The different energies we use don’t merely power our lives, they shape them – from the buildings we live in to the foods we eat and the alliances and enmities we form in (geo)politics. Yale Climate Connections here highlights books that explain the connections between energy and society and review the social history and impacts of fossil fuels. The second part of this bookshelf feature will address books dealing with how renewable energies will reshape America and the world.

The descriptions of the books are drawn from copy provided by the publishers. When two dates of publication are included, the second marks the release of the paperback edition.

Thanks to the YCC readers who suggested titles for this collection.


Energy and Civilization: A History, by Vaclav Smil (The MIT Press 2017, 568 pages, $39.95)

Energy is the only universal currency; it is necessary for getting anything done. Humans have come to rely on many different energy flows – ranging from fossil fuels to photovoltaic generation of electricity – for their civilized existence. In this monumental history, Vaclav Smil provides a comprehensive account of how energy has shaped society, from pre-agricultural foraging societies through today’s fossil fuel–driven civilization. This book is an extensively updated and expanded version of Smil’s Energy in World History (1994). Smil has incorporated an enormous amount of new material, reflecting the dramatic developments in energy studies over the last two decades and his own research over that time.

Energy and Society: An Introduction, 2E, by Harold H. Schobert (CRC Press 2014, 720 pages, $195.00)

Energy and Society: An Introduction, Second Edition offers a detailed introduction to energy sources and energy utilization. This book presents an overview of alternative energy issues and technologies, discusses the pros and cons of various energy sources, and explores their impacts on society and the environment. This second edition offers simple updates, as well as completely rewritten material, regarding the last decade in areas including global climate change, oil prices, renewable and alternative fuels, and diversion of civil nuclear energy programs into nuclear weapons proliferation. In addition to students, Energy and Society will benefit professionals in the energy supply, energy planning, or environmental industry.

Consuming Energy: A Social History of American Energies, by David Nye (The MIT Press 1999, 353 pages, $36.00 paperback)

In Consuming Power, Nye uses energy as a touchstone to examine the lives of ordinary people engaged in normal activities. He looks at how these activities changed as new energy systems were constructed, from colonial times to recent years. He also shows how, as they incorporated new machines and processes into their lives, Americans became ensnared in power systems that were not easily changed: they made choices about the conduct of their lives, and those choices accumulated to produce a consuming culture. Nye examines a sequence of large systems that acquired and then lost technological momentum over the course of American history. The result is a social history of America as seen through the lens of energy consumption.

Fossil fueled development (and dysfunction)

The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, by Daniel Yergin (Penguin Random House 2011, 2012, 832 pages, $22.00 paperback)

A master storyteller as well as a leading energy expert, Daniel Yergin continues the riveting story begun in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Prize. In The Quest, Yergin shows how energy is an engine of global political and economic change and conflict, examining both the energies on which our civilization has been built and the new energies that are competing to replace them. Yergin explains how climate change became a critical issue and leads readers through the rebirth of renewable energies, energy independence, and the return of the electric car. Epic in scope and never moretimely, The Quest vividly reveals the technologies, individuals, and decisions that are shaping our future.

Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, by Timothy Mitchell (Verso Books 2011, 2013, 288 pages, $19.95 paperback)

In this magisterial study, Timothy Mitchell rethinks the history of energy, bringing into his grasp as he does so environmental politics, the struggle for democracy, and the place of the Middle East in the modern world. With the rise of coal power, the producers who oversaw its production acquired the ability to shut down energy systems, a threat they used to build the first mass democracies. Oil offered the West an alternative, and with it came a new form of politics. We now live with the consequences: an impoverished political practice incapable of addressing the crises that threaten to end the age of carbon democracy – namely, the disappearance of cheap energy and the carbon-fueled collapse of the ecological order.

The Carbon Crunch: How We’re Getting Climate Change Wrong – and How to Fix It, by Dieter Helm (Yale University Press 2012, 2015, 304 pages, $22.00 paperback)

In a new edition of his hard-hitting book on climate change, economist Dieter Helm looks at how and why we have failed to tackle the issue of global warming and argues for a new, pragmatic rethinking of energy policy.

