Powering Down

Here’s the great French scientist Sadi Carnot, writing in 1824:

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 2009. 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. With these substitutions, Carnot’s paragraph describes the prospective impact of this administration’s energy policies: conducting a war on fossil fuels, without leveling with people about the true limitations of “alternative” energy technologies and without seriously pursuing civilian nuclear power.

A lot of people will suffer greatly if Obama succeeds in implementing these policies, and they will not be people like Al Gore and George Soros and the senior executives of “energy policy” nonprofits or of politically-connected energy corporations.

Here are those Fabian socialists Beatrice and Sidney Webb, reflecting circa 1928 on history and on the contributions of what they call the Machine Age:

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, which is thus not necessarily devoid of art, 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 there is one all important difference in their lot. 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 and notably to their wives and children that the Machine Age has incidentally brought the greatest advance in freedom and in civilization.

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.

(The entire Webb essay from which the above is taken is very interesting and is available here)

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

Related: Power: Mechanical, National, and Personal

27 thoughts on “Powering Down”

  1. Michael K…I think it’s important to distinguish between a classical Humanities major, which might include things like Latin, Greek, formal geometry, serious history and literature, and maybe even a little science, and the modern equivalent, which is often just a grab bag of random stuff.

    I’m guessing that most of our present politicians, especially the younger ones, have degrees of the second kind…

  2. I was being a bit facetious. My daughter is now in college. She is not science inclined (although she tells me she is deciding she likes math) and we were discussing a possible major. Her first two year experience at U of AZ has been dispiriting. I’ve previously described some of the incredible PC stuff she sees through even though she is just an average kid. We settled on a French major as she likes France and would like to spend a year there in school. My argument was that a language major does involve some rigorous study and will be perceived as such by potential employers, much more so than one of the weak major so many kids choose. I think that agrees with your point about Humanities.

    She asked me what she could do with a French major and I pointed out that one of my medical students a couple of years ago had her BS in French. She is now a surgery resident.

    I also pointed out that I was an English major when I was accepted to medical school. I had actually been working as an engineer without a degree when I decided to go back for pre-med. I was told by the student aid office that I could not get a student loan as a pre-med major so I chose English. I enjoyed it, too.

  3. I agree with him. My middle daughter’s high school offered an elective of Pascal programming and I tried to convince her to take it. No luck. She ended up with an Anthropology degree from UCLA which was fairly useless. She is now in the UCLA library science masters program, which is heavily into IT and programming so she ended up there after all. Her older sister, who is an FBI recruiter and lawyer, is trying to get her interested in the FBI because of her language skills. She is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese and fairly competent in Arabic. I have advised her to take the FBI job but she is determined on a career in esoterica in research libraries, like cataloging the Arabic manuscripts in the Spanish archives. She is the classicist at heart.

    The older daughter has a business degree and law degree and I tried to get her to take Mandarin in college. No luck. Her younger sister and I began a Mandarin class at the local JC but she couldn’t get home from UCLA in time so we had to give up. The youngest is the one thinking about a French major. The middle one has applied for a grant to go to Morocco next summer to work on her Arabic. I have encouraged her as she visited Morocco when she was living in Spain.

    I have advised a number of pre-med students to take computer science at least as a minor. We have an excellent junior college CS department near my home. I have taken a number of their courses and find that, by the time the final exam is given, most of the remaining students are over age 50. Too bad.

  4. So, I was strolling through my local CVS pharmacy today. H1N1 flu shots being offered by the health clinic, aisles and aisles of paper – notebooks, cards, sticky notes, and colorful pencils, too – and bottles of this and that for household use.

    I have a point, I really dom and it relates to powering down and nuclear power – sort of.

    Why is it so hard to see the benefits of all that is around us, sometimes, while the negatives are magnified? The items in an ordinary drugstore were, at one time, luxuries for most. Out of reach for the everyday person. The strange fear of technology that exists when technology has moved us off the farm, out of the factory, and into safe, warm cubicles! We surf the net, in comfortable chairs, and find out about food additives and dangers from power lines. Human beings are cognitively weird.

