Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Can Democracy Survive Without Fossil Fuels?

Is it an accident that the great modern revolutions, both American and French, occurred shortly after James Watt vastly increased the efficiency of the steam engine? Recall that the steam engine's primary purpose at the time was to pump water out of coal mines. Its perfection ignited an industrial revolution built on fossil fuels. Those fuels also indirectly ignited huge social and political changes that included modern demands for greater equality and democracy. Can those values thrive without fossil fuels?

Ancient Athens was democratic long before fossil fuels were discovered. In reality, democracy depends on some energy source that makes it possible for citizens to have the time to govern themselves. The citizenry must also enjoy a rough equality that doesn't put some citizens so far above others as to threaten their solidarity. So, what was that energy source? Slaves.

This explains, in part, why some founders of the American republic were able to embrace slavery. It had existed alongside democracy before. But, even as they embraced it, industrial development on the American continent began to erode its necessity. The plenitude of energy from fossil fuels would ultimately render slavery uneconomic. A free man in charge of a machine run on fossil fuels could do far more work than any human in bondage could ever hope to do manually. And, thus owning machines and their fuel supplies became more important than owning the labor to run them. The machine age required labor to become more mobile--in essence, to go where the machine rather than the master dictated. Is it yet another accident of fate that the first successful American oil well was drilled in 1859 and that the Civil War, the war that ended slavery, followed only two years later?

The power of fossil fuels was already erasing the biological differences in physical strength between men and women. The women's suffrage movement which had begun many years before the Civil War was intent on erasing their political differences as well. But fossil fuels also sent women and children into the factories where their size and strength mattered less than their docility.

As more and more energy was extracted from the ground in the form of oil and coal, modern industrial nations found they no longer required the labor of children. Nor was it necessary to maintain poor working conditions and living standards among the working classes in order to allow the rich to live well. Fossil fuels began to create enough wealth to go around. Rising prosperity muted competitive spirits.

In the middle of the cheap oil boom in America, many middle-class mothers could stay at home with their children. Only fathers worked. The subsidy of fossil fuels had essentially reached its apex. By this time those middle-class mothers could vote, slavery (though not discrimination) was a distant memory and child labor had long been outlawed. Social and political progress had coincided with the parabolic trajectory of America's fossil fuel supplies.

Politically this was the period of strong labor unions, high taxes and huge public projects--schools, hospitals, highways, and public power. Is it another coincidence that this period of fast growth and narrowing inequality came to a halt shortly after the production of oil in the United States peaked in 1970?

As fossil fuels deplete, especially oil and natural gas, will we be able to maintain the solidarity and consent that make modern democracies so stable? Or will we each fall back on our competitive natures as we struggle for our share of dwindling resources. It depends on whether alternative energy sources can provide sufficient energy at affordable prices.

It may also depend on how we organize ourselves. A lower energy future may cause political power to flow back to local communities as central governments lose their influence for lack of energy resources. If we can relearn our cultural instincts for local governance, perhaps we can retain much of the political and social progress that has been, in part, a gift of the fossil fuel age. If we can't reawaken those instincts, we may sadly find out that the only thing between us and despotism is a barrel of oil, one that may soon be taken away.

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

That is a very interesting concept you have written about. I was thinking along the same lines a month ago. All of the good things in the world are a direct result of cheap energy. The Empire State Building, the Interstate Highway System, Sports Stadiums, Mac and Cheese from a box...all are only possible thanks to cheap energy.

I just hope we make good choices over the next few years. Otherwise it's back to the fields for most of us...

Valley Don said...

When I think about this stuff, I'm usually drawn to J.R.R. Tolkien's ideas on how to live decently.

On the one hand, he envisioned The Shire, a relatively happy place where people had small farms and lived in cheerful underground houses.

The elves lived in a hunter-gatherer forest utopia.

The industrialist dominators -- Sauron and Saruman -- incinerated the landscape and turned the free people of Middle Earth into slaves.

