Of Energy and Slavery

 

Democratic candidates are demonizing the energy industry–Bernie Sanders even called for the criminal prosecution of fossil fuel executives–believing or at least implying that America uses fossil fuels only because it is to the benefit of these companies, never considering the vital service that these fuels provide to millions of Americans and indeed to the entire world…which reminds me of an earlier article and discussion.

Christopher Hayes, writing at The Nation in 2014, asserted a connection between human slavery–in particular, human slavery as practiced in the US prior to 1865–and the use of fossil fuels. Specifically, he argues that the reluctance of energy companies and their investors to lose the financial value of their fossil-fuel assets is directly analogous to the reluctance of pre-Civil-War southern slaveholders to lose the financial value of their human “property.”He also asserts that environmentalists attacking the use of fossil fuels are in a moral and tactical position similar to that of the pre-war Abolitionists.

His article reminded me of a few things.

1) Sometime around 1900, a young PR man who had recently been hired by GE in Schenectady realized that he had a problem. He had gotten his job through glowing promises about all the great press coverage he would get for the company. But his boss had called him in and announced that he had “a terrific front-page story” about a 60,000-kilowatt turbine generator that the company had just sold to Commonwealth Edison. The PR man accurately realized that this story would get maybe a paragraph on the financial pages. Looking for ideas, he went to see GE’s legendary research genius, Charles Steinmetz, explaining that headlines need drama, and “there’s nothing dramatic about a generator.”

Steinmetz picked up a pencil, did a little calculating, and quickly determined that this one rotating machine could do as much physical work as 5.4 million men. The slave population in the US on the eve of the Civil War had been 4.7 million. To the young PR man, Steinmetz said: “I suggest you send out a story that says we are building a single machine that, through the miracle of electricity, will each day do more work than the combined slave population of the nation at the time of the Civil War.”

2) Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave, visited a shipyard in New Bedford shortly after obtaining his freedom. Here are his comments on observing a cargo being unloaded:

In a southern port, twenty or thirty hands would have been employed to do what five or six did here, with the aid of a single ox attached to the end of a fall. Main strength, unassisted by skill, is slavery’s method of labor. An old ox, worth eighty dollars, was doing, in New Bedford, what would have required fifteen thousand dollars worth of human bones and muscles to have performed in a southern port.

3) Speaking of GE, Owen Young was a farm boy who grew up to become chairman of that company. To his biographer Ida Tarbell, he provided a vivid word-picture of what life had been like for a farm wife back in the slightly earlier times. Here, he remembers Monday–wash day:

He drew from his memory a vivid picture of its miseries: the milk coming into the house from the barn; the skimming to be done; the pans and buckets to be washed; the churn waiting attention; the wash boiler on the stove while the wash tub and its back-breaking device, the washboard, stood by; the kitchen full of steam; hungry men at the door anxious to get at the day’s work and one pale, tired, and discouraged woman in the midst of this confusion.

The reality is that non-human mechanical energy has been and continues to be a liberating force for humanity. A society which makes little use of nonhuman energy can maintain a small and wealthy aristocracy, but broad-based prosperity requires extensive use of nonhuman energy sources–and with today’s technological realities, a large portion of this energy needs to come from fossil fuels.

Hayes does not seem to understand, or want to recognize, that the benefits of an energy source accrue not only to the companies and individuals who develop and own that energy source, but also to the people of the society at large. (The benefits of the coal and oil (and later natural gas) burned to power the turbines made by Owen Young’s company did not go only to the resource owners and to GE and the utility companies, but also to the farm housewives about whom he spoke.) At one point in the Hayes article he seems to reach the edge of this understanding — “Before fossil fuels, the only way out of this drudgery was by getting other human beings to do the bulk of the work that the solar regime required of its participants” — but does not really follow up on it. The thrust of his article is that the elimination of fossil fuels would require energy companies to give up something like $10 trillion in wealth. He does not focus on what the American people as a whole would have to give up.

The reality is that the elimination of fossil fuels would result in a major reduction in the American standard of living; indeed, to widespread impoverishment. And you can be certain that this pain would not accrue to politically well-connected individuals such as Al Gore and the Clintons and to thousands of others who “earn” their living directly or indirectly through the control or manipulation of government policy.

