to increase in social complexity and began to extract more and more from the earth, becoming dependent on non-renewable sources of fuel to power their cities. With the increased complexity of inputs and outputs of the urban energy systems, there were increased externalities like transportation and processing, removal of energy sources. There are a lot of lessons that can be learned from previous societies. For example, within foraging societies, there were little to no externalities since consumers were directly interacting with producers (i.e. hunters and gatherers directly using what they hunt and gather with no middle man). The simplistic energy system was tightly comprised of easy to follow inputs and outputs with tight feedback loops, decreasing the overall chance of externalities. This created an eco-sustainability and social sustainability that is lost in agricultural and industrial societies’ energy systems. It’s important to transition our current energy systems that utilize sustainable energy sources while also incorporating positive characteristics of the past energy systems. Our future energy systems must create resiliency, social sustainability, and environmental sustainability. Our current systems have deep rooted flaws that have been culminating throughout the evolution of our societies and throughout the evolutions of the development of our energy systems. If we don’t address these deep seated flaws soon, the effects of climate change could be deadly to our societies.

Works Cited

“68% of the world population projected to live in urban areas by 2050,” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 16 May 2018. Web.

“IPCC 1.5°C Report: Planet Nearing Tipping Point,” Climate Nexus, 8 October 2018. Web.

Nolan, Patrick, and Gerhard Emmanuel Lenski. Human Societies: an Introduction to Macrosociology. Paradigm Publ., 2011.

Rutter, Paul, and James Keirstead. “A Brief History and the Possible Future of Urban Energy Systems.” Energy Policy, vol. 50, Nov. 2012, pp. 72–80. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2012.03.072.

Sherman, William. “Energetic Organizations.” Lunch V.5, March 2010. Web.

Thomson, Giles, and Peter Newman. “Urban Fabrics and Urban Metabolism – from Sustainable to Regenerative Cities.” Resources, Conservation & Recycling, vol. 132, May 2018, pp. 218–229. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1016/j.resconrec.2017.01.010.