Review: Energy Consumption in Canada in the 19th and 20th Centuries

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Reviewed by: Ruth Sandwell

Richard W. Unger and John Thistle, Energy Consumption in Canada in the 19th and 20th Centuries: A Statistical Outline (Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche – Instituto di Studi sulle Societa del Mediterraneo, 2013),137 pp, ISBN: 888080118X, 9788880801184.

Richard W. Unger and John Thistle’s Energy Consumption in Canada in the 19th and 20th Centuries: A Statistical Outline, is an unusual, and unusually important book for anyone interested in environmental history, energy history, or indeed interested in the ways that energy might have influenced Canadian history. Published by Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche – Instituto di Studi sulle Societa del Mediterraneo in 2013 as part of a statistical series allowing international comparisons of historical energy use, the book provides the first comprehensive overview of Canada’s energy history, highlighting in the process some of the distinct, but underexplored, ways that Canada experienced its transition from an organic to a mineral regime, and from a pre-industrial to an industrial economy.

Just 137 pages long, this small book packs in a lot of history, data, and analysis. The book is perhaps best described as being comprised of two distinct parts. The first part of the book, by far the longest, is a narrative that provides an overview of Canadian energy history. It is, in effect, a gloss on the year-by-year statistics on energy consumption that comprise the final and much smaller portion of the book. After an introductory chapter that defines some terms and provides an overview of many of the distinct aspects of Canada’s energy history, Unger and Thistle provide a chapter describing Canada’s “Traditional Sources of Energy”: working animals, foodstuffs (energy for people), wood, wind and water that provided energy in the organic regime. The chapter “Modern Sources of Energy” moves on to explore the industrial or mineral energy regime, where coal, crude oil, natural gas, and electricity first co-existed with, and later almost entirely replaced, energy from the organic regime. A discussion of peat’s brief identification as a significant modern fuel is included in this section. Both chapters look at the changing material conditions surrounding the ‘discovery,’ exploitation, transportation and use of various energy carriers. The chapter “Energy and Production” examines more precisely the nature and magnitude of the changes associated with the new industrial energy carriers, in the context of various political, economic and social factors. A conclusion reiterates some of the volume’s key findings. The second part of the book provides the year-by-year statistics upon which the narrative of the chapters is based. Appendix 1 outlines Canadian energy consumption in petajoules, by the energy carriers noted above, every year from 1800 to 2010. Appendix 2 employs the same data, but represents each energy carrier in terms of the proportions of the total energy consumed by each. This series also provides a column providing the total proportion of energy supplied annually by the so-called modern carriers (coal, oil, gas and electricity). Appendix 3 charts the population, per capita GDP, per capita energy consumption (Gigajoules) and energy intensity (Megajoules per 1990 dollars). The authors have provided as well a welcome list of secondary references cited in the text.

The book places Canada firmly in the context of the shift from organic to mineral energy that transformed the economy and society of other industrialized countries. Unger and Thistle demonstrate that like people in Britain and the United States, Canadians used fossil fuels and electricity to create synergistic ‘development blocks’ – coal, iron, and railways for example — that in turn created upward spirals of rapid economic growth, ever-increasing energy use and unprecedented increases in wealth.

While confirming the broad outlines of the well-known story of Canada’s development as an industrial nation, however, the book contains some surprises. The first is the evidence documenting Canadians’ very high energy consumption throughout most of its history. In 1821, Canadians were consuming about three times the energy per capita that people in England and Wales were (39), a level of consumption that remained fairly constant before and after that date. Unger and Thistle find a reasonable explanation in the higher energy needs required within Canada’s cold and dark environment. While many environmental historians will not, perhaps, be surprised by the massive increase in energy consumption that characterized Canada’s industrialization, this volume contains the first detailed account of just how gradual and late the shift from the organic to the mineral regime was. While England and Wales had made their transition to fossil fuels by 1845 (that is, with more than 90% of their energy coming from these sources), and the United States by 1915, it was only in 1955 that Canadians had achieved that level (77). Unger and Thistle provide considerable evidence that the ready availability of vast quantities of wood (biomass fuel) explains Canada’s “lag” in its energy transition. Wood was the energy that dominated the nineteenth century, and it was only in the first decade of the twentieth century that modern energy carriers (mostly from coal) equaled the energy from the organic regime. Even on the eve of the Second World War, Canadians were getting more energy from wood than they were from oil. The authors highlight other distinctive characteristics of the country’s energy transition, including the unusual range of energy sources that Canadians relied on at any given time (81-2), and the very high levels of energy production and export that defined the Canadian economy and its society in the second half of the twentieth century (86-94).

While this short book necessarily provides little more than a brief introduction and overview of Canada’s energy history, historians will find much to work with here. Some social, cultural and economic historians might ponder the ways that the statistics and interpretive frameworks provided by Unger and Thistle – evidence of Canada’s distinctive energy history — might help to explain such phenomena as urbanization, consumerism, popular culture, changing gender roles, and falling family size. Other historians will find in this data evidence to corroborate trends and patterns that have never been fully explained within the paradigm that constructed Canada as a “normal” industrializing country. My own work, which documents the persistence of Canada’s rural majority well past the supposed triumph of urban industrialization, is a case in point; Canada’s energy history is both reflected in and perhaps even explained by such rural dominance and the patterns of organic energy use on which rural people continued to heavily rely up until the Second World War.[i] Encouraging new ways of thinking for some and providing new evidence for others, the book will also provide environmental and energy historians new fodder for exploring the nature and significance of difference forms of energy. A forthcoming collection of essays on the history of energy in Canada, for example, provides compelling evidence that organic forms of energy were even more significant than Unger and Thistle claim. Joshua MacFadyen, for example, challenges their estimates of energy from wood burning with new evidence, some of it from new sources, arguing that biomass fuels were much more important than even they claim. Chapters on horsepower, wind and water power likewise provide some persuasive evidence that Canadians’ reliance on these forms of energy have been underestimated.[ii] This book will undoubtedly stimulate more research that will bring even more complexity to our understanding of Canada’s transition from the organic to the mineral energy regime.

Whatever revised estimates of energy consumption that subsequent research provides, and no matter how interpretations evolve from the preliminary discussions initiated with this volume, Unger and Thistle’s book should be read and remembered for its vital contribution to what is now, thanks to their work, emerging as a vital new field: Canada’s energy history.



[i] R. W. Sandwell, Canada’s Rural Majority, 1870-1940: Households, Environments, Economies (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016).

[ii] These essays can be found in R. W. Sandwell, ed. Powering Up Canada: A History of Fuel, Power and Energy from 1600 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill Queen’s University Press, forthcoming 2016).


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