So familiar has the social economy of energy become in modern societies, so routine its extraordinardinary wastefulness, so toxic its effects, that the capacity for a better way can be missed. By questioning the how, why and what of energy use, new possibilities – of living, travelling, eating, working and buying – can open.

There are no pavements in downtown Bahrain. Visiting a few years ago for a family wedding, I wanted to pop to the shops to pick up some nappies. I could see a chemist from our hotel window, but the receptionist looked horrified when I asked her how to get there and insisted on calling a cab for me. Though it was only half a mile, I couldn’t have negotiated the four-lane expressway and mammoth roundabout on foot. But why walk, when petrol costs a few pence a litre? Access to abundant energy has shaped Bahrain, from the lack of pavements to the extravagant construction projects, artificial beaches and ultra-air-conditioned buildings.

Japan is richer than Bahrain, but it has no indigenous oil or gas. It uses a quarter of the amount of oil per person, and a third of the carbon dioxide. Its society and economy have developed in a very different way. Profiting from lean manufacturing and fuel-efficient cars, the Japanese have made a virtue out of a necessity.

The contrast between Japan and Bahrain shows how economies and societies are shaped by energy, and how the demand for energy can vary hugely, between countries and over time. Our cities, our history, even our food has been shaped by access to energy.

Today, in industrialised societies, we use fifteen times the amount of energy per person than we did before the industrial revolution. But we have become so accustomed to it that we have no conception of its importance in political and social life. Progress in education, social mobility, science and technology are celebrated; the role of abundant energy in making them happen is largely ignored.

Modern dairy cows can produce up to sixty litres of milk a day, five times more than a calf needs. This is seen as a triumph of agricultural science and technique. But it’s as much to do with energy inputs. The American ecologist Howard T Odum points out that the reason a dairy cow does so well is because she relies on a steady stream of oil. She produces lots of milk because she eats lots of food – not just grass, but feed grown with oil-based fertilisers. She’s kept in a heated shed, and doesn’t even need to waste energy walking, because the farmer brings her everything she needs. Once you start looking in terms of energy inputs and outputs, the modern dairy cow no longer seems such a good deal. The rangy cattle of subsistence farmers, whose only inputs are grass and water, actually provide better value in converting energy into human food.

An urban revolution

Our cities, too, have been shaped by energy. Hilary Mantel’s novel, Wolf Hall, is a striking description of life in 16th-century London. Thomas Cromwell and his cronies relied on the River Thames, and a brace of strong oarsmen, to get around the city. All the important buildings – including Cromwell’s own house and the Tower of London – were close to the water. Before fossil-fuels, London was a long, thin city, spread out either side of the river. Few people lived more than half a mile from a boat.

As power sources changed, so did the shape of the city. The arrival of steam-power and trains made development spread along railway routes like spokes on a wheel, with railway suburbs developing around stations. Oil and the internal-combustion engine changes this yet again, spreading development into the spaces between and beyond the spokes. Our cities have been shaped by energy, from the muscle-power of rowers and horses, onwards.

In the United States, where planning laws are far less restrictive than in Britain, the car has allowed cities to sprawl in all directions. Atlanta is 120 miles wide. During the US housing boom, estate-agents would tell their cash-strapped clients who couldn’t afford to live close to city centres to “drive ‘til you qualify”. Since the recession, it is these same suburbs that have suffered worst, thanks to a toxic combination of crashing house prices and rising fuel prices.

Energy shapes society. Yet it is an astonishing blind spot to most politicians. Insofar as it appears on their radar, they understand it as a technical question about energy supply. Where should we get our energy from – nuclear or renewables? What happens if Russia switches off its gas supplies? How do we “keep the lights on” if power sources fail? Very little thought is given to the underlying question of why we need so much energy in the first place.

As we work to meet carbon targets, and as fossil-fuels become more difficult, expensive and environmentally harmful to extract, we will no longer be able to take for granted the role of energy in shaping society. We need to move the thinking from being narrow, technical and supply-dominated to a broad, political question that concerns everyone.

Understanding the role that energy plays in shaping society will help us to find solutions. But politicians are doing us a disservice by pretending that we can have as much energy as we need. If you think from the demand side, new solutions appear.

Urban thinkers in the US, sick of blighted suburbs and six-lane freeways, have formed the “smart growth” movement. They advocate compact towns and walkable neighbourhoods, based around “hubs” of retail and employment sites, close to transport interchanges. These settlements are energy-lean, and provide better social outcomes – ask anyone who’s ever walked to the shops and had a chat on the way. In other words, and with considerable irony, they are arguing to recreate the concept of the High Street. Yet in the UK, the current planning reforms are taking us in the opposite direction, toward greater sprawl.

An issue for everyone

Thinking about the energy and carbon used to make the products we buy, many of which are made overseas, would lead to much more efficient use of resources. At the moment, statistical conventions dictate that we should ignore the carbon embedded in imported goods, but it’s an increasingly significant part of our footprint, and it’s not doing the balance of payments much good, either.

If we understood the energy implications of food, we could reward farmers for careful land management, and encourage local, seasonal food and drink. This would help rural economies as well as cutting emissions.

Energy can’t be tackled just by the experts, any more than hospital consultants can take the credit for a healthy population. We need to develop a “public-health” approach to energy. Rather than defining it as a technical question to be solved by experts, we need to see it as an issue for everyone. It’s not just about renewables, nuclear, gas pipelines and petrol. It’s about how we live, how we travel, what we eat and what we buy.

For two hundred years, economic growth has been enabled by access to cheap, abundant fossil-fuels. Change this variable, and the economy itself changes, and society with it. Outcomes may not be worse, but they will be different. As power politics move centre-stage, the role of energy as a driver of social and economic progress will be better understood, and greater understanding may well lead to better decisions about how to shape our society.

Rebecca Willis is an associate of Green Alliance. She is co-author (with Nick Eyre) of Demanding less: why we need a new politics of energy (Green Alliance, December 2011). Her website is here