A short history of cheap energy
From its earliest emergence, the progress of human society has been made possible by the availability of cheap energy. The evolution of a leisure class, with the time to pursue art, philosophy, science and invention, would not have been possible without cheap energy. Until the industrial age, beginning in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the only sources of cheap energy were oxen, horses, and human servitude.In the earliest civilizations, those in Mesopotamia and Egypt, obeisance to a god-king was the means of inducing human servitude to the agricultural, public works, and military labor needs of the state. In the Greek and Roman civilizations, which did not have the same religious dominance, the need for cheap human labor was met by slavery. Slaves were obtained by conquest, by enslaving those who defaulted on debts, from those who were forced by financial straits to sell their children into slavery, or as the children of slaves. The lot of those slaves who were in domestic service, was not particularly onerous. They were protected by laws, generally treated as family members, and could, after a number of years of service, become free. But it was different for those who were used for public works, constructing roads, aqueducts and buildings, or working in mines or quarries. (Slavery was so widespread in the roman Empire that it is estimated that there were as many as 20 million slaves – three times the free population – in Italy alone.)
It was also different in the Arab world, which maintained an active slave trade in East Africa to augment its supply of slaves captured by conquest. The Vikings also got into the lucrative slave trade with the Arab world by selling captives from Ireland (often supplied by the Irish themselves), and also from the Slavic peoples of eastern Europe. In fact, the ethnic term “slav” comes from the Norse word for slave, because they were the main supply for the Viking slave trade.With the ascendance of Christianity in the European portion of the former Roman Empire, the slave system was supplanted by the feudal system, in which families of serfs were bound to the land, which was owned by the wealthy landowner class.
The Industrial Revolution did not bring an end to the need for cheap human labor. African slavery continued to produce the labor-intensive crops of the southern United States, the Caribbean, and Central and South America – cotton, tobacco, and sugar cane. In fact, the invention of the cotton gin and spinning machine greatly increased the demand for slave labor. In England, the spinning machine destroyed the cottage industry of weaving cloth, driving families off the land and into servitude under the abusive conditions of the cotton and woolen mills, including child labor.Explosive industrial development in the United States created a huge demand for cheap labor for the nation’s mines and factories, which was met by encouraging and exploiting millions of immigrants. But since World War II, the combination of labor-saving inventions and organized labor has greatly improved the working environment in the mines and factories of the more progressive industrialized countries.
However, all this progress has been made possible by the use of another form of cheap energy – fossil fuels. In the future, as supplies of these sources of cheap energy dwindle, will we be able to find something to take their place, or will the scarcity of energy drive the cost so high that we can no longer afford it, forcing the world to revert to cheap human labor?Hal Sundin’s column appears every other Thursday in the Post Independent.
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