Old school assignment:
Of Energy And Leslie White
Leslie White believed that culture could be divided into 3 parts. However, it was only one of these which he believed caused the majority of cultural evolution. While he saw a sociological and ideological part of society, it was a third part; technological advances, which he saw as moving society forward. White read Marx and Spencer and they influenced his theory, as did Lewis Henry Morgan. He hated Boas on the other hand and began his career in the 20’s when Boas was a major influence on Anthropology. White was obsessed with how civilizations harnessed and controlled energy. Also, the per capita use was of central importance to his theory. He believed the level of evolution of a society could be judged by this. White saw a world unable to harness energy as a lowly evolved thing. Only when humans mastered all forms of energy could they be highly advanced.
He believed in 4 stages of evolution solely determined through the lens of energy use. First, in the most primitive places, people create tools. Second, people domesticate animals and develop agriculture, (the Neolithic Revolution). Third and fourth they exploit gas, coal and other natural resources, (the Industrial Revolution). As a result, he created and used the formula P=et to demonstrate the evolution of a society. P is the cultural development of a society, E is energy use per capita and T is efficiency in harnessing energy.
White also championed the ‘layer cake model of culture’. This was the 3 parts of society with technology and economy at the bottom, social and political structure in the middle and ideology at the top. Each stage resting on the one below. So, at the very core, technology was the basis of society, and it effected and was shown through the economy.
There are many things which are important to look at in a society to see how evolved it is, according to White’s theory. The amount of struggle to provide for basic needs, the level of technical specialization in a society, the amount of people who work specifically to find and extract energy, the level of consumption each person in a society has of energy. A society where energy use is seen as fashionable, or where fashionable things require a lot of energy to come to the marketplace would rank high on his scale. One interesting possible problem with White’s law is moral/political reasons for not using energy, despite its theoretical availability. For example, there are many people against the use of nuclear energy. Also, so people are against the use of fossil fuels. Others believe materialism is a bad thing, and therefore the energy use is a little less in that society as a result. This is not necessarily due to a lack of ability, or a based only on efficiency, labor or means of production.
While sheer energy use is a part of White’s law, another factor involved is efficiency. So, if, in the future the standard of living goes up, but the amount of energy goes down, than society will be more efficient, and therefore not have de-evolved. Efficiency is the key to the future as far as not increasing the amount of energy used and wasted, while maintaining a highly developed lifestyle. The innovations made and the use of machines in the future will determine how advanced on White’s scale that a society can become, without increasing the energy use per capita.
A theoretically more advanced society would have to be one which was nuclear, since it would fit into the highest stage on White’s chart. It would need to either use extraordinary amounts of energy or be extraordinarily efficient in energy use. It could also strike a perfect balance between the two. I think a society which harnesses wind or solar would be more advanced than the current energy use of the majority of the world. If millions of solar panels and wind turbines needing only minimal upkeep caught unlimited amounts of energy, then energy would be efficient, and unlimited. Machines would have to do the bulk of the work, and do so efficiently. If machines could solve their own problems and become more efficient on there own, than that would be even more of an advanced society. If people were free to pursue lives that used enormous amounts of energy, such as travelling, attending large events, using high tech electronics, have machines constantly running, and the source of the energy making all of this possible was highly efficient, than it would be a much more advanced society than our own.