“[Dieter Helm] has turned his agile mind to one of the great problems of our age: why the world’s efforts to curb the carbon dioxide emissions behind global warming have gone so wrong, and how it can do better.” – Pilita Clark, Financial Times

Carbon Nation: Fossil Fuels in the Making of American Culture, by Bob Johnson (University Press of Kansas 2014, 2017, 264 pages, $22.95 paperback)

Carbon Nation ranges across film and literary studies, ecology, politics, journalism, and art history to chart the course by which prehistoric carbon calories entered into the American economy and body. It reveals how fossil fuels remade our ways of being, knowing, and sensing in the world while examining how different classes, races, sexes, and conditions learned to embrace and navigate the material manifestations and cultural potential of these new prehistoric carbons. In Carbon Nation, Bob Johnson reminds us that what we take to be natural in the modern world is, in fact, historical, and that our history and culture arise from this relatively recent embrace of the coal mine, the stoke hole, and the oil derrick.

Carbon Shock: A Tale of Risk and Calculus on the Front Lines of the Disrupted Global Economy: How Carbon Is Changing the Cost of Everything, by Mark Schapiro (Chelsea Green 2014, 240 pages, $26.00)

In Carbon Shock, veteran journalist Mark Schapiro takes readers on a journey into a world where the same chaotic forces reshaping our natural world are also transforming the economy, playing havoc with corporate calculations, shifting economic and political power, and upending our understanding of the real risks, costs, and possibilities of what lies ahead. Carbon Shock evokes a world in which the parameters of our understanding are shifting – on a scale even more monumental than how the digital revolution transformed financial decision-making – toward a slow but steady acknowledgement of the costs and consequences of climate change. It also offers a critical new perspective as global leaders gear up for the next round of climate talks in 2015.

Behind the Carbon Curtain: The Energy Industry, Political Censorship, and Free Speech, by Jeffrey A. Lockwood (The University of New Mexico Press 2017, $29.95 paperback)

Exploring censorship imposed by corporate wealth and power, this book focuses on the energy industry in Wyoming, where coal, oil, and gas are pillars of the economy. The author examines how governmental bodies and public institutions have suppressed the expression of ideas that conflict with the financial interests of those who profit from fossil fuels. He reveals the ways in which university administrations, art museums, education boards, and research institutes have been coerced into destroying artwork, abandoning studies, modifying curricula, and firing employees. Providing more of the nation’s energy than any other state, Wyoming illuminates the conflicts in the American West, especially the conflict between private wealth and free speech.

Contrasting visions of fossil fuels’ future

The Switch: The Rebirth of Energy Security in America, by Dan K. Eberhart (Greenleaf Books 2017, 272 pages, $20.95)

For the first time in decades, the U.S. has a rare opportunity to realistically reject oil supplies from other nations. It’s a goal that has eluded us through eight presidencies. But recent advances in hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) technology have catapulted the U.S. into its current position as the world’s #1 oil producer, surpassing energy powerhouses like Saudi Arabia. In The Switch, Dan K. Eberhart addresses a fascinating question: What would happen if the U.S. became energy self-sufficient? To answer this question, Eberhart uses a combination of firsthand interviews, vignettes, and reporting. The result is a clear and engaging analysis of how U.S. energy is fundamentally shifting geopolitics and the domestic economy.

Energy without Conscience: Oil, Climate Change, and Complicity, by David McDermott Hughes (Duke University Press 2017, 208 pages, $23.95 paperback)

In Energy without Conscience David McDermott Hughes investigates why climate change has yet to be seen as a moral issue. Hughes centers his analysis on Trinidad and Tobago, which is the world’s oldest petro-state, having drilled the first continuously producing oil well in 1866. He draws parallels between Trinidad’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slave labor energy economy and its contemporary oil industry. Hughes argues that like slavery, producing oil is a moral choice and that oil is at its most dangerous when it is accepted as part of everyday life. Only by rejecting arguments that oil is economically and politically necessary, and by acknowledging our complicity in an immoral system, can we stem the damage being done to the planet.

Burn Out: The End Game for Fossil Fuels, by Dieter Helm (Yale University Press 2017, 304 pages, $35.00)

Low oil prices are sending shockwaves through the global economy, and longtime industry observer Dieter Helm explains how this and other shifts are the harbingers of a coming energy revolution. Helm documents how the global move toward the internet-of-things will inexorably reduce the demand for oil, gas, and renewables – and prove more effective than current efforts to avert climate change. Oil companies and energy utilities must adapt or face future irrelevancy. Oil-exporting nations will be negatively impacted, whereas the U.S. and Europe, investors in the new technologies, may find themselves leaders in the geopolitical game. Helm concludes by offering advice on what can and should be done to prepare for a radically different energy future.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since 2005. Before completing his interdisciplinary...