Their way was death to freedom and nature.

Anonymous said...

Just look what happens in the Big Brother house when food supplies get low - there is your answer and it's not a pretty one.

Anonymous said...

when the energy wars breakout which by the way are just round the corner then u.s goverment will
look more like the chinese communist system rather then other way round.so enjoy your democracy
while you can which by the way has
taken a tremendeous beating from the 43rd presidency and his theocratic neo conservative special interest goverment

shoal said...

I see and admire your manner of living, your warm houses, your extensive fields of corn, your gardens, your cows, oxen, work-horses, wagons, and a thousand machines, that I know not the use of. I see that you are able to clothe yourself, even from weeds and grass. In short you can do almost what you choose. You whites possess the power of subduing almost every animal to your use. You are surrounded by slaves. Everything about you is in chains, and you are slaves yourselves. I hear I should exchange my presents for yours. I too should become a slave. Talk to my sons, perhaps they may be persuaded to adopt your fashions, or at least to recommend them to their sons; but for myself, I was born free, was raised free, and wish to die free.

-Big Soldier, 1820

Engineer-Poet said...

"Is it an accident that the great modern revolutions, both American and French, occurred shortly after James Watt vastly increased the efficiency of the steam engine?"

Yes.  The invention was in its infancy; serious impacts of the steam engine would take decades beyond that to be seriously felt.

"Is it yet another accident of fate that the first successful American oil well was drilled in 1859 and that the Civil War, the war that ended slavery, followed only two years later?"

Yes.  One well is nothing.  It took another 40 years before the internal combustion engine turned petroleum into a serious energy source, and another couple of decades before thermal cracking allowed serious yields of gasoline.

"In the middle of the cheap oil boom in America, many middle-class mothers could stay at home with their children."

In the middle of that - coming right up to America's peak of oil production in 1970 - women were fighting to be taken seriously as workers outside the home, as more than mothers to children.  They fought for "liberation".

"Can [democratic] values thrive without fossil fuels?"

Harken back to the beginnings of the republic, when the archetype of the American citizen was the yeoman farmer.  Now consider the consequences of the decentralization of energy production, moving away from imports to city-sized solar-powered power and waste disposal plants, when you can power a household's 40,000 miles/year of driving with electricity from panels on the roof of the abode.  With so much independence, so much freedom, how can small-r republican values fail to improve?

UNplanner said...

This is a very coherent arguement; when your basic tasks or needs are taken care of, you have the time to concern yourself with the "bigger picture." The introduction of cheap energy allowed the automation of rote or menial or dangerous tasks. With mankind no longer required to put in long hours in the fields, mines or factories, occupational fields such as entertainment, travel, or sports were allowed to proliferate. The other part of the equation, as you noted, was equalization. This came in the form of a large middle class that saw their basic needs satisfied, giving them the opportunity to press for political causes. It's not just the US either. The Asian "tiger" economies all democratized once a thriving middle class developed. Likewise for Chile.

In a way, this is akin to a society-level version of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow posited that there are different levels of needs (physiological, safety, love, and esteem) that must be satisfied before a person can act unselfishly. He termed those needs "deficiency needs." As long as we are motivated to satisfy each of those cravings, we are growing, toward the final need, self-actualization.

It's pretty basic really. People do not worry about safety if they are starving. They are not concerned about love if they are threatened by violence. People do not develop self esteem if no one loves them and if they do not feel good about themselves, then they will not worry about others.

Fossil fuels go a long way to meeting Maslow's needs. Oil allows excessive amounts of food to be produced and delivered to points far and wide. It powers the civil authority so they can maintain law and order, while supplying any number of gadgets to increase one's sense of security. Once you have met these basic needs, higher level needs can attained. Though fossil fuels do not provide love (plastic erotic toys notwithstanding), esteem or self actualization, they do provide more free time (by reducing the hours spent working on the job or at home)to allow those higher level needs to be met.

