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Reviewed by:
  • Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption by Simon Pirani
  • Brian C. Black (bio)
Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption. By Simon Pirani. London: Pluto Press, 2018. Pp. 272. Paperback $27.

Addressing the many readers who will come to Burning Up from economic history, Simon Pirani immediately explains to his readers that his book is about energy:

focused on these technological, social and economic systems, [my book] is at odds with the assumption, shared by many economists, that the function of any economy is essentially to serve consumers' demand. In my view, production and consumption in the global economy have a symbiotic relationship, determined ultimately by relations of wealth and power in the economy.

(p. 2) [End Page 700]

From this explanation of his "meta" approach, Pirani proceeds to lay out an organization of the post–World War II world that is both insightful and instructive. Burning Up offers readers an excellent overview of how emerging ideas in energy history are changing the way that we interpret how the modern world came to be.

At present, we are witnessing a remarkably golden era of scholarship, as John R. McNeill and others apply the concept of the "Anthropocene" to amplify universal issues of human development. In starting from the premise that we live in an environment hopelessly compromised by human impacts, historians use the opportunity to emphasize a basic mode of interaction of humans with the natural environment: energy use. Taken as a whole, the scholarly writing about energy shows real promise for changing the foundational organization of the human story—potentially shaking to its core our methodology for organizing the way that global history is taught.

Although Pirani's monograph offers very few details to flesh out his systematic view of energy history, it does offer one of the field's most comprehensive schemes for organizing the story. Based in economic history, Pirani follows Andreas Malm's Fossil Capital by focusing on ways to organize thinking about energy, emphasizing "energy systems" as technologies that "are embedded in social and economic systems." Burning Up stands as the first book to set up a comprehensive scheme for structuring our energy history, particularly with Pirani's chapters on the recent past. Pirani carefully explains that his data allows him to track energy flows since the 1800s (p. 26). Deploying this remarkable data on fossil fuel usage by nation, Burning Up in part 1 traces usage flows through decades of the twentieth century as a "mirror of inequality." Pirani's data leaves little doubt that energy flows became one of the most conclusive indicators of global political power by 1945, distinguishing the haves from the havenots. This sets up part 2, which provides chapters on each post-1950 decade that, together, mark the first system-level attempt to itemize the dynamics of what McNeill and others refer to as "The Great Acceleration."

In the modern era, energy infrastructure becomes one of the most pronounced characteristics separating nations' levels of development. As one of the signal indicators of national economic development, Pirani emphasizes the role of electrical systems. The insights achieved here in Burning Up present readers with the most successful effort to date to itemize the connection between the gap in national development and energy consumption while also factoring in the effort to integrate or resist growing knowledge of climate change by the 1990s. In short, Burning Up provides the data to substantiate the exceptionalism of the Great Acceleration while suggesting that patterns are poised for future implementation of alternatives to fossil fuels for electricity generation.

There is not much detailed, historical meat here, though. Overall, this new approach to energy history is a contemporary twist on the history of [End Page 701] technology, but the emphasis on energy systems would benefit from more microscopic attention by the readers of Technology and Culture. From the meta-level of these current efforts such as Burning Up, the importance of energy plays out through industrial systems—technology. Citing just one example, the Cold War's emphasis on technology—ranging from atomic power to hydro development—can be seen to grow from a foundational awareness of energy's importance to...