The problem with introducing freedom into industrial societies — or the tyranny of fossil fuels

Two things happened on November 26, two entirely unrelated things, that nevertheless ended up merging into a single thought in my mind:  In the modern world, fossil fuels equal liberty.  If you cannot assure the people the former, forget about trying to foist upon them the latter.  Let me walk you through my thought processes.

The first thing that impinged onto my awareness was a conversation I had with a most delightful 85-year-old Jewish man who, except for WWII and the Israeli War of Independence, has always lived and worked in South Africa.  During a wide-ranging conversation, I asked him what the situation was like today in post-apartheid South Africa. “Horrible,” he said, “just horrible.”  According to him, the moment Nelson Mandela left office, the new ANC government began to be as racist as the old apartheid government, only with the benefits flowing to the blacks, this time, not the whites.  It’s not Zimbabwe, yet, but he sees it coming.

What was most fascinating to me was this man’s claim that the black people are deeply unhappy with the status quo.  Yes, ostensibly they have civil rights that were denied them under the old regime.  The problem, though, is that the country is so horribly mismanaged under the current government that, while they have civil rights, they lack electricity, clean water, food and transportation.  The blacks he speaks to therefore look back longingly on apartheid.  While their lives then were demeaning and economically marginal, the old government was stable and efficient.  Excepting those who lived in the most abysmal poverty, apartheid-era blacks could rely on what we in the modern era consider to be the basics for sustaining life:  not just the bare minimum of food and water, but also electricity, reliable long-distance transportation, and plumbing — all of which are dependent upon a modern fossil fuel economy.

The second thing that happened on November 26 was that Danny Lemieux put up a post commenting on Bruce Bawer’s Thanksgiving article examining the possibly naive American notion that all people crave freedom.  Danny had this to say:

I believe that I can understand the pull of serfdom for many people. Just think of all of the difficult life decisions that are taken away from the individual serf: as wards of the state, they don’t have to worry about where they will get their food (of course, they can forget about shopping at Whole Foods as well), whether they will meet their financial needs (albeit at a subsistence level), understanding politics, moral values, education, finding a job…etc. It is, in other words, regression to the mind of a child. They can simply exist for the moment of the day: no responsibilities but, also, no hope. Like vegetables, if you think about it.

I agree with Danny (and Bruce Bawer), but I I’d like to add to what both say, by dragging in fossil fuels.

What may have made the extraordinary American experiment in individual liberty possible was that it happened right at the start of the industrial era, before people’s expectations were raised by the industrial and post-industrial era.  At the end of the 18th century, people’s material expectations were limited by the technology of the time (electricity was a lightening bolt; clean water was the creek behind your house; transportation could be found in the bones and muscles reaching from your hips down to your feet).  Fortunately for America’s future, she was rich, not only in space, but in the natural resources that would become so necessary in the next two centuries, including fossil fuel and the drive to put that fossil fuel to work.  Put another way, at the moment our nation was born, our material expectations were low, but the possibilities proved to be almost endless.  The exquisite historic timing that brought together our new freedoms and the nascent industrial revolution made the American miracle possible.

Nowadays, the source of all physical comfort is fossil fuel.  Except for those people who still live a virtually stone age existence (whether in Indian, Africa, Latin America or Asia), every single person in the world benefits from fossil fuels.  They give us light, water treatment plants for clean water, food in the fields and in the marketplace, transportation, clothing, housing, every bit of our technology, everything.   Nothing in our modern world would be possible without them.  Fossil fuels drove Hitler’s maniacal push to the Soviet Union and ended the Japanese ability to fight a war.  (If you’re interested in more on oil’s central role in WWII, check out The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power.)  No wonder the global warmists, with their anti-Western mindset, are so determined to destroy fossil fuel.

In a modern world, one that premised upon expectations of fossil fuel’s blessings (an abundance of food, clean water, ready transportation, technical, etc.), giving people freedom without meeting those expectations — which are, by now, the minimal expectations for creature comfort — is doomed to failure.  It is no longer enough to couple free speech with a horse, a plow, and some seeds.  Nor will people be excited about freedom of worship if they have only a small flame to light the night-time darkness.  Today, America’s famous four freedoms will satisfy people only if they are coupled with the riches flowing from modern energy.

What all this means in practical terms is that, if you invade Iraq and destroy a tyrant, but simultaneously knock out the power supply, you will not have a happy population.  Post-industrial people would rather have tyranny and electricity (and the food, water, transportation and other things flowing from that electricity), than freedom in a world limited to stone age energy sources.  Proverbs 15:17 therefore got it wrong.  As you recall, that proverb says “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.”  Our modern experience with trying to bring people to the American model shows that most would say, “Better a stalled ox and a well-lighted barn where tyranny is, than starvation and the darkness of night where freedom lives.”

 

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  • jdgalt

    Yes, people do value physical comfort/wealth more than some kinds of freedom.  It is more important.  Why do you consider this a problem?

  • 11B40

    Greetings:

    1) I used to have a Political Science professor who used to say that only 15% of Americans are involved in politics beyond reading and voting. So, there’s that. Trains have engineers and conductors; all rest are passengers.

    2) “Freedom from Want” is not part of our Constitution. It’s one of FDR’s progressive foistings on our republic and the underpinning for today’s social safety net (aka hammock) that is devouring our nation one deficit at a time. What does it mean and what are its limits?

