Agents of Change: Our Complex Energy Transition

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This is the fifth post in a series based on papers presented at workshop held in Banff, Alberta by Petra Dolata and David Painter called “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once: The Oil Crises of the 1970s and the Transformation of the Postwar World.”

“At that busy corner, Grand Street and the Bowery, there may be seen cars propelled by five different methods of propulsion—by steam, by cable, by underground trolley, by storage battery, and by horses.”1 The account in the New York Sun seems like something from a sci-fi novel. This 1898 observation is what I often use to discuss energy transitions with public audiences or students to establish two primary points: that transitions have happened in history; and how unlikely the shift to fossil-fueled transportation seemed at the turn of the twentieth century.

In my own current writing, this impulse has led me to investigate the remarkable shift to fossil fueled transportation in the U.S in the first decades of the 20th century—an inspiring vision of American ingenuity and entrepreneurship to leverage the moment. The result of this transitional moment, of course, was 20th century American society, which became the world’s greatest vision of the high-energy existence.2 It was a wonderous era restrained by little questioning and almost no science.

My ulterior motive in establishing and exploring this earlier transition generally grows from my interest in using history to compel current consumers to better understand the moment in which we reside today.  In 2024, I believe humans are actively transitioning from fossil fuel reliance and that it is a shift that can largely be traced to a variety of systematic jolts occurring in the 1970s. There is not necessarily a direct line through the intervening fifty years to allow us to discern the hinge-like importance of the 1970s energy crisis;  instead, we must consider each of the strands of intellectual history. When historians perform this task, indeed, the 1970s Energy Crisis emerges as a critical juncture and one of the most profound intellectual strands pulled into relief  is green or environmental thought. During the transition of the early 1900s, for instance, broader understandings about science, the environment, and climate change were not among the considerations factored in by energy consumers. In contrast, the transition of 2024 can be seen as an active scene of mitigation as consumers factor in scientific knowledge and choose to participate in an energy shift by making sustainable choices.

Unlike the exciting competition of the various prime movers on Grand Street in 1898, it may be that the summary memory of our embattled 2024 transition are emerging at any number of the new EV charging stations found at gas stations in the U.S. My record of such a representative moment begins with the low, guttural grind that stirs the quiet as the charging space next to mine is invaded by an interloper: a Ram 2500, four-door pick-up with wheels that nearly reach the roof of my Prius.  It is a wonderous technical accomplishment that weighs in at 10,000 lbs and with a 6.4 liter HEMI v8 engine pulls over 20,000 lbs with more than 410 horsepower of power. It is a symbol of a society’s apex: no concern or limits on it, and nearly endless applicability. It seems nearly as large as many New York studio apartments that I have visited.  It is estimated to travel around fifteen miles on a gallon of gasoline.

The truck’s rumbling entrance into my moment of charging is an otherwise quiet protest in our bifurcated moment of energy transition from fossil fuels in 2024. Referred to as “ICEing,” its driver has intentionally passed numerous open parking spaces to make its political point by blocking two charging spaces from any potential use. After shifting the behemoth into park, the driver depresses the accelerator once, then twice. My windows shake as the rumble swells to ear-deafening decibels.

Then the ignition goes off.

The big door swings open and a young woman of 25 springs to the ground in a halter top and tight blue jeans. I’d estimate that she weighs no more than 125 pounds.  She smiles in my window as she slams the big door closed and dashes off.

five automobiles lined up in a parking lot. two cars are plugged into charging stations. three large pickup trucks are parked in other charging stations.
ICEing is the term used to describe when ICE vehicles block access to chargers. Courtesy Motoring Research.

In 2024, we live in a world divided by the energy choices that we each make. More than possibly any energy transition before, though, the true revelation is that viable alternative options exist in our energy marketplace simultaneously. Therefore, we live in a moment in which consumer choice makes a difference. But this bifurcation is just the start of interpreting our energy transition.

The culture that shapes the choices that each of us makes today in terms of energy use grow from the ethics that inform each of our consumer decisions. Our environmental ethic doesn’t only inform our votes and donations in 2024. Now it also informs our choice in everything from our burger to our ride! More important, though, such vehicular decisions today need not coordinate our larger commitments to old-growth forests and polar bears; often, the greener option happens to also be the more sensible and intelligent one on a variety of levels of consideration. 

Charging, charging, Slurp. She’s back and sucking on a bright red straw full of sugary freeze, that American original known as a Slurpee. I, however, require a few more moments of power. 

