Coming to terms with the concept of energy
What do we mean when we talk about energy? A ubiquitous concept in scientific, psycho-medical, philosophical and popular debates, and the principal object of desire of most geopolitical manoeuvring, the term often tends to remain curiously underdetermined. And yet we idolize, even fetishize energy. We tend to think of it as a resource, as something to be extracted, captured, or artificially enhanced and then put to work. We drill into the depths of the earth to obtain oil, coal and gas; we harvest, to a much lesser extent, the powers of the wind and sun; and we consume energy drinks and caffeine in a bid to increase our own individual engagement. We try to avoid overtaxing our bodies and minds, seeking to ensure a healthy balance between supply and demand, and yet we are haunted by the realization that both material and mental forms of energy are irrevocably finite.
In the natural sciences, energy in its various forms can be quantified and measured, and its behaviour grasped in the form of laws, such as Einstein’s famous formula postulating that energy can be calculated as mass multiplied by the speed of light squared. In late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Europe, Leibnitz, Newton and Émilie du Châtelet all contributed important ideas to the theory of the conservation of energy, which posits that the total amount of energy remains constant in any isolated system, and, indeed, in the universe more generally. While energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can change form – from potential to kinetic, for example. Defining energy in other realms is a thornier affair. Consider human energy: what is the elusive spark that determines our physical, mental and spiritual powers? Notions of energy are central to conceptions of the relation between mind and body. In an age increasingly dominated by stress, burnout and depression, the need for an agreed working definition of human energy has become ever more necessary. Yet the discourse on human energy is marked above all by metaphor, or by silence. Apart from the prosaic thermo-chemical calorie model deployed in nutritional science, there are no scientifically accepted models of human energy in Western medicine.
Human energy is generally defined ex negativo, through the analysis of those pathological states resulting from its depletion. Its exhaustion has been seen as a core symptom in a range of historical and contemporary syndromes, from melancholia to depression and chronic fatigue. As the timeless appeal of the figure of the vampire demonstrates, humanity has long dreamed of ways in which our naturally fading energies might be artificially replenished, and the inevitable process of ageing and death halted or even reversed.
Some of the most explicit concepts are to be found in the pre-modern era. The Greek physician Galen (AD 129–200), for example, sought to explain human energy through the idea of “animal spirits”; the Stoic philosophers developed further the notion of pneuma (deriving from the notion of the breath of life); and in the nineteenth century, the vitalist tradition grew ever more influential through its theorization of that “vital spark” which would distinguish living from non-living matter, and what, in Creative Evolution (1907), the French philosopher Henri Bergson would famously term the élan vital. But such widely accepted models of human energy lost currency with Freud’s notion of libido, or sexual energy.
“Energy” stems from the Greek energeia, which may be translated as “putting to work” or “activation”. The term was first used by Aristotle with reference to speech or writing, denoting force or vigour of expression. Reference to energy in the sense of a more general power or vitality was first recorded in English in the second half of the seventeenth century. The term’s meanings at that time revolve around notions of activity and its products and effects; the vigour or intensity of an action; power actively and efficiently displayed or exerted; and the sheer ability to produce effects.
Energy in the modern scientific sense dates back to the early nineteenth century. In physics, it was first defined by Thomas Young as “the product of the mass or weight of a body, into the square of the number expressing its velocity”. Later in the nineteenth century, Gustave-Gaspard Coriolis introduced the notion of “kinetic energy”, while William Rankine coined the term “potential energy”. William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) formulated the laws of thermodynamics (the science of energy transformation), and Rudolf Clausius introduced the mathematical concept of entropy (the measure of the loss of useful energy).
Yet in all fields other than the natural sciences, the concept of energy remains subject to inherent contradictions and ambiguities, as the environmental philosopher Michael Marder shows in Energy Dreams, his persuasive new book. Engaging closely with different understandings of energy, Marder unmasks the instability that has beset the concept for over two millennia, and argues for a new, non-extractivist, non-destructive energy paradigm.
