Plant-People Big History
Energy is an elemental force in the universe that takes many forms. However, it is plant energy that best explains the path of human history.
This article has investigated those kinds of energy (e.g. food, fossil fuels) and their modes of expression (e.g. as biological energy, social energy) that have had the greatest influence on human history. This influence has depended on their availability which, in turn, has depended on geography (e.g. of cereals first used for agriculture in the ‘lucky latitudes’, and the fossil fuel coal that launched the Industrial Revolution in England) but also on technology (as a function of social organization) that was available for its capture and use.
Energy, when harnessed in an organized way, as occurs in nature, encourages growth and diversity. This is demonstrated by both an increase in overall population numbers and an acceleration in organic differentiation. In social systems it facilitates an increase in the complexity of social organization and improved technologies.
Biological energy, the energy that sustains the bodies of living organisms, is derived from the energy of the Sun, captured and stored in plant tissues during photosynthesis – and then taken into the body as plant food which is the ultimate life-sustaining fuel for all living creatures. This energy arises during photosynthesis in an energy conversion from electromagnetic energy to the chemical energy that is expressed as biological energy.
The historical role of plants in the process of human-plant coevolution becomes more transparent when we consider the way humans have devised ever more efficient ways of harnessing energy, first as life-sustaining biological energy (food), supplemented later by the society-sustaining social energy of fossil fuels.
Since both biological and social energy are derived from plants then it is plant energy that has underpinned the growth of individual organisms, human populations, cities, and economies. This has transformed the human environment of biological evolution into one of cultural evolution that has resulted in a global community.
With an increase in the complexity of social organization there emerged the technological possibilities of scale that have facilitated globalization. Over the last 500 years of accelerating growth in social complexity there has been a global redistribution of both humans and plants across the surface of the Earth – a replacement of natural landscapes of wild plants by cultural landscapes of anthropogenic plants.
The coevolution of plants and people reached a cultural climax in the Age of Plants that lasted from around 1550 to 1950, an Age that is now passing as we transition away from fossil fuels.
Human dependence on plant energy has increased through four major phases of human history whose mode of existence and degree of social organization was constrained by kinds of energy, its availability, method of capture, and use.
These four phases are called Natura, Agraria, Industria, and Informatia which are described in detail elsewhere. Human energy was first obtained from wild plants (Natura), then cultivated plants (Agraria), then supplemented by a massive boost of social energy obtained from fossil fuels that fed into an acceleration in the growth of population, social organization, and technology that created Industria and globalization.
Today, in Informatia, our dependence on plants for social energy is waning as the world economy transitions from plant-based fossil fuels to renewable energy sources like wind, solar, biomass, nuclear and hydro as, it seems, we approach a new milestone for humanity . . . peak per capita energy use.