There are, of course, also national security implications in this hostility toward fossil fuels. The great French scientist Sadi Carnot, writing in 1824, noted that:

To take away England’s steam engines to-day would amount to robbing her of her iron and coal, to drying up her sources of wealth, to ruining her means of prosperity and destroying her great power. The destruction of her shipping, commonly regarded as her source of strength, would perhaps be less disastrous for her.

For England in 1824, substitute the United States in 2014. And for “steam engines,” substitute those power sources which use carbon-based fuels: whether generating stations burning natural gas, blast furnaces burning coke, or trucks/trains/planes/automobiles using oil derivatives. The extreme hostility toward fossil fuels threatens America’s strength as a military power as much as it threatens the standard of living of our citizens.

The Sadi Carnot link above, which is to the post at which I first used the quote, also contains an interesting quote from the Fabian socialists Beatrice and Sidney Webb, in which they reflect (circa 1928) on history and on the contributions of what they call the Machine Age. The Webbs may not have understood the nature and importance of capitalism. But, like many leftists of their era, they did understand the importance of power technologies in improving human life. This is something that has been completely lost among their “progressive” successors.

“Drying up her sources of wealth, ruining her means of prosperity and destroying her great power.” Sadi Carnot’s 1824 words vividly express what the energy policies of the Democratic candidates would do to the United States.

An earlier version of this post appeared at Chicago Boyz in 2014; good discussion thread.

Published in Domestic Policy
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There are 25 comments.

  1. KentForrester Coolidge

    Great post, David. It’s a shame that lefties will never read and profit by it. They could really learn something. 

    • #1
    • September 18, 2019, at 9:38 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  2. Arahant Member

    Yes, yes, yes, and certainly, yes. I benefit from those power plants and their fuels. I can post here because of it.

    • #2
    • September 18, 2019, at 9:42 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  3. Kozak Member

    David Foster: Democratic candidates are demonizing the energy industry–Bernie Sanders even called for the criminal prosecution of fossil fuel executives–believing or at least implying that America uses fossil fuels only because it is to the benefit of these companies, never considering the vital service that these fuels provide to millions of Americans and indeed to the entire world…which reminds me of an earlier article and discussion.

    I’d like to see the fossil fuel companies refuse to provide their products for 1 day.

    No gas stations.

    No natural gas for homes, factories, power plants.

    No home heating oil.

    No coal for heating, coke, industry, power generation.

    • #3
    • September 18, 2019, at 9:51 AM PDT
    • 8 likes
  4. Kozak Member

    I remember reading an essay by Jerry Pournelle and Robert Niven in the 70’s. They went to an alternative energy fair and were looking at the exhibits, products. One of them was a bike that was attached to a flour mill, and as you pedaled, you milled the grain into flour. A mixing board was mounted in the front where the handlebars were supposed to be so you could knead bread out of the flour.

    Their comment was put a black man on the bike, put a guy with a whip behind him and you have a glimpse at what the world would look like if the loons got their way on energy.

    • #4
    • September 18, 2019, at 9:58 AM PDT
    • 15 likes
  5. David Foster Member
    David Foster Post author

    Kozak (View Comment):

    I remember reading an essay by Jerry Pournelle and Robert Niven in the 70’s. They went to an alternative energy fair and were looking at the exhibits, products. One of them was a bike that was attached to a flour mill, and as you pedaled, you milled the grain into flour. A mixing board was mounted in the front where the handlebars were supposed to be so you could knead bread out of the flour.

    Their comment was put a black man on the bike, put a guy with a whip behind him and you have a glimpse at what the world would look like if the loons got their way on energy.

    When water-powered mills were a relatively new technology, the poet Antipater composed an ode in their honor:

    Cease from grinding, ye women who toil at the mill
    Sleep late, even if the crowing cocks announce the dawn
    For Demeter has ordered the Nymphs to perform the work of your hands
    And they, leaping down on the top of the wheel, turn its axle which
    With its revolving spokes, turns the heavy concave Nisyrian millstones
    Learning to feast of the products of Demeter without labor

    (I would so hire that man for a marketing communications job)

     

     

    • #5
    • September 18, 2019, at 10:14 AM PDT
    • 8 likes
  6. OkieSailor Member

    Machines have freed humanity from the unremitting drudgery required to simply survive from creation to recent times. Men, women and children worked from when they got out of bed until they fell into bed to provide, not the luxurious lifestyles we enjoy, but substance levels of food clothing and shelter. A very few privileged Nobility were able to enjoy relatively leisurely lives by taking whatever surplus the masses could produce from them by force or intimidation, ostensibly in return for safety. Even those few didn’t have rapid transportation, easy access to abundant and safe food, cheap entertainment, a clean change of clothing every day or many other things we totally take for granted.
    All these modern developments rely on reliable, affordable energy to make the machines economically feasible. Those who demand that we do away with all workable and affordable energy sources without having reliable and economic alternatives are either ignorant of the consequences of what they seek or else care nothing for the lives of the ‘deplorables’ they would destroy if they ever get their way. They deserve to be ignored in the first case and scorned in the second.

