Of Energy and Slavery

Christopher Hayes, who writes at The Nation, sees 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”…and he goes on the assert 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…and 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 and 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…worth reading.  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 Obama’s energy policies will do to the United States if he is not stopped from carrying them out.

As I was wrapping up this post, I noticed that Megan McArdle has some related thoughts.


31 thoughts on “Of Energy and Slavery”

  1. Aside from the fact that Global Warming as an anthropogenic phenomenon is a hoax, Hayes is one more blathering leftist. As soon as these people support nuclear power as a source of electricity, I will listen to them. Until then, they are noise.

    The warming he alleges is dated from 1850, the end of the LIttle Ice Age. Warming after that is part of the cycle and seems to be ceased. What comes next is unknown but there is at least an equal chance of more cooling if the sun spot cycle #24 persists much longer..

    Why have we had no real ice age for 10,000 years ? Is the invention of agriculture the reason ? There is some real debate even among the alarmist community.

    Given Ruddiman’s findings the key question now is not “is industrial-age, human-caused global warming occurring?”, but rather “are we sure that the human effect on climate over the last 8,000 years has helped to prevent the occurrence of another glaciation?” Should the answer to that question be yes, then it prompts the further question: “do we wish to maintain the human warming effect, or instead to counteract it and allow Earth’s climatic cycle to drop back into its next (natural) glacial episode?”


  2. 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.

    This is the key point and I think central to the understanding of many leftist and populist economic fallacies. For example, many of the arguments against Microsoft at the height of its dominance of personal-computer operating-system software focused on the wealth gained by MSFT shareholders and ignored the enormous aggregate benefit gained by users of MSFT software.

  3. Good lord … has this credentialed fool ever watched any of the historical series wherein a family or a small group of families try to live as they would have in colonial times, or on the frontier, or even just plain old 1900, and realized how much sheer, backbreaking manual labor everyone had to do, just to keep themselves fed, clean and relatively comfortable in lieu of having electricity? It’s not as if that is a big secret, these programs have been on television and all? He must be another one of these fools that believes it is perfectly OK for him to live in comfort and plenty … but it’s too good for the rest of us.


  4. Hayes is one of those who believe that meat comes from the meat counter at Gelson’s or the New York City equivalent. They have no concept of how the world works. They should be required to spend a month living in the wilderness they profess to love.

  5. When we rehabbed our barn at the farm, I intentionally left the pulley and rope mechanisms atop the barn, so I could tell people the story of how at one time, oxen and/or horses had to bring in the hay after it was manually cut and then the people had to manually pull the hay up into the mow with a hay fork, and then the guys up top had to spread it around with hay rakes:


    I only have 20 acres and we get about a thousand small bales per cut – we only had to put away that a few times before I said “screw that” and we bought a bobcat and now use the large squares. Life is much better now.

    I simply cannot imagine what insane amounts of physical labor people had to do to merely survive way back when. And if you get injured, well, suck it up, cupcake or die.

    Separately, numbskulls like Hayes would be the first to go berserk the second they couldn’t charge their iPhone. I just don’t understand why they think electricity comes from air, and not fossil fuels.

  6. I used to listen to stories from my grandfather about farming in the days before all the mechanical aides. Corn picking, for example, was done by the whole family and a wagon was driven through the field with a large wooden board in the middle so the pickers could through the ears against the board from two rows away.

  7. My grandfather said the board was in the middle so they could throw (not through) from each side but then they had 12 kids. He was one of 12; my dad was one of 10. They alway had a hired man and hired girl or two. My great-grandmother served meals for 14 to 15 every meal.

    Maybe Hayes should spend some time on a farm. I remember my grandparents’ farm. My grandmother’s father had homesteaded it and one year they plowed up a pasture that was native sod. It had never been plowed. The corn that grew in that field was 12 feet tall. She was born in that house. It was farmed then by a couple who were sharecroppers. The husband had grown ump on that farm and his father had farmed it before then saved enough to buy his own farm nearby. We used to hunt pheasants on both farms every year. I was finally allowed to load my gun when I was 12.

    Good memories.

  8. Christopher Hayes is either an especially thick headed dolt or a vile traitor attempting harm the United States. Enough about him.

    But it sure would be nice if someone- say, a presidential candidate for the republican party- would attempt to make some of the same points made here, in perhaps the same sort of way as that young PR man at GE.

    Instead, we had the hapless Mitt Romney, who of course believed in global warming.

