Summer Rerun–Of Energy and Slavery

(edited, with updates)

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.

(Also posted at Ricochet, where a fairly extensive comment thread has developed)

13 thoughts on “Summer Rerun–Of Energy and Slavery”

  1. 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.

    Exactly. The energy companies are providing s service- st a profit- from which the American people benefit. If they didn’t feel they benefited from purchasing fossil fuels, they wouldn’t purchase.

    Those energy slaves would be greatly missed when one had to walk ten miles to work or wash clothes by hand.

  2. I remember from physics too many years ago that a human is capable of about 1/3 horsepower, 250 watts, output over a reasonable period of time (more than an hour). A quick look around seems to show that it is a reasonable number, probably optimistic as an average, requiring a fairly well conditioned person while some few could possibly manage twice as much and 1-2 KW for very short periods.

    I just visited my brother who lives off-grid in NM. He manages most of the modern conveniences with a couple of thousand watts of photo cells charging batteries and an inverter for satellite TV, lights, etc, supplemented with a 3KW generator when necessary or to run things like a potable washing machine or charge the batteries during bad weather. Cooking and heating is by propane and wood, both have to be hauled a fair distance. Water is also hauled from a community well about a mile away, necessitating the biggest accommodation to this lifestyle, an outhouse. The climate is such that the lack of AC is a minor issue for maybe a couple of weeks a year.

    I enjoyed my stay and didn’t feel deprived, I also didn’t have to break a trail to the outhouse through the snow during the night.

    Even this moderately austere lifestyle would be imposible without fuel. It also depends on modern technology like LED lighting and electronics that consume a few watts instead of hundreds of watts.

    None of this would even be possible in an urban setting. The density of people require that things like water and power have to flow in from outside and waste has to flow out. The automobile and especially the auto truck just barely prevented the collection and disposal of the waste from, and the provision of fodder for, horses from becoming an insurmountable problem for cities. Just disposing of the carcasses of dead horses was a big problem.

  3. Steve Sailor has an alternative history of the US without slavery.

    During the cotton bubble of the 1850s, it became vastly profitable to grow, which led to the explosion of pro-slavery ideological extremism in the South that fueled secessionism. (Before cotton became so lucrative, slave owners had tended to be slightly sheepish about their Peculiar Institution.)

    But when the Confederacy, assuming “Cotton is King,” announced its misguided embargo on cotton exports to encourage London to intervene on its side, it was quickly discovered that cotton was easy to grow in other hot places like India, Egypt, and Brazil. The American cotton business was never again the gold mine it had been before the Civil War.

    Without slavery, cotton barons would have had to pay whites a lot to work in the cotton fields. But it sure seems as if in the long run paying an honest wage would have been a good deal.

    Granted, an America without slavery would not have developed the lowland Deep South as rapidly as it did, much as Florida south of the panhandle was largely empty until the 20th century. For example, Miami was not incorporated until 1896, at which point it was estimated that only 1,800 souls resided in the area. In 1900, barely a half million people lived in the entire state of Florida, compared with 21 million today.

    I would add, “Case Closed.”

  4. There is no doubt that slavery was the normal condition of mankind as far back in history as we can peer.

    Then technology progressed to the point where an effective steam engine became possible in the late 1700s, generally fueled by coal (a fossil fuel). Within less than a century, slavery had disappeared in most of the world.

    Some people argue that this was a coincidence. Mostly, the people supporting that point of view seem to the same kind of uninformed people who erroneously believe that only Africans have ever been enslaved, and erroneously believe that the English colonies of what is now the Southern US were the only places in the world where slave labor was ever used.

  5. The one thing not mentioned is hunger. Remove access to ‘fossil’ fuels, and there goes the farm. Plowing, seeding, tilling, cultivating, fertilizing, and reaping a crop becomes much less effective. Yeah, solar and horses or mules can fulfill some of the gap, but I think, on the whole, there would soon be a LOT of hungry people making noise and threats to the elites.
    We do not have electric tractors, or just about any other power source should fossil fuels(and nuclear, which is deemed worse(idiots) be driven from the market.
    Someone should ask in a public setting what happens “when the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow”, What THEN?
    My bet is that AOC and her crowd don’t have a local garden… and don’t walk any where, which would be among their most used choices should her GreeNudEel come to pass.

  6. The environmental movement has enjoyed success for decades because it was (or at least was perceived) as being “free.” People are not going to tolerate increases in like 5-10x in their gas, electricity, etc., so none of this “Green New Deal” or related nonsense is never going to happen, as long as we’re even a rough approximation of a democracy. It’s all political silliness, not worth stressing out over. Just make sure to tell that to your kids. Even one adult telling them how unserious all this stuff is can save them a lot of mental anguish.

  7. We take a lot for granted & I assume the next generation does even more; the idea of the “servantless house” was partially size but certainly required energy: sewing machines & indoor plumbing, refrigerators and vacuum cleaners.

  8. There’s a line in Fowle’s French Lieutenant’s Woman that to a modern person the obnoxious woman who hired a maid might be seen as the villain but to the maid herself the stove ruled her life far more harshly, from getting it started in the morning, keeping it going and cleaning it. Sounded really horrible.

    But consider a difference in energy use in my family: my mother had a strong willed if extremely sweet mother who was bound her daughters were going to high school & then college. For my mother, that meant working for someone in town since driving her to school every day or a bus pickup was impossible in the early thirties. To earn her way she had to get up every morning and stoke the fires for the house, etc. When her daughter was going to school, students who lived where my mother did were picked up every day by the school buses that went over 10 miles in the radius from the school in some directions. (And when my mother and her sister went to college, they lived in cooperatives – the thought that her grandchildren would have rec places with artificial mountains to climb within would shock her – but then they got plenty of exercise going through each day.)

  9. 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.”

    Such a profoundly stupid argument to equate two wildly disparate things because of people’s reaction to them.

    May I play also? Never mind, I will anyway. The mood was somber in the Führer bunker on 30 April, 1945, and also at Hillary’s campaign headquarters on 8 November, 2016. So the Democrats are directly analogous to the Nazis, right?

  10. He does not focus on what the American people as a whole would have to give up.

    a – He really does not care.
    b – He fancies that solar and wind can do the job regardless of reality.

  11. My bet is that AOC and her crowd

    An Occasional-Cortex usually lives up to that name.

    Remember, the new acronym is MOBA:

    M ake
    O ccasio-Cortez
    B artend
    A gain


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