    • #6
    • September 18, 2019, at 10:45 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  7. DonG Coolidge

    Kozak (View Comment):

    David Foster: Democratic candidates are demonizing the energy industry–Bernie Sanders even called for the criminal prosecution of fossil fuel executives–believing or at least implying that America uses fossil fuels only because it is to the benefit of these companies, never considering the vital service that these fuels provide to millions of Americans and indeed to the entire world…which reminds me of an earlier article and discussion.

    I’d like to see the fossil fuel companies refuse to provide their products for 1 day.

    No gas stations.

    No natural gas for homes, factories, power plants.

    No home heating oil.

    No coal for heating, coke, industry, power generation.

    How about, if instead, the climate marches went a week without fossil fuels/plastics/fertilized foods. Cold, dark and hungry (ie, brutal) is life without fossil fuels.

    • #7
    • September 18, 2019, at 11:25 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  8. DonG Coolidge

    David Foster: The slave population in the US on the eve of the Civil War had been 4.7 million.

    That’s about the same number of Africans that die each year, because they don’t have cheap electricity. 

    • #8
    • September 18, 2019, at 11:26 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  9. Susan Quinn Contributor

    David Foster: The reality is that the elimination of fossil fuels would result in a major reduction in the American standard of living..indeed, to widespread impoverishment. And you can be certain that this pain would not accrue to politically-well-connected individuals such as Al Gore and the Clintons and to thousands of others who “earn” their living directly or indirectly through the control or manipulation of government policy.

    Christopher Hayes is a foolish man. I’d like to see him write his article and distribute it without fossil fuels. Right. Great post, @davidfoster!

    • #9
    • September 18, 2019, at 11:41 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  10. Jimmy Carter Member

    Don’t Y’all worry. We have a new alternative energy source to be “tapped” in the year 2037.

     

    • #10
    • September 18, 2019, at 1:09 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  11. David Foster Member
    David Foster Post author

    The quote from the Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the famous Fabian Socialists (cited at the Sadi Carnot link) shows an important difference between Leftists of that era and those of our own time:

    The manual-working population of the cities was, in fact, mainly composed of laborers who were lifelong hewers of wood and drawers of water whilst that of the vast stretches of farmland and forest outside the cities was as devoid of art as of letters. And the proportion of merely mechanical work in the world s production has, taken as a whole, lessened, not increased. What a multitude of laborers quarried the stones, dragged and carried the stones and lifted the stones of the cathedral walls on which half a dozen skilled and artistic masons carved gargoyles? From the building of the Pyramids down to the present day, the proportion of the world’s work of the nature of mere physical digging, pushing, carrying, lifting and hammering, by the exertion of muscular force, has almost continuously diminished…. And it must not be forgotten that, in Western civilization to-day, the actual numbers of men and women engaged in daily work of distinctly intellectual character…are positively greater than at any previous time. There are, of course, many more such workers of superior education, artistic capacity, and interesting daily tasks in Henry Ford’s factories at Detroit than there were in the whole city of Detroit fifty years ago! Along side of these successors of the equally exceptional skilled handicraftsmen of the Middle Ages there has come to be a vast multitude of other workers with less interesting tasks, who could not other wise have come into existence, and who represent the laborers of the cities and the semi-servile rural population of past times, and who certainly would not themselves dream of wishing to revert to the conditions of those times. It may be granted, that, in much of their daily tasks (as has always been the case) the workers of to-day can find no joy, and take the very minimum of interest (but) unlike their predecessors, these men spend only half their waking hours at the task by which they gain their bread. In the other half of their day they are, for the first time in history, free (and, in great measure, able) to give themselves to other interests, which in an ever- increasing proportion of cases lead to an intellectual development heretofore unknown among the typical manual workers. It is, in fact, arguable that it is among the lower half of the manual workers of Western civilization rather than among the upper half, that there has been the greatest relative advance during the past couple of centuries. It is, indeed, to the so-called unskilled workers of London and Berlin and Paris, badly off in many respects as they still are…that the Machine Age has incidentally brought the greatest advance in freedom and in civilization.

