A Return to Serfdom

Jean-François Mouhot, writing in the UK’s Guardian (a former employer of mine) has written an essay entitled “Once, Men Abused Slaves. Now We Abuse Fossil Fuels.” (h/t to Collide-a-Scape)

In it he writes that his students were frankly incredulous that humanity could tolerate a practice as barbaric as slavery. He then connected the use of fossil fuels to slavery, writing , “Intriguing similarities between slavery and our current dependence on fossil-fuel-powered machines struck me: both perform roughly the same functions in society (doing the hard and dirty work that no one wants to do), both were considered for a long time to be acceptable by the majority and both came to be increasingly challenged as the harm they caused became more visible.”

He goes on to elaborate on the analogy, making a rather tortured case that fossil fuels is a crime in the same way that slavery was a crime. He hopes that society awakens a moral collective conscience to fight fossil fuel use in the same way that abolitionists created a consensus against slavery.

It is amazing that a professor of history could so clearly miss one of the glories of human history. (To be fair, he is aware of what fossil fuels contributed to the reduction of slavery, but he clearly equates the two as moral crime.) Slavery, a fixture of human existence for millenia, left the stage at the same time that we learned how to use fossil fuels. That’s not a coincidence. Slavery  became less economically competitive with free labor as labor saving devices made it feasible for fewer people to do so much more work that it was possible to pay them, thereby removing much of the moral stigma and high costs attached to large-scale endeavors previously only made practical by forced labor. It became cheaper to pay 10 workers than house, feed and guard 100.

We see this perhaps most clearly by removing the political flash point of slavery and looking at paid domestic service. During the period after the abolition of slavery, the number of families wealthy enough to afford domestic servants grew dramatically. And the number of domestic servants grew as well.

In the decades between 1900 and 1940, the number of domestic servants in the United States grew from 1.5 million to 2 million. However, the ratio of servants to 1,000 families dropped from 94 per 1,000 families to 60. Similar drops occurred in both Germany and Great Britain.

(There’s a bit of chicken and egg circularity here. As industrialization replaced agriculture as the main engine of employment, factory jobs which paid more than domestic service were more easily available. But those factories ran on fossil fuels as well.)

What Professor Mouhot is doing is worse than chicken-and-egging. He is ignoring the role that fossil fuels played in liberating populations from the drudgery of domestic service. (It is now instrumental in liberating the grandchildren of servants from the drudgery of manufacturing.)

I don’t know why Professor Mouhot is separating fossil fuel usage from the rest of the technology innovations that spurred human development. Perhaps the current enthusiasm to reduce their usage (which I share wholeheartedly) has colored his thinking. But the use of fossil fuels freed us. Professor Mouthot seems to think we should abandon fossil fuels on moral grounds whether or not we can replace them.

And that’s just crazy. Develop alternatives? Yes. Reduce waste? Yes. Improve efficiencies? Yes. But throw away the engines that freed all men and women (not just slaves) from a lifetime of servitude and drudgery?


6 responses to “A Return to Serfdom

  1. “I don’t know why Professor Mouhot is separating fossil fuel usage from the rest of the technology innovations that spurred human development.”

    Fossil fuel companies have become extremely profitable by offering something that is of very high value as you have so ably demonstrated here. This high level of profit has made them very powerful, sometimes abusively so. Given our binary nature we cannot separate the good from the bad and end up making emotional over-simplifications. The “oil companies” have become such a bête noir that to objectively query their contribution to human civilization is tantamount to treason. The mere mention of their name in some circles stirs a visceral sense of moral disgust.

    Great article/blog.

  2. Thanks, Menth. I don’t want to romanticize energy companies any more than I want to romanticize other robber barons like Leland Stanford, etc. They were not saints and they hurt a lot of people on the way up. But given the benefits that have accrued to society, it would be ridiculous to demonize them.

    Unless everybody’s going to throw away their PCs because Bill Gates dumped on Netscape, or their iPhones because Steve Jobs threw tantrums.

    You advance the human condition with the humans you have, not the humans you wish you had.

  3. Hi Donna

    Thanks for the link, and for dropping by. Mr. Pile also makes sense.

    I think that maybe in a century or so, people will say of our culture, “They ate meat? That’s disgusting.” Much in the same way people today talk of slavery.

    But I don’t think they will lambaste us for using fossil fuels at all. Any more than we hold previous societies in contempt for using them. They might have a bit of a laugh at the recent discussions about them, though.

  4. The benefits of fossil fuels go far beyond the labor saving issues. There is heating, cooling and possibly most important, mobile refrigeration.
    Is the world willing to give up perishable foods before a reasonable alternative to diesel is available. And no, fermenting food and feedstock to make bio-fuels is not a reasonable alternative IMHO. As rail preceded cars, trucks and aircraft, I am comfortable with humans ability to develop replacement fuels in the future.
    I doubt sincerely that it will come from the public education system though.
    As I signed for a registered letter today, my mailman told me that his sixteen year old son was having trouble getting a drivers license because he was never taught nor required to write cursive. Can’t sign his own name. I’m not sure I can believe a man would say that about his own son, but I have no doubt that America is no longer in the top 20, 30, or even 40 in education. And that there is another crime against humanity. Can you imagine a mother bird pulling the feathers of her chics?

  5. Yes. Here’s how the cycle works:Plans use photo synthesis to abosrb solar energy through their leaves (I’ll skip the chemistry involved). That energy is then used for a variety of organic processes. The key one is that plants use the energy to break down carbon dioxide they take in from the atmosphere. They then combine the carbon obtained with hydrogen and other materials they get from the soiil they grow in to build compounds that make up the structure of the plant most importantly for what you are talking about the wod that makes up tree trunks, stems, branchees,e tc. When wood is burned, ithe carbon is recombined with oxygen from the air . This releases the energy that the plant originally put into seperating out the carbon in the first place producing heat, light and recreating the CO2 the plant originally removed from the atmosphere.The same fundamental process is at the base of burning any organic compound including oil or coal which, millions of years ago, started as prehistoric plants.

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