    (Tangential, in a way but not, is this graph at Greg Mankiw’s blog. Percentage of world GDP showing the sturdiness of American GDP from 1969-2009. Do some think it was just an accident that as Europe declined – as defined in the represented graph – we stayed the same in terms of percentage? Oh, and what do you all think of the graph?


  5. I’ve been on the front lines of the battle over nuclear power since 1971. While constructive criticism is welcome, it became very clear very early, that the left’s issue with nuclear power was NOT about nuclear power per se but about the civilization that it supported.

    Abundant energy has freed mankind. Only when there is excess over the bare necessities of life is there an advance in civilization.

    Leftists really do have this “back to Eden” vision. They think they know better what is good for people. Like a warm cozy ranch home with a back yard and a two car garage? No, no, no! You must live in a high rise apartment and take public transit. Oh, an you must live on beans and rice. Meat is bad for the planet.

    The way to achieve their utopia is to ration energy, hence the mission to strangle nuclear power. Their attack on CO2 is another front of the same war but against fossil fuels, which didn’t go away as quickly as they had hoped.

  6. OnParkStreet…”Why is it so hard to see the benefits of all that is around us, sometimes, while the negatives are magnified?”

    Here’s one answer, from Walter Miller’s great philosophical novel A Canticle for Leibowitz:

    “The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew into richness and power and beauty; for then, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn. Well, they were going to destroy it again, were they-this garden Earth, civilized and knowing, to be torn apart again that Man might hope again in wretched darkness.”

  7. Sassamon —

    Yes, I had heard that Carter’s nuclear credentials had been overstated – – in fact he was often referred to as a “nuclear physicist” which of course is entirely incorrect. However, he did have an engineering education (Annapolis is basically an engineering curriculum) and most of Rickover’s nuclear curse which was pretty rigorous. The point of the discussion was the question of whether the American elite suffers from being primarily educated in non-rigorous disciplines like the contemporary humanities. I think the answer is probably yes. However, my point about Carter was that a technical education is no guarantee of rigorous thinking.

  8. Jim and Sassamon,

    Expertise is not transferrable. Even if Carter were a top-notch nuclear physicist, that still doesn’t mean he’d have a clue about public policy. Cf. Union of Concerned Scientists.

  9. Some comments on Carter: In the 1976 campaign, he claimed, as part of his standard speech, that he was a nuclear physicist, a peanut farmer, and that he would never lie to us.

    I happened to hear him early in the campaign in Iowa and was so taken aback by those three outrageous claims that I was unable to formulate a question for him.

    (On the peanut farmer part: Carter made his living as a warehouseman, though he did raise a few peanuts on the side. Nothing wrong with that, but as a onetime farm boy, I can tell you that farmers think less of warehousemen than they do of other farmers.)

    The third claim, coming after the first two, was the most outrageous, in my opinion.

  10. When Carter was elected, I can remember thinking that he couldn’t be too bad because he had been a businessman. In retrospect, I can’t think of a possible mistake that he got right. At least he was in favor of human rights even if ineffectual in execution. Obama will do a lot for Carter’s reputation some day.

  11. Re Jimmy Carter and his nuclear-whatever degree…here’s historian Friedrich Meinecke, in his book The German Catastrophe, in which he analyzes Germans who supported the Nazi regime:

    “It often happens nowdays…that young technicians, engineers, and so forth, who have enjoyed an excellent university training as specialists, will completely devote themselves to their calling for ten or fifteen years and without looking either to the right or to the left will try only to be first-rate specialists. But then, in their middle or late thirties, something they have never felt before awakens in them, something that was never really brought to their attention in their education–something that we would call a suppressed metaphysical desire. Then they rashly seize upon any sort of ideas and activities, anything that is fashionable at the moment and seems to them important for the welfare of individuals–whether it be anti-alcoholism, agricultural reform, eugenics, or the occult sciences. The former first-rate specialist changes into a kind of prophet, into an enthusiast, perhaps even into a fanatic and monomaniac. Thus arises the type of man who wants to reform the world.”

