The Thread of Energy: Weaving the Fabric of Our Lives

12 Min Read

February 17, 2023

Dr. Martin J. Pasqualetti is a Professor of Geography in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and a Senior Global Futures Scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, both at Arizona State University. His book, The Thread of Energy, is available from Oxford University Press.

Whether you awake each morning to the scent of warming coffee or the scent of a warming planet, and whether you face each day with a sense of optimism or a sense of impending doom, you can assume that every day will be different than all those that have gone before. Nothing stays the same. While change is a stubborn truth, there is an exception that affects your every experience and the experiences of all around you. It is pervasive, steady, imperative, and constant. You realize that it weaves its way through every activity you can imagine, from mopping a floor to negotiating a nuclear arms deal, from all memories of the past to all dreams of the future. You have discovered The Thread of Energy.

While identifying the key role of energy may seem a thoughtless challenge, its role in the play of life is as integral as it is overlooked. Despite its omnipresence, I missed the centrality of its importance for many years—that is, until I made the suggestive connection that forms the basis of my book. A story follows.

I have wished to travel and explore for as long as I can remember. My motivation has been simple: an abiding curiosity about other places. Preferred destinations were innumerable, at least initially. It was the trip that I coveted. Every place had its allure.

Eventually, the reality set in that indulging such an urge was silly and unlikely. Then one day, I received a formal-looking envelope. It held a letter from an attorney informing me that a wealthy relative had passed away, leaving me with a hefty inheritance. It was the windfall of a fantasy seldom realized.

Propelled by hoarded wanderlust, I quickly stored my belongings, sublet my apartment, gave my boss notice, and booked the first available flight to wherever. In little time, I was off on the grand adventure of my dreams, equipped with high expectations of what I would find, the lessons I would learn, and the questions about places I knew would be answered.

I observed the thread weave in and out of everything from the health of civilizations to the health of the planet. I came to appreciate energy's binding function in the tapestry of life. I determined that if the thread of energy was common to all activities, following it could help bring order to the entropic tendencies surrounding us.

As weeks flowed into months, disparate streams of adventure converged into a wide river of discovery. Traveling light kept me flexible, alert, and open to new ideas and ways of thinking. I noted that people in different places and societies all had the same basic needs and wants: water, food, clothing, shelter, health, and security, along with a dash of optimism about the future. All these wishes were indifferent to the station in life, age, culture, history, or ethnicity.

I realized that following the thread of energy helps underscore our similarities by humanizing our activities, desires, aspirations, and shortcomings. It helps us understand more deeply how we live, what we covet, the risks we perceive, and the future we hope comes to pass. It emphasizes that we are all in this together, giving added momentum to the good sense – and growing need – of greater global cooperation.

Soon, it became apparent that most of the scientists who had been studying energy rarely detour off the pathways of physics and chemistry. They have made many important discoveries but fall short of identifying and explaining the complex interactions between energy and people. Their analyses were incomplete.

Scientists have made many important discoveries but fall short of identifying and explaining the complex interactions between energy and people.

This book attempts to rebalance our understanding of energy by digging into the relationships between energy and society, prodding the reader to consider energy outside the laboratory and explain what energy means to the world community of people with whom they share our crowded and vulnerable blue marble.

As we cradle this broadened ambition, we strive for a fuller understanding of the amalgam of supply, demand, distribution, economics, environmental cost, and political realities that can quickly overtake complacency, distractions, and our fraught attempts at predicting what lies ahead. In so doing, this book pulls back the curtain to reveal the myriad relationships between energy and society, relationships that often attract little public attention, but which are the binding force in our relationship with our fellow inhabitants of planet Earth.

The book’s 13 chapters address several potent themes melding energy and society. These include the progression from controlling fire to splitting the atom ("Transitions"); how we use energy every day ("Life"); the significance of energy as reflected artistically ("Art"); the environmental costs of energy ("Environment"); the threat that our thirst for energy poses to global climate stability ("Climate"); how policy decisions guide and react to energy availability ("Policy"); the international roles of energy trade, supply and demand, and military conflict ("Geopolitics"); the concentration, impacts, and opportunities of urban form and function ("Cities"); the disparities in energy development, availability, and use in different cultures and at other times ("Justice"); the availability and quality of energy on our levels of prosperity, comfort and security  ("Lifestyles"); personal risks that accompany the development and use of energy ("Dangers"); job opportunities that accompany matching energy demands with energy supplies ("Business"); and, last, what energy supply and demand might look like in the years ahead and how we might react to those changes ("Futures").

Our need for energy inspires decisions just as surely as it limits behaviors, often in ways few people appreciate, and even fewer people control. For these reasons, it is more important than ever that we understand the centrality of energy and elevate its importance within our consciousness and sense of responsibility to one another and our natural environment. The thread of energy creates the fabric that at once envelopes us and broadens our horizons. Following the thread can help us develop strategies that contribute to prosperity, justice, and happiness for all who live on Earth, the only home we have. We cannot escape its influences, mandates, and promises, nor the hardships of its absence. We must strive to better understand how the thread of energy weaves the tapestry of our lives.

The more we continue expanding and deepening our understanding of the relationships between energy and society, the more we will further our understanding of daily behavior, innovations of every description, how they meld with one another, how we interact with them, and how they will influence what the future holds. Such considerations can help humanize energy because they more thoroughly illustrate how energy permeates the fabric of our lives. In this way, it underscores the main lesson of this book: energy is a social issue with a technical component, not the other way around. That is what I hope reading this book will accomplish, and it is what I discovered when I set out to explore the world. 

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