Whether it is personal or society level needs, it is clear. Cheap energy allows us to concentrate on the "big picture things" by taking care of the little picture things for us.

Kurt Cobb said...

The Engineer-Poet's comments make it apparent that perhaps some readers are taking me too literally. The events, discoveries and inventions I refer to are meant to be iconic--not simplistic explanations of cause and effect. I am using them to stand in for much broader developments of the fossil fuel age, developments that illustrate a path of ever-increasing energy supplies, both in absolute and per capita terms.

On one specific point, E-P leaves the impression that the first American oil well drilled in 1859 was followed by little additional drilling. In fact, a drilling boom commenced immediately and huge amounts of oil were being produced within a year. It was evident to the country and the world that a great new energy source had been unleashed. At first the kerosene distilled from petroleum was used for illumination, a key element for industrial society. The exuberant hopes for oil supplies were occasionally in doubt, but discoveries in Ohio, then Oklahoma and finally Texas confirmed and reconfirmed that this new energy source would continue to grow.

E-P states that "right up to America's peak of oil production in 1970 - women were fighting to be taken seriously as workers outside the home." I think he's confusing two points here. Poor women were not fighting for the right to work outside the home. They had always worked, both before and after the introduction of fossil fuels, but primarily in menial jobs. The women's liberation movement was not about the right to work per se. It was, in part, about establishing the right of women to hold any job including managerial, professional and political ones. To this extent it was an extention of the suffrage movement which posited that women should be politically equal. Now, economic equality was being sought. But, women's assertion of equality, I believe, is partly hinged on the levelling effect that fossil fuels have had on the ability of women to match men in physical work. There are other bases for this assertion, but this one seems historically to be very important.

When I refer to middle-class women staying at home, I am making a separate point about how much work fossil fuels can do for us, i.e., only one household member needed to work in order to maintain a middle-class lifestyle. The fact that many women have re-joined the work force after a generation or so away from it may not signal the kind of "liberation" E-P is thinking about. While the doors are now admittedly open for women in the professions, management and traditionally male occupations, the jobs which most women now toil at are the kind of service jobs which they have in the past always done.

Finally, I do hope E-P's prognostications about the future turn out to be right. Both he and I agree that democracy can flourish on a smaller scale and that perhaps we will be able to construct a better democracy on that scale. But, it is worth keeping in mind that the last time we had truly small-scale democracy in the United States, there were property requirements for men to vote, women couldn't vote, and most African-Americans were chattel. It was the power of the central government which changed these things. And, so I ask whether places like Mississippi will truly honor the advances we've made socially and politically when the fossil fuel age winds down and things become much more local. In some places, these advances will stick, but in others, I fear, they will not.

Anonymous said...

Finally, I do hope E-P's prognostications about the future turn out to be right.

There is a difference between hoping that one can grow algae, put CO2 in the ground, and provide enough energy to work the fields to feed everyone.

Reality however may slap-hard such pipe-dreams.


It was the power of the central government which changed these things.

Are you sure you are not confusing Democracy, The US of A's system, and the present military-congressional-industrial complex?

In some places, these advances will stick, but in others, I fear, they will not.

This implys that the 'advance in governance' has 'stuck' to date.

Anonymous said...

Your last post was so substantial I felt free to translate it into Portuguese and post it at ondas.2.blogs.sapo.pt. It's not the first time I do this with post you've written. I thought you'd be glad to know about this. Cheers. Octavio Lima.

Anonymous said...

Cobb said:

only one household member needed to work in order to maintain a middle-class lifestyle.

Just a slight nitpick... I'm assuming that you mean income producing work. Anyone who stays at home and does "housework" clearly benefits the household, for without such "free labor" the household would have to pay to have these functions peformed.

Otherwise, some really good observations. I just happened to stumble upon this thread and blog...

Anonymous said...