    (To be precise, Meinecke is quoting a friend who made these obserations in the days *before* Hitler’s triumph)

    Not sure this really applies to Carter pe se…my understanding is that the U.S. Naval Academy is really pretty good as a liberal arts school..but I suspect it’s valid as a general point.

    I have Meinecke’s book and got the quote from there, but being too lazy to retype it, I googled it and found it here.

  12. Why is it that there is always a movement back to the past and then commentary that dumps on the Left? predictable.

    In fact, if workers today have more time to pursue things other than work, the job, it was because the Left made this possible.
    Does scapegoating the Left take care of all matters?

  13. California Governor Schwarznegger was surprised at the Greens’ opposition to construction of solar power plants in the Mojave Desert because he thought the Greens were for clean electric power generation. They’re not. They’re opposed to all electric power generation. They lie about being for renewable power until someone actually tries to build a new elecric generation plant. Then, renewable or not, they’ll oppose it.

  14. “Why is it that there is always a movement back to the past and then commentary that dumps on the Left? predictable.” saith Bozo.

    What else is there? Afterall, the present is ephemeral, the future unknown. The past is, perhaps not wholly, knowable.

  15. “In fact, if workers today have more time to pursue things other than work, the job, it was because the Left made this possible.”

    Did the left provide the jobs for the workers? One could argue that the left did provide MORE time for the worker to provide “other” things (good things?, socially beneficial things?) but basically the innovators and capitalists provided the work, the opportunity to earn for the workers.

  16. Bozo…”In fact, if workers today have more time to pursue things other than work, the job, it was because the Left made this possible”

    The Webbs, quoted above, definitely count as leftists, and clearly would have credited the Left as a major force toward giving workers more spare time, but they had sufficient intellectual honesty to recognize that this could not have happened without the Machine Age, even if that age had been mainly implemented under capitalism.

  17. David, isn’t the phenomenon of middle-aged enthusiasm one that infects people in many fields, not merely technical ones? The successful financial person who decides to go into politics is a cliche. There is usually some talk about “giving back” or whatever the current fashionable cant is, but both the behavior and the conceit seem very similar to those of Carter and the pre-war German engineers. One wonders why they do it, given the poor track record of such people in public life. Perhaps, for those not entirely driven by lust for power, the same intellectual narrowness that makes them capable of naive enthusiams also makes them capable of believing that they will succeed where countless others have failed. My guess is that such people tend to succeed in inverse proportion to the grandiosity of their plans.

  18. I cite this post here http://convergencelaw.typepad.com/convergences/2009/12/energy-policy-grows-even-stranger.html,
    and add:

    “Oddly, oil drilling is quite unobtrusive. I once had a tour of the great East Texas oil field, courtesy of the petroleum industry, and it was mostly cows, with an occasional small rocker arm pumping away. So in a way I agree with Feinstein — it is foolish to despoil the landscape with solar panels and windmills when we could rely on oil pumps.

    “But I don’t see anything in the report that says she wants to open up federal lands to drilling, or promote the exploration of off-shore resources. As the wheels come off the whole climate change cart, an interesting possibility arises: an alliance between real environmentalists, who do not want to despoil the rare landscape for the sake of a corrupt international kleptocracy and rent-seeking US companies, and us cheap energy advocates. There is no real conflict between these two groups.”

  19. @ David Foster – that passage from A Canticle for Leibowitz is beautiful; unsettling and beautiful. So, human nature – in all its irritability and longing – is with us, despite lack of want….

  20. OnParkStreet…if you hadn’t read “Leibowitz,” I strongly recommend it. The book is categorized as science fiction, but it’s really philosophical/theological fiction.

    Another, related, passage from the book:

    …children of Merlin, chasing a gleam. Children, too, of Eve, forever buiding Edens–and kicking them apart in berserk fury because somehow it isn’t the same.

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