The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations

By Ian Morris | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
ENERGY CAPTURE

LESLIE WHITE ARGUED SEVENTY YEARS AGO THAT ENERGY capture has to be the foundation of any attempt to understand social development.1 Complex arrangements of matter persist through time only if they are able to capture free energy from their environment and put it to work, and humans and their societies are no exceptions.2

Deprived of oxygen, the complex arrangements of matter that constitute our bodies begin to break down after a few minutes. Deprived of water, we break down after a few days; deprived of food, we break down after a few weeks. To create superorganisms bringing together multiple people, humans have to harvest even more energy, making energy capture the foundation of social development.

By “energy capture,” I mean the full range of energy captured by humans, above all

food (whether consumed directly, given to animals that provide
labor, or given to animals that are subsequently eaten);

fuel (whether for cooking, heating, cooling, firing kilns and fur-
naces, or powering machines, and including wind and water-
power as well as wood, coal, oil, gas, and nuclear power);

raw materials (whether for construction, metalwork, pot mak-
ing, clothing, or any other purpose).

Energy capture defined in this way is related to, but broader than, more commonly used measures of physical well-being such as real

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