Yikes, not only did he false-dichotomize the issue into something he could easily defend, based on two assumptions:

* that democracy actually exists and,
* it fails without a cheap plentiful energy source

(i.e. can aliens continue to control our minds if we all start wearing aluminum foil hats?), but the first two paragraphs contained enough faulty premises to make me walk out of the theater.

Why couldn't he have taken the small step to realize that all industrialized economies depend on fossil fuels, not just so-called democracies, because of the universal requirements of capitalism (which was not mentioned once in the whole article)? And, as an extension, that the energy requirement applies to any propertarian economy that expects to expand while concentrating wealth? Anyone considering this issue would do well to look at thermodynamic laws - attempting to move matter from an area of low concentration (high entropy) to high concentration (low entropy) requires an input of energy. If viewed correctly, one would realize that true democracy would tend to spread out wealth and power as much as possible and actually require less energy than a propertarian system enforced by a ruling class.

At least he, among others, is attempting to look at the problem of how the lack of fossil fuels will change human life, but his vision is clouded and off-target.

patrick said...

"industrialized economies depend on fossil fuels, not just so-called democracies, because of the universal requirements of capitalism"

Will, it's nothing to do with even capitalism ... Socialist economies were and have been prodigious WASTERS OF ENERGY, for the simple reason that socialism is inferior allocation mechanism that market pricing mechanisms.

So we are left with the near-tautology that industrial economies (which by definition replaced man and animal power with other directed power sources) need energy.

So we are down to a near-tautology. Yes - cheap energy feeds industrial economy.

Meanwhile, he misses SO MUCH:
1. The *efficiency* of energy use in all capitalistic economies has increased steadily year by year, as technology advances.
It's not just raw energy but how it can be directed, a point Peter Huber has made. The "useful work" of a given joule of energy to our economies has increased and continues to increase. example: computers get more powerful yet use less power; not just the price per bit of communication, but the energy per bit of communication goes down steadily.
Last example: Even at $60/barrel, the %age of a paycheck that goes in the gas tank is a far lower %age than in the 1950s.

2. Energy is NOT the same as fossil fuels, so the claim that democracies require cheap fossil fuels is clearly FALSE.

Example: The US could, without great disruption, (a mere investment of .4% of our GDP for 10 years) convert in 10 years to almost entirely non-fossil fuel electric generation that would cost LESS than current production.
How? by building 400 nuclear power plants, and rely as heavily on nuclear power as France does (and more so).

Far too much is keyed off of fossil-fuels specifically, and not understood as a consequence of technology change generally.

Had oil not existed would US be a democracy? Of course, US and Great Britian were already democratic industrial nations prior to the oil age. Coal and hydro powered the early industrial age, and nuclear energy will power our post-fossil-fuel future, and we will do just fine.

patrick said...

"only one household member needed to work in order to maintain a middle-class lifestyle."

This is STILL true today. If you look at the numbers, a married main breadwinner of today has a higher standard of living of a married main breadwinner of a generation ago .. it's just that in our materialist+ feminist culture an unwarranted expection of more/more work/work leads many women to work, even though daycare, taxes, daily hassles, etc. might make it marginally beneficial except for the high wage earner.

Also, what we've gained in higher invidiaul personal incomes, we've lost much of those gains at the family income level due to broken homes and more single-parents etc. vs a generation ago.

In short, the economy can support a 'single family breadwinner' but our culture has to change back to adapt to it.
There are many ideological foes (eg feminists) to such a cultural reversion.

patrick said...

Harken back to the beginnings of the republic, when the archetype of the American citizen was the yeoman farmer. Now consider the consequences of the decentralization of energy production, moving away from imports to city-sized solar-powered power and waste disposal plants, when you can power a household's 40,000 miles/year of driving with electricity from panels on the roof of the abode. With so much independence, so much freedom, how can small-r republican values fail to improve?"

... simple reason: The biggest ENEMY of small-r republican values in America today is the scheming of social engineers to concoct a regulated state that forces people to do things a certain way.