    • #11
    • September 18, 2019, at 1:25 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  12. Shawn Buell (Majestyk) Contributor

    Bernie Sanders has probably never set foot inside a coal-fired power plant, where a ten-story tall column contains a whirling tornado of fire fed constantly by a conveyor belt of crushed coal at a rate of hundreds of pounds per minute.

    He and those like him don’t understand that these dragons’ fires (which power their three homes) would promptly go out if the conveyor belt were to stop feeding it, and the lights would quickly go out for miles around. The hospitals – which have backup generators – would stay lit for a few hours or maybe even a day or two, but the air conditioning would most likely stop, turning those buildings into sweltering death-traps in a matter of days.

    Supermarkets, hardware stores, street lights… all gone. The poor and the sick? They’ll be the first to perish in this new world, while the Sanders clan feasts off of on-site backup power and expensive solar energy storage.

    They don’t understand what the real source of our prosperity is: access to abundant and cheap energy. Energy is freedom. If they truly want to help the poor, they should want the cheapest power available… but that would mean nuclear energy and that conjures visions of Chernobyl in the minds of the left.

    For people who claim to embrace science, they surely can’t do very much math.

    • #12
    • September 18, 2019, at 1:58 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
  13. David Foster Member
    David Foster Post author

    Some Progs will argue that Americans must sacrifice much of their standard of living in order to save the planet and leave more resources for people in the rest of the world. Others will assert that not much sacrifice is necessary, because we can have cheap renewable energy as soon as the fossil fuel companies get out of the way. Most of them are probably in a zone of ambiguity somewhere between these two viewpoints.

    A fairly small % of people understand how difficult and expensive electricity is to store…as I’ve note previously, few journalists even understand the difference between a kilowatt and a kilowatt-hour…so when those pushing wind or solar quote a cheap unit production cost, without considering the time factor, these people are easily convinced that wind/solar can do it all.

    • #13
    • September 18, 2019, at 2:54 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  14. Paul Stinchfield Member

    David Foster:

    Christopher Hayes, writing at The Nation in 2014, asserted a connection between human slavery–in particular, human slavery as practiced in the US prior to 1865–and the use of fossil fuels. Specifically, he argues that the reluctance of energy companies and their investors to lose the financial value of their fossil-fuel assets is directly analogous to the reluctance of pre-Civil-War southern slaveholders to lose the financial value of their human “property.”

    There is more than a faint echo of Lenin and Stalin in that demonization of the energy industry: The Kulaks and capitalist business owners were vicious oppressors who only clung to their property because they wanted to continue to exploit the laboring classes. And thus they were enemies to be destroyed. It is no longer socially risk-free to praise the policies that produced the Ukrainian Famine and the Great Leap Forward, but the ideology behind them lives on.

    • #14
    • September 18, 2019, at 4:24 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  15. aardo vozz Member

    DonG (View Comment):

    Kozak (View Comment):

    David Foster: Democratic candidates are demonizing the energy industry–Bernie Sanders even called for the criminal prosecution of fossil fuel executives–believing or at least implying that America uses fossil fuels only because it is to the benefit of these companies, never considering the vital service that these fuels provide to millions of Americans and indeed to the entire world…which reminds me of an earlier article and discussion.

    I’d like to see the fossil fuel companies refuse to provide their products for 1 day.

    No gas stations.

    No natural gas for homes, factories, power plants.

    No home heating oil.

    No coal for heating, coke, industry, power generation.

    How about, if instead, the climate marches went a week without fossil fuels/plastics/fertilized foods. Cold, dark and hungry (ie, brutal) is life without fossil fuels.

    And think of what would happen in much of the country if that week without fossil fuels occurred during winter.

    • #15
    • September 18, 2019, at 5:58 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  16. David Foster Member
    David Foster Post author

    aardo vozz (View Comment):
    And think of what would happen in much of the country if that week without fossil fuels occurred during winter.

    We may get a preview of that in the NYC area, this year, given the gas pipeline constraints that have been put in place by the politicians.