    I expect if he had won we’d even now be getting a full court press for a disastrous cap and trade “compromise” – and the GOP establishment would be patting themselves on the back for making “tough choices”.

    And- I bet- attacking the GOP base using the words of Christopher Hayes.

  9. “Communism is socialism with electricity” – V. Lenin

    Perhaps Mr. Hayes should consult his intellectual forebearers.

  10. As a lad in the 1930s I spent a few months every summer on my grandparent’s farm. Coal oil lamps, well water, an outdoor privy, a coal range for cooking, two plow horses, and more. We were up at dawn, and went to bed shortly after sunset. The days were filled with work. Milking the cows, gathering eggs, catching/plucking/cleaning chickens for dinner, hoeing weeds, harvesting vegetables, preserving fruits, butchering a hog, big laundry days, and more. And that was the work my grandmother did with me helping where I could. The men (grandfather and his two teenage sons) were out in the fields, plowing, harrowing, regulating the irrigation water, fixing fence, feeding the cows, feeding/shoeing/grooming the horses, cutting/raking/baling hay, and so much more.

    When the rural electrification program came along, my grandparents got wired up and just that eased their burden some. When grandpa bought his first, second hand tractor, the burden eased some more. By the time my grandparents sold out and retired in the late 50s, the work load, had eased even more because of energy and the machines run by diesel, and electricity.

    I wish some of these pointy headed people like Hayes could be transported back just 80 years to see where fossil fuels have taken us in such a short time.

  11. If we want to reduce poverty and misery, if we want to give to every deserving individual what is needed for a safe existence of an intelligent being, we want to provide more machinery, more power. Power is our mainstay, the primary source of our many-sided energies.
    Nikola Tesla

  12. Jimmy, my grandparents’ farm was similar. There was no indoor toilet as long as they lived there. One year the farmer, Alvin, installed a hand pump in the kitchen and that, plus the electric well pump, filled their needs. My uncle was a GP in Millbank South Dakota and we used to hunt pheasants up there (I was too young but got to go along) on his patients’ farms. He had a great life. When my father died in 1969, he was in the hospital with a broken hip. The hospital fixed his room so he could still see his patients there. Two nuns from the hospital drove to Chicago to represent him at my father’s funeral.

    People will never know what life was like or what life as a doctor was like. All four of his sons went to medical school.

  13. Not to put words in his mouth, he can speak for himself….but I’d imagine Hayes believes that solar/wind can provide adequate energy for a reasonable lifestyle given reductions in material acquisitiveness, change of living pattens so that people live close to work (not sure how this is supposed to function when both spouses work at different places), shift of diet toward less meat-eating, smaller houses, lower population, etc etc…anyhow, this is what some people I know who share his views about fossil fuels would say.

    I see that the guy has a BA in philosophy and has done some work in theatre and also as an adjunct professor of English. I have to wonder to what extent he has seriously attempted to educate himself on the technologies of energy and on the nature of the mathematical modeling and the underlying assumptions on which the fears of climate change rest.

  14. > the nature of the mathematical modeling and the underlying assumptions on which the fears of climate change rest.<

    Today's scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality.
    Nikola Tesla


  15. Sgt. Mom,

    If Hayes has some peculiar aversion television, he can always avail himself of the opportunity to travel to today’s actual Third World, where plenty of people actually live with that sort of privation.

  16. I wish some of these pointy headed people like Hayes could be transported back just 80 years to see where fossil fuels have taken us in such a short time.

    No time machine required. All it takes is:

    1. Ticket from wherever to Nairobi. Available online, if you don’t know any travel agents.

    2. Ticket from Nairobi to Juba. Available online, if you don’t know any travel agents. Kenya Airways has 2 flights a day, 3 on Fridays and Saturdays.

    3. Find a car to hire (you’re on your own for this one–travel agents are out of the loop here, but dollars work wonders!–and get yourself at least half a day’s drive north or west of Juba (I leave out east–way too dry, trust me on this!–and south, because I don’t know the area) and you’ll find yourself among subsistence farmers or herdsmen… … … enjoy!!!

  17. Kirk Parker said: “No time machine required. All it takes is:

    1. Ticket from wherever to Nairobi. Available online, if you don’t know any travel agents.”

    Just boarding the airplane is an act that few ever dreamed of in the 1930s. A car trip of 200 miles was an expedition and expensive. It could not be contemplated unless there was a practical purpose to it.

