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.
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