Well, the path chosen by the advocates of 'renewables' and energy like 'city-sized solar-powered power ' have been to use taxpayer money to subsidize special interest programs to build these things.
That's reallocation of wealth by the force of law.

You dont get republican value ends out of such controlled economy means.

If you want small-r republican values, you have to think in terms of small-business-oriented economy. Our tax system is hardly friendly to that.
Maybe if we cut the tax rates and cut the government spending it would help.

Otherwise you are stuck in layers of wishful thinking.

patrick said...

"Politically this was the period of strong labor unions, high taxes and huge public projects--schools, hospitals, highways, and public power."

Kennedy cut taxes in 1964. It was a perod of LOW government spending on these items, if you compare with current day.

"Is it another coincidence that this period of fast growth and narrowing inequality came to a halt shortly after the production of oil in the United States peaked in 1970?"

Yes, becuase the inequality and poverty persisted because of the failed welfare system that was put in place in the 1960s that lead to the creation of the 'underclass' and persistent long-term poverty among them. Welfare reform in 1996 fixed that, and 'coincidently' child poverty rates among minorities fell sharply in the 5 years after welfare reform was enacted.

Anonymous said...

To correct a misunderstanding here: Britain was _not_ a democracy until well into the twentieth century, when the universal franchise was finally established. Even as of the First World War, the Kaiser's _Germany_ was technically more democratic than Britain, having a more extensive franchise.

That said, Britain still isn't a democracy and neither is the US. Democracy means 'rule by the demos' - the many. 'Representative democracy' is not the same thing at all, even schematically or formally, and it certainly doesn't work in the same way: it is functionally equivalent to _aristocratic_ rule.

Harald Korneliussen said...

FYI: One of the first things that started to move in Athens under democracy was an anti-slavery movement. They have been indirectly documented (and probably caricatured) by their critics, particularly Aristotle.

Anonymous said...

Representative democrasy is one of the variations of democracy, it has nothing to do with the rule of aristocracy. You, americans, are often tempted to bitch about your political system instead of appreciating what it has given to you. Try living in Belarus for a change.

Anonymous said...

Capitalism, the ICE and Slavery

The abuse of energy for the ICE in the West shames the World. As a chemical engineer it makes me sick.

ConocoPhilips
ChevronTexaco
ExonMobil
Shell

Where is democracy when the statement of freedom with capitalism is the family car?

ICE = 35% efficiency
Fuel Cell = 60 - 75% efficiency

=> Child Slavery
=> AK47
=> Fuel Poverty
=> Corruption
=> War

Frank said...

My name is Ted and I'm making a documentary on a form of governance called 'sociocracy' that is for any size and type of organization. Developed in the 1970s by Dutch engineer Gerard Endenburg, sociocratic organizations are efficient, restrict power centralization, guarantee the creation of other bottom lines besides money, treat participants humanely, and cannot be legally bought or sold. It resembles natural systems. This process can also be used on an individual basis.

I think sociocracy is going to be a key part of transforming our sick world into a well one. Please, please, please check out my website at www.beyonddemocracythefilm.com. You could help make an even bigger difference if you would pass this idea on to people you know - especially ones who know a lot of people and who are far away from you.

Anonymous said...

I'll leave the quoting to someone who has more time than I. Of particular note (sans the assumptions you make which have been addressed earlier) to me is the idea that large central government is GOOD. If we look back, the U.S.S.R had a large central government who told people how to be better citizens. In fact, Germany did as well... Ooooo... Japan too. WOW! You're RIGHT! We should only hope and pray that we are allowed to continue to have the overfed bloated evil thing called our government shoving atrocious "values" down our throats. You're absolutely correct. We need more of that. Much like Hitler needed control of the media in order to keep his people in line... If your version of "democracy" croaks, it's a good thing. How many people honestly think that slavery is on its way back? Nope. The only fear you express here is that suddenly our corrupt and evil cities won't have the power to force their wills on a resistant and unwilling countryside? Oh.. Gee Darn. What a loss.