Going Dark

I’ve mentioned the concept of water empires here before.

The idea is that a central government has control over a vital life-sustaining resource, such as water. If a province rebels or otherwise acts up, then the supply is cut off. The problem takes care of itself in a year or two of savage starvation, since there will be no harvest if the fields are dry.

Water empires invariably lead to both despotism and corruption. It is so easy to exert total control over life and death, why wouldn’t the people in charge work to consolidate their power? They’d be idiots if they didn’t, after all.

And, since the aforementioned people in charge are in total control, the rules simply don’t apply to them. They can indulge their every whim, favor this person or industry over another, simply because they can. Who is going to stop them? Anyone who tries will be in big trouble when the water stops flowing, after all.

So what happens if the vital resource is electricity instead of water? Why wouldn’t history repeat itself?

(Hat tip to Glenn.)

12 thoughts on “Going Dark”

  1. No doubt about the validity of the water is power theory – just ask anyone living in western Mexico. In advocating the series of dams and irrigation canals along the Colorado River and branching into Arizona, Barry Goldwater said that if a single gallon of water reaches the Sea of Cortez we have failed. By that standard we failed, but not by much – to the everlasting detriment of lots of Mexicans.

  2. The central valley of California is enough evidence without dragging the corpse of Barry Goldwater into it. The snail darter has conquered millions of Californians who have a 25% nominal unemployment rate. Environmentalism is a weapon.

  3. The classic exposition of this theory is the book “Oriental Despotism” by Karl Wittfogel, a German historian. His theory is that such “hydraulic societies” all tend toward despotic government controls and he makes a good case.

    Yes, energy is the equivalent in a mondern society as the effects on the deprived victim are almost immediate. All this “smart meter” hype and remote controlled thermostats are just extensions of government control.

    The original business model was for electric utilities to promise to meet the customers’ demands whenever possible. Of course exceptions existed as in limits on service ampacity or expecting customers business volumes to pay for the infrastructure to serve them.

    Now, the government restricts energy supplies and then proclaims that they “need” to ration to mitigate “fairly” the resultant shortages.


  4. I got a notice that I will be getting a new “high tech” electric meter for my house soon. I guess it is time to start shopping for a generator.

  5. I’ve always been a little dubious about the whole “hydraulic despotism” idea. There is no doubt that societies that depend on extensive irrigation to survive always develop highly despotic centralized governments but that does not mean that they actually used the water as a means of direct control. I don’t think it would be a very effective tool. Instead, the despotism was caused by the need for centralized, top-down hierarchal management of the irrigation technology itself.

    In the past, rebellions were largely one group of elite warriors attempting to wrest power from another group of elite warriors. The common people largely stayed out of the fray. Cutting off irrigation would not only draw the great mass of the population in conflict but would most likely drawn them to the side of the rebels. Triggering mass starvation would destroy the area as a region of wealth production for the elites without immediately affecting the warrior elites. After all, in most places, this years war is fought with food grown in the years before. Wrecking this years crops won’t have an immediate effect.

    Instead of being a weapon itself, irrigation required a specific type of centralized, top-down hierarchal organization. . Any serious breakdown in social order would disrupt the entire system and threaten everyone. The awareness of the need to keep order to keep the water flowing impelled people to support a strong central state just to keep order. Even with insane rulers and high taxes, if a regime kept basic order and organization, it was better than degree of famine producing conflict.

    No, the real power in control of a resource lies in the creation of artificial sacristy. Governments seek to restrict access to a resource by any non-governmental means. Rationing gives enormous power to those who control the rations.

    This is a replay of the energy crisis of the 73′-84′ in which collectivist did everything in their power to keep petroleum in short supply in order to justify what they hoped would be a WWII like system of rationing. The only that has changed in the last 30+ years is the rationale. Back then, we were exhausting fossil fuels, now were are burning way to much. But in the end, the solution is always exactly the same.

  6. I think that ultimately, private smart meters will be under the control of the homeowner and public smart meters will be ruled unconstitutional on 3rd amendment grounds. Having an agent of the state constantly in your business is what the 3rd amendment was about. We used to be so sensible that the 3rd amendment virtually never came up as a practical matter but I see us losing that common sense, and fast.

  7. C’mon Michael – it’s nice to resurrect Barry’s corpse from time to time to wax nostalgiac about the good old days and think of what might have been …

  8. Do we really need electricity? Civilization got along very nicely without it clear up to 1900. So we rise at dawn and sleep at sunset. So we eat sausage and smoked meats and fresh milk (although wine is safer). So we talk to each other instead of watching tv. We yell across the back fence instead of texting. And all nudity has to be done in person.

  9. I wrote this in a comment to one of Shannon’s posts a year ago:

    This one from 2009 is also relevant:

    “Smart grids are being hyped as a solution to energy problems. But, what they really mean is that if the sun sets, as it does every day, and the wind dies down, the utility will be able balance the grid by turning your electricity off. What smart grids mean is that people who can afford diesel backup systems will still be able to have air-conditioning. This will not represent progress.”

    Sol: I assume you are being sarcastic, because I do not want to think you are a nitwit.

  10. What smart grids mean is that people who can afford diesel backup systems will still be able to have air-conditioning. This will not represent progress.”

    Since I don’t have air conditioning, I merely want to have lights to read by and computer access. The state, at least California, is not smart enough to use “smart power.” It is simply an indicator that blackouts and brownouts are coming.

    Private, competitive entities tend to rise to the level of its most capable and intelligent employees. Government entities tend to do the opposite.

    I moved to the mountains to avoid the rioting and civil unrest I see coming. I left the affluent suburb where I was living to avoid the looting. This is worst case scenario but I don’t see another Reagan on the horizon. At the least, I want lights and the internet.

  11. The classic water monopoly was ancient Egypt. But this monopoly worked because the Nile is bordered on both sides by dessert. It was almost impossible to live more than 40 miles from the Nile because there was no water. The Nile gave the pharaohs quick communications from one end of Egypt to the other. The desert protect Egypt from invasion and prevented the peasants from running away.

    There is no similar situation in the US. A nationwide totalitarian government cannot exist without electricity to power the computers needed to keep track of the people. A totalitarian government needs electricity for communication and surveillance. And electricity is needed to house and feed the police and military forces required to maintain control in the totalitarian state.

    On the other hand the people can live comfortably without electricity. Farmers can farm without it. My family lived in a 2 story house Minneapolis in 1870. They had a garden, a goat, 10 chickens and 6 children, a hand pump in the kitchen for water, an outhouse of their own, a coal furnace, and an ice box. They used sunfish oil in oil lamps for light because it was cheap and the smell when it burned was ok.

    I suspect that if some one tried the totalitarian thing in the US that there would be effective resistance.

  12. Mr. Love,

    I see your point that in an irrigation-based society, the farmers would willingly pitch in to build and maintain the irrigation works upon which their crops depended. The elites’ role is engineering the works and organizing the labor parties. They would also punish free-riders and protect against predation.

    One would expect the politics of such societies to be something other than what we think of in the word “depotism.” Certainly the priesthood of such societies had a role as did the warrior classes although many societies could combine the roles in one class.

    “Hi, I’m Ramses IX and I want to be your pharoah! I promise to bring 10,000 acres of new land under irrigation and protect you against the Hottentots!”

Comments are closed.