Many of the most pressing contemporary problems, from the destruction of the environment to the subjection of everything to a logic of means to an end, Marder argues, can be traced back to our prevalent conception of energy as potentia – that is, as a resource to be extracted, accumulated and put to work in a process that results in its exhaustion. We tend to think of energy primarily in metaphors related to storage and release. Critiquing this “destructive-extractive procurement of potentiality”, he urges a return to Aristotle’s conception of energy as energeia, as distinct from dynamis; that is, the fullness of actuality rather than potentiality, a paradoxical form of energetic rest and peaceful accomplishment. Marder also finds this Aristotelian conception of energy as actuality in Hegel’s notion of Wirklichkeit, in hesychastic spiritual practices of stillness, non-productivist accounts of divine creation, inoperative communities, and ideas of perpetual peace, as well as in the “rescue of matter by quantum physics from its traditional role as a passive substratum for form and action”.
Stubbornly attached to a growth-focused, instrumentalizing world view, we have, Marder argues, much to learn from plants: the way they derive energy from the sun through photosynthesis is non-destructive and world-preserving. Those who remain committed to seeing energy as potentiality – that is, a resource to be extracted from nature, irrespective of the cost to the environment and ultimately to the planet’s inhabitants – are likely to see the idea of energy as actuality to be “slowdown and death”. And yet, Marder argues, it is precisely this prevailing conception of energy as potentiality that will prove fatal.
The sheer intellectual ambition of Marder’s approach to the rethinking of energy leads to the forging of some remarkable links across the history of Western thought. He finds traces of Aristotle’s conception of energy as actuality not only in Kant’s notion of perpetual peace, but also in the French syndicalist Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence (1908). He dedicates considerable space to the libido, Freud’s dualistic model of the psyche, and the pleasure principle, which resonates with the energy of rest.
In his attempt to persuade us that we need to turn urgently from a conception of energy as potentiality to one as actuality, Marder focuses predominantly on Western philosophy. He would, however, have found much of relevance to consider in Chinese philosophy and medicine, in the notion of qi, as it resonates with the conception of energy as actuality, or as an “unmoved mover”, and also with the move beyond the strict division of energy and matter in quantum physics. Qi has been translated as “air”, “breath”, “vapour”, “spirit”, “life force”, “elemental force” and “vital energy”, but none of these terms fully captures its meaning, because matter and energy are not considered separate entities in Chinese thought. The ideogram for the concept evokes breath and rice, the two most essential sources of human energy, but also gestures to steam rising from boiling grains, and to movement, heat and transformation.
Much of what Marder presents as his alternative, plant-inspired, neo-Aristotelian vision of energy is unapologetically utopian in spirit. He aims to “carve out small niches for ends without means in the midst of the reality of means without end”, celebrating powerlessness and impotentiality as the keys to an “energetic politics” that is ultimately more life-sustaining than any politics shaped by the ideas of power, potency and force, and any economics grounded in the ideas of the exploitation and expenditure of resources. We need to let go, he writes, of our dead-end fascination with potentiality, wedded as it is to the idea of exploitation, and to learn anew “to piece energy together out of the actuality we have neglected and the dynamism we have overindulged”.
It might seem questionable whether such a re-envisioning of energy could ever be translated into a realizable political and economic programme. What, for instance, would it mean for human beings to seek to become more like plants? Of course, it is precisely such a conception of energy that lies partially hidden beneath the idea of renewable energies such as wind and solar power. And yet there is more to the conceptual revolution proposed here than the seeking of clean sources of energy, for it would be perfectly possible to switch to renewable energy while retaining the idea of energy as a resource to be exploited. If a first step towards the realization of Marder’s “energy dreams” would indeed be to resist with all our strength those political forces that would lock us into the exploitation of fossil fuels, and that would dismiss the very substantial scientific evidence on the impact of human activities on climate change, the next would be to rethink everything from our relation to nature to that with our own bodies. At a time when the devastating effects of the energy-as-resource model are becoming ever more evident, Michael Marder’s dream of a world in which we would think of energy in terms not of exploitation but of “actuality” could not be more timely. Better such a dream, for all its paradoxicality, than the nightmare of a politics and an economics that would do – and indeed is doing – such damage to ourselves and to the world we inhabit, not, ultimately, as masters but as guests.