    3) “Freedom from Fear” isn’t much better. Is it the justification for the growth of the national security state and the military-industrial complex or more multi-culturally the growth of the civil rights industry. I don’t see Charles Darwin being a big supporter of freedom from fear. Me, I’d like to be freed from my fear of an insatiable ruling class.

  • http://bookwormroom.com Bookworm

    11B40:  That’s an excellent point, and one that I think usefully highlights the demands of the modern era — demands that weren’t present when the American experiment began.

    jdgalt:  Well, you say that, but the fact is that the apartheid blacks desperately wanted freedom and civil rights.  Now they’ve discovered their bellies mattered more.  I’m suggesting that American freedom worked only because it appeared as the world was on the cusp of a massive industrial and post-industrial explosion, with the two (freedom and fossil-fueled industry) melding perfectly.  Absent that magic alchemical moment, freedom as we Americans understand it, which is an amalgam of political freedom and Rooseveltian plenty, may never happen again.

  • http://bookwormroom.com Bookworm

    11B40:  That’s an excellent point, and one that I think usefully highlights the demands of the modern era — demands that weren’t present when the American experiment began.

    jdgalt:  The fact is that the apartheid blacks desperately wanted freedom and civil rights.  Now they’ve discovered their bellies mattered more.  I’m suggesting that American freedom worked only because it appeared as the world was on the cusp of a massive industrial and post-industrial explosion, with the two (freedom and fossil-fueled industry) melding perfectly.  Absent that magic alchemical moment, freedom as we Americans understand it, which is an amalgam of political freedom and Rooseveltian plenty, may never happen again.

  • Oldflyer

    Not sure where you are coming from here Book.  (Well, I think I know;  but, that is a way of saying that  I think you are off base in at least one respect.)
     
    Due to a certain shallowness of intellectual capacity, I have to relate all conceptual models to my own experience.  During, and just after the war years at the tender, but observant, age of 10 to 12, I spent appreciable time in a backwater of rural America that the New Deal forgot.
     
    To many in the area, the benefits of a fossil fuel society were almost as foreign as a trip to the moon.  Mule and shank’s mare (hoofing) were the most common mode of transportation.  Electricity and running water were non-existent outside of the towns.  Yet, those folks valued freedom above all else.  In fact nearly every family had a son or two on the other side of the world fighting for what they interpreted to be their freedom; and in fact for the freedom of others.
     
    I believe that what people find unacceptable for the most part is chaos.  Admittedly, some see freedom itself as a form of chaos, but those people  have been inculcated with that attitude over the course of generations, if not centuries.

  • Oldflyer

    PS  I guess I am objecting to in the comments above is the notion that freedom in the United States only originated with the birth of an easier life style.

  • http://bookwormroom.com Bookworm

    Oldflyer:  I expressed myself really badly, because I agree with you.  If you haven’t had life’s luxuries, a non-luxurious life plus freedom is totally do-able.  (That describes both early America and the backwater of rural America.)  Likewise, if you have had life’s luxuries, and you have freedom, you’re quite possibly living in the best of all possible worlds.  (That describes a large number of Americans today.)  Over the centuries, starting with our nation’s founding, American’s en masse have made that journey:  freedom’s been a backdrop, and they’ve moved from a minimalist life, the life everyone lived in the 18thh century, to a very comfortable fossil fuel life today. 

    What I was trying to say, though, is that those people who have had life’s luxuries (even if the luxury was only electricity and running water) without freedom, and who then lost the luxuries but gained freedom instead, are unhappy.  From their perspective, electric lights and running water — which they were used to — were a better deal than the abstract of freedom. 

    In a way, our surgical wars create a real problem.  When we leveled Germany and Japan, everyone had nothing, and it was their own fault for having started the wars.  They got their freedom and rebuilt their infrastructure too.

    In Africa and Iraq and other places, however, the infrastructure remained vaguely intact, just enough to remind people of what they’d lost.  They weren’t destroyed to be rebuilt.  Rather, they were just terribly wounded and, instead of getting food and heat, were told “fly, little birdie.” When these wounded birds fell out of the old tree, freedom didn’t save them from a painful fall.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    This is a problem probably because people who want comfort, are voting away the freedoms of people simply because they don’t place much value in freedom vis a vis their sugar daddy paychecks and benefits.

     

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    Without political and economic freedom, the comforts will not last. We are seeing an example in California, where the interference with economic freedom in the name of green-ness is going to drive extremely high electricity rates and, I feel confident, major blackouts.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    They’ll just nationalize the power companies. Problem solved.

  • Leah

    Look at the Bible, the Israelites wanting to go back to slavery and the fleshpots of Egypt. They had to be forced to take on freedom

  • DBRader

    It seems that the post is describing anchiatude(sp?) as described by Paul Rahe and Touqueville, which is a social anxiety. They describe the solution as “the art of association”, whereby we learn to form groups to solve problems. This was much more common in a time of smaller government. When faced with bigger problems, we have less fear since we’ve already learned to form groups and solve smaller problems. This is similar to the process of kids growing up by taking responsibilty and working through trouble. That is why “the nanny state” is a good description of big government.
    Also, with a free market and nuclear power, there is reason to believe that society will never run out of energy.