We reside in an active energy transition that contains extreme threads never before seen in consumer society. Winding together the calls of environmental activists of the 1960s with the interest in energy conservation that was rooted in the 1970s energy crises, a constituency of anti-energy consumers knows no compromise. Truer than previous environmental calls for preservation of species or places, this modern perspective peels back the veneer on consumer practices to reveal the ways that our everyday life compromises the climate and, thereby, Earth’s future. It is a natural progression of the acceptance of the Anthropocene view of humans’ behavior. And, frankly, it is an active experiment that plays out to define what kind of impact it might have on our energy use.

 In 2024, green choices power the transition; however, to many observers these offer only an insufficient salve. One of these critics is Andres Malm, a serious scholar of history and philosophy, who in 2022 published the book How to Blow up a Pipeline. In hispolemic on the climate crisis, Malm asks readers directly: “At what point do we escalate?” His own determination as well as that of many of his readers is simple: “Now!”

a red cover of the book with white font and two images of landscapes - a tree and rolling hills
Andreas Malm, How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire. Verso, 2021.
a poster for the film. three men (2 white and 1 Black) carry an oil drum with dark smoke billowing in the background.
Andres Malm published How to Blow Up a Pipeline in 2022. A feature film by the same title based on the book was released in 2023.

Malm is not content with consumers making green choices when they purchase a vehicle or a turnip; as delicate ecosystems crash, he writes, business as usual takes emissions even higher and “…the extraordinary inertia of the capitalist mode of production [meets] the reactivity of the earth. This is temporal predicament in which the climate movement has to devise meaningful strategies.”3 This was one thing when Malm was making a theoretical call to a few interested environmental radicals; last year, though, his book was made into a feature film, also called How to Blow up a Pipeline. 

In the film, modern-day monkeewrenchers become eco-terrorists by sabotaging the infrastructure of the American natural gas supply. Foreshadowing the eco-action crew in the film, Malm leaves little to the imagination when he wrote: 

So here is what this movement of millions should do, for a start:  announce and enforce the prohibition. Damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices. Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed.4

Will casts of agents of change follow Malm’s call as those do in the film? Similar to ICEing, will their actions, then.  become a defining characteristic of our era’s transition from fossil fuels?

When embarking on an energy transition, societies might alter the conceptions of very basic terms. Since the Energy Crises of the 1970s,  for instance, terms such as “energy” and “conservation” have come to mean starkly different things. In the ensuing decades, the empowerment of the conservation ethic in American energy use moved from a restraining impulse to become a guide for a new paradigm of consumption. For instance, my vehicular choice to drive a Toyota Prius.

 In short, since the energy crisis of the 1970s, American consumers have come to consider energy in such a different way that we now find green consumption as a primary force in our transition from fossil fuels. It is particularly in this cultural shifting that we find conservation emerging to play a primary role in our basic knowledge of energy. As a starting point for implementing such change in the energy marketplace, we must appreciate first that Americans after the 1970s gained the essential knowledge that supplies of fossil fuels are not infinite.5

As a historian of energy use, I have celebrated the heroes of eras gone by who brought in oil and gas wells to power our vehicles and communities. Roles were clear: producers produced and consumers dutifully consumed. The challenges to energy consumption sparked by the temporary scarcity of the 1970s joins with the growth of a culture featuring people thinking differently about energy use and interpreting a more active possibility in concepts such as conservation. Today, energy consumption has become a much more opaque, required act for each of us. Our choices reveal a great deal about ourselves.

  In the film How to Blow Up a Pipeline, the main character leaves an instructive note on the windshield of the SUV that she disables as an act of environmental terrorism. It reads: “If the law will not punish you, then we will.” 

Growing from realities rooted in the 1970s, our dynamic transition from fossil fuels is active and complicated.


1. New York Sun, 1898. Quoted in David Kirsch,  The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History. Newark, NJ: Rutgers University Press (2000), 11.

2. John R. McNeill and Peter Engelke The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene Since 1945. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (2016), 9–11.

3. Ibid., 66

4. Ibid., 66-67

5. John R. McNeil., Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. New York: Norton (2001)., 298.

Feature image: The competitive streets of New York City (here, shown ca 1920) were one of the places that an energy transition played out in the early 1900s. Horydczak photograph collection (Library of Congress). LC-H832- 2070 [P&P]
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Brian Black writes and speaks widely for public and academic audiences about the intersection of issues of the environment and history. After growing up in Central Pennsylvania, Black worked in publishing in New York and Kansas, including stints at Audubon, MHQ, Scholastic, and the Journal of Economic History. His graduate study took place at the New York University and the University of Kansas. He taught at Gettysburg and Skidmore Colleges before coming to Penn State Altoona in 2001 to help start and lead Penn State's only interdisciplinary program in Environmental Studies. Currently. Black is Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies. He is the author or editor of more than a dozen books, including the soon to be released Ike’s Road Trip: How.Eisenhower’s 1919 Convoy Paved the Way for the Roads We Travel (Godine)

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