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.