    Kevin Williamson at NRO:
    “The physical economy — the world of actual goods and services — looks radically different from the symbolic economy. Measured by practically any physical metric, from the quality of the food we eat to the health care we receive to the cars we drive and the houses we live in, Americans are not only wildly rich, but radically richer than we were 30 years ago, to say nothing of 50 or 75 years ago. And so is much of the rest of the world. That such progress is largely invisible to us is part of the genius of capitalism — and it is intricately bound up with why, under the system based on selfishness, avarice, and greed, we do such a remarkably good job taking care of one another, while systems based on sharing and common property turn into miserable, hungry prison camps.”
    You can read it all here:

    What he fails to mention is that during those 75 years our usage of fossil fuels powered this incredible leap. Without the energy we could not produce our cornucopia of plenty.

    The other thing that many people who are hung up on technology and services fail to recognize is that producing oil/gas/coal, farm products, ores, timber for lumber, and other natural resources creates wealth. If it’s not produced, it’s worthless. It’s the foundation of wealth for any country.

    Look at Pacific islands with few natural resources other than arable land, potable water, and oceans to fish in. They must import all their fossil fuels. To do that they have to produce enough coconuts, fish, and other simple products to sell so they can buy the energy they need. (Western) Samoa is a case in point. From wiki:
    “The economy of Samoa has traditionally been dependent on agriculture and fishing at the local level. In modern times, development aid, private family remittances from overseas, and agricultural exports have become key factors in the nation’s economy. Agriculture employs two-thirds of the labor force, and furnishes 90% of exports, featuring coconut cream, coconut oil, noni (juice of the nonu fruit, as it is known in Samoan), and copra.”
    That is the basic truth about places with few natural resources. They must work very hard just to stay even.

    These economic facts are beyond people like Hayes and other utopian dreamers.

  18. It is amazing how many people wish to return to the simple life, with little or no understanding what this means. I personally think that the road to technology is filled with peril; however, the life of 18 hours toil per day just to survive, is submitting to the slavery of the past.

  19. RonaldF,

    Be a bit careful there. It’s only 18 hour days during the peak work season; there are plenty of times during the year where just sitting around is all the average person needs to do. (And yes, as you might guess from my previous challenge above, I have actually lived among subsistence farmers in the third world, so I have first-hand observation of how it’s done.)

  20. On reflection, I don’t think Hayes is attempting to make any sort of reasoned argument here.

    Congress turned out to be unwilling to pass Obama’s economically disastrous cap and trade plan. And too many people have figured out the global warming scam. So the left needs a new shtick.

    Here comes Hayes, arguing that utilities are enslaving their machinery, somehow.

    This is obvious nonsense, but it doesn’t matter. Again, Hayes isn’t making any sort of good faith effort to make a case, hampered only by his appalling ignorance of history, reality, and current events. He’s attempting to otherize people who disagree with him by clumsily attempting to lump them in with the worst bad-thinkers he figures his audience knows about.

    Since slavery has lately been in the news- I heard a movie about it won some sort of award- he can safely assume his audience knows it existed and that it was bad. And since most Nation readers- being people once known as “useful idiots”- know essentially nothing about why machinery and fossil fuels are still used despite all the bad press, they can be safely told that they can be given up without consequence. No doubt soon if this plays well we’ll see the utilities-are-enslaving-their-machinery idea on the nightly news and repeated over and over again at the daily kos and NY Times.

    This is propaganda that would make Joseph Goebbels proud. Hayes has no desire to understand the modern world, how the third world actually functions, or how the United States used to be. He is simply making up a carefully crafted lie that sounds truthy to further the oft-stated goal of the left to fundamentally transform the United States.

    The goal is that when subjects such as the disastrous nature of the their ideas about energy policy come up, instead of having to actually engage in a discussion about the merits of their plans- which they will lose- they can simply start shrieking about slavery, shutting down debate. And the mob of “activists” can follow up, to make sure the potential badthinker knows to shut up.

    No, I don’t think well of Hayes.

  21. “Hayes has no desire to understand the modern world, how the third world actually functions, or how the United States used to be.” I think this is 100% correct. I also agree with MikeK that Hayes should spend some time on a farm – any farm, whether it be crop or animal confinement based. The amount of work, even with today’s modern machinery powered by fossil fuels, is completely incomprehensible to a guy like this and it would be a good taste of reality.