    • #16
    • September 18, 2019, at 6:09 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  17. DonG Coolidge

    David Foster (View Comment):

    aardo vozz (View Comment):
    And think of what would happen in much of the country if that week without fossil fuels occurred during winter.

    We may get a preview of that in the NYC area, this year, given the gas pipeline constraints that have been put in place by the politicians.

    Idiots! Meanwhile in Texas there is so much natural gas, they are just burning it off. Same CO2 release, just nobody heated a house or cooked dinner.

    Note, late next year there will be new pipelines connecting the gas production sites with LNG terminals, so the world may enjoy clean, cheap energy.

    • #17
    • September 18, 2019, at 7:14 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  18. DonG Coolidge

    Christopher Hayes: slaveholders to lose the financial value of their human “property.”

    wait…a…minute. Is the author implying that freeing slaves is equivalent to financially penalizing slave holders? hmm.

    • #18
    • September 18, 2019, at 7:18 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  19. MACHO GRANDE' (aka - Chri… Coolidge

    Sounds a lot more like we’re slaves to the whims of politicians. Bernie’s own fine usage of other peoples’ toil, the VA, when he was chair of the senate oversight committee, killed veterans in places built and paid for to help them.

    What else can Bernie fix for us? Maybe we should eliminate medical schools because they produce doctors, who always get rich off the services they provide. Bad, rich people. Let’s get rid of them, too.

    The hard part in all of this is that Bernie gets votes for this ridiculous crap. You literally can sell anything, to anyone. He is the living proof of this concept, and he laughs all the way to his three houses and a college destroyed by his idiotic wife. I can’t think of a greater example of a lazy loser going so far, on so little talent, other than his one talent of constantly disgorging a steady stream of hot, stinking air.

    See the source image

    • #19
    • September 19, 2019, at 3:19 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  20. I Walton Member

    It’s a little difficult to follow the left these days. The biggest polluter, China, and most of the rest of the world won’t give up coal let alone oil and gas. If the US actually restricted use the price would fall and they’d enjoy a jump in prosperity at our expense. And we’d just sit there and let them take over, everything everywhere? Our left is not just stupid they’re insane

    • #20
    • September 19, 2019, at 4:00 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  21. Kozak Member

    David Foster (View Comment):

    aardo vozz (View Comment):
    And think of what would happen in much of the country if that week without fossil fuels occurred during winter.

    We may get a preview of that in the NYC area, this year, given the gas pipeline constraints that have been put in place by the politicians.

    And of course the villain in this will be the Evil Power Company not the idiot pols.

    • #21
    • September 19, 2019, at 5:43 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  22. James Lileks Contributor

    Shawn Buell (Majestyk) (View Comment):
    They don’t understand what the real source of our prosperity is: access to abundant and cheap energy. Energy is freedom.

    Oh, they’re all for abundant and cheap energy. They believe it will come from the sun and the wind and the water, and we can transition to those sources relatively quickly if we spend the requisite amount of money. Any inconveniences will be minor; any change in the way we do things now will be irrelevant and necessary. 

    It’s so simple, and hence the frustration when they can’t start the process now

    • #22
    • September 19, 2019, at 10:33 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  23. Randy Weivoda Moderator

    Let’s imagine that next month a team of scientists come up with a giant breakthrough in solar cell technology. It’s so much more efficient than any present solar tech that utilities will be standing in line for the new technology because it will be even cheaper to make electricity this way than with coal, and without any government subsidies. How long will it be before the leftists denounce the evil utility companies and their greedy shareholders? After all, they are making a profit off of sunshine! Something that is free!

    • #23
    • September 19, 2019, at 11:01 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  24. Kozak Member

    James Lileks (View Comment):
    Oh, they’re all for abundant and cheap energy.

    I don’t think they are. I’ve seen plenty of articles stating clean cheap energy would still be bad for the planet, because it would just encourage more “development and alleged progress”. There’s a real Luddite faction on the Left that really wants to send us back to those wonderful simple days of the past with small village life and sing alongs….

    • #24
    • September 19, 2019, at 12:16 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  25. Kozak Member

    And this…

     

    Amory Lovins of Friends of the Earth puts it this way: “If you ask me, it’d be a little short of disasterous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we would do with it. We ought to be looking for energy sources that are adequate for our needs, but that won’t give us the excesses of concentrated energy with which we could do mischief to the earth or to each other.”

    We know what’s best for you.

    • #25
    • September 19, 2019, at 12:36 PM PDT
    • 4 likes