Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies by David E. Nye

The friend I referred to in this post recently loaned me the book referred to above.. He is an old-fashioned gentleman who neither has nor wants email. I wrote him a note when I mailed it back to him, which I’m providing here as a book review. ChicagoBoyz readers seem to like hearing about books, so this may be of some interest.

Dear ______:

Writing from Washington DC. I finished Consuming Power a while ago, and I am returning it.

I thought this was a pretty good book. It was worth reading. I learned some things. I liked the old stuff in it better than the more contemporary material, where Nye’s prejudices are a little glaring. I did not grasp the full significance of water-power until I read this, or the impact it had on the public use of waterways, and the large consequences of building dams, nor had I thought about how it typically dispersed the mill-functions rather than concentrating them, most of the time. One quibble with the book is a certain reflexive academic genuflection toward the native Americans. OK, sure, they lived in harmony with nature, whatever that may mean. They also lived short, poor, hard, painful and often violent lives. While their suffering rightly evokes pity, I cannot go the extra step and pretend to admire their way of life.

I would have liked to have had more about the actual mechanisms of power generation and transmission, and I was anticipating a lot more of the meaty detail which made David Hounshell’s and Philip Scranton’s books so good. Instead, Nye tried to sketch this in and get right into the social implications. In doing so Nye displayed a mild case of the customary academic condescension toward ordinary people, which I find off-putting. He does have the good grace to concede that for some reason or another Americans have always wanted detached houses and their own yards. Also, by losing some focus on the concrete he ended up writing almost a diffuse general economic history of the United States. Not a bad thing, but Jonathan R.T. Hughes remarkably good college textbook American Economic History filled that space for me very, very well indeed, already.

Nye’s sermonette about how academics and polemicists misuse history when they construct bogus categories like Fordism and Taylorism was very nicely done. It reminded me of the discussion in James C. Scott’s Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Scott’s book is sprawling but contains many, many good bits. For a conservative like me, the funniest thing is to see Scott’s desperate attempt to distance himself from Frederick Hayek and Milton Freidman while nonetheless reaching similar conclusions for similar reasons. It is as if he has spent all his years as a Left academic looking for El Dorado, and when he gets there it is already settled by Republicans. Poor guy. Most amusing.

Nye’s somewhat downbeat conclusion ill-fits the facts, in my view. We are not on the verge of the crimped and pinched world of iron scarcity, where government-appointed committees of experts will tell the foolish American public that the party is over. This is the same old socialism by default that Nye and his ilk keep wishing for. (Perhaps I’m a little unfair.) We are instead on the verge of spectacular advances in many fields that will likely be energy conserving into the bargain. Nye signals no awareness of the prospects ahead. Also, more troubling, he fails to state that economic growth and energy had grown in lockstep during all of recorded history, but became decoupled after the 1973 oil embargo. Energy conservation responds to market forces like everything else and Nye’s chiding tone will probably not make that process happen any faster.

Nye certainly has great endnotes. I made note of several books that sound interesting.

I hope this finds you well. I’ll be out here working on _______ for a good, long time yet.

Best Regards,