    Many years ago, my wife and I took a weekend and spent it at a bed and breakfast in Iowa at a pig farm. The mom had taken one room of their farmhouse and turned it into their “b and b”. The empty room was the result of kids leaving, of course. We were stunned at the immense size of the meals and the shape that the farm guys were in – they must have consumed five or six thousand calories a day and were all muscular. Of course they put us to work and even with modern machinery, it was nuts for us (then) city dwellers to imagine.

  22. Stephanie Shephard apparently doesn’t believe the news about fracking. The fact that peak oil will occur sometime is unquestionable. That’s good reason for continuing to conserve through more efficient vehicles, well insulated homes, energy efficient appliances, better heating/cooling systems, etc. Fracking has given us a reprieve from peak oil, but that’s no reason to be profligate in the use of energy. Fossil fuels and electricity produced by them are like a big savings acount. We need to spend the savings carefully and make them last.

  23. “Christopher Hayes… sees a connection between human slavery–in particular, human slavery as practiced in the US prior to 1865–and the use of fossil fuels….analogous to the reluctance of pre-Civil-War southern slaveholders to lose the financial value of their human “property”…”

    Hayes is reaching for that but another connection occurs to me:

    Edward Kennedy and fellow democrats (in their largely successful efforts to import votes) can be more readily compared to the pre-civil war (southern Democrat) importation of cheap labor (ie slaves). Mind you, I don’t think that importing cheap Hispanic labor is quite as morally repugnant as importing African slaves but still…

  24. Jimmy J….I think Stephanie overestimated the negative impact of increasing oil prices in the 1970s on America’s industrial base…(a) most industrial power is consumed in the form of electricity, and a high % of US electricity was then (and is now) made from coal (lots was also made from oil in the 70s, but conversion to gas was instigated by the price increases), and (b) other countries, at least manufacturing-relevant countries, were also subject to the OPEC price increases. The deeper problems with the economy came from other factors, including dysfunctional schools, overregulation, and cultural hostility toward manufacturing.

    But I think it is true that a high-productivity economy enables degrees of freedom in social organization that would not exist otherwise, and if the economy goes on a long-term downswing, this has implications for many things, which could include the relationship between the sexes.

    Regarding the future, it’s not clear that fracking and other technological advances can overcome the deep-seated hostility toward all practical forms of energy production that characterizes today’s Democratic Party.

  25. David Foster: “Regarding the future, it’s not clear that fracking and other technological advances can overcome the deep-seated hostility toward all practical forms of energy production that characterizes today’s Democratic Party.”

    True dat. As Lex was wont to say, “It is to weep.”

  26. Tyouth,

    I think you’ve made an excellent connection between the democrats, then and now.

    In fact I was writing about it in my first comment in this thread, until I noticed I was attempting to shoehorn two unrelated ideas together and lost interest.

    But inspired by your example, I’ll continue.

    Essentially, we have the same trade policy as desired by the antebellum South (low to no tariffs), near complete indifference to the fate of lowly American wageslaves (as the South contemptuously described Northern workers paid a salary in exchange for their labor), a desire for open borders (essentially re-opening the slave trade, springing from the same desire for cheap labor), plus an intense hostility to the common people (analogous to slaves) being in possession of arms.

    Certain of these policies has resulted in intense opposition from the public, but the political class just can’t help it. They want what they want, and the wishes of the citizenry of the Republic mean less than nothing to them.

    I note also that there is a sort of continuity in the democrat party from then to now. If you couldn’t stand the people of the party and their principles from 1860 on, you’d have stayed away. But if you could, you had to co-exist with everyone from the KKK to Al Sharpton, Woodrow Wilson to Bill Clinton.

    Birds of a feather flock together, as the cliche says. If you had a certain low cunning coupled with a lack of principles and honor you had a natural home in the democrat party.

    I’ve lost interest in this again, but I’ll close with a swipe at the GOP establishment. I’ve come to think they’re the sort of politicians who mostly agree with the democrats, but don’t have the guts to say so.

    A pox on both their houses.

  27. A pox on both their houses.

    And this Civil War II draws ever closer.

    (NOT meaning to criticize you, Xennady, just pointing out the direction we’re moving in.)

  28. Kirk Parker,

    “It’s only 18 hour days during the peak work season; there are plenty of times during the year where just sitting around is all the average person needs to do.”

    To be sure, that’s only if they had a good year. Bad year and the sitting around can come with hunger. Subsistence living means living with the very real possibility of shortages.

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