Century of Endeavour


For the introductory notes copyright (c) Roy Johnston 2001
(comments to rjtechne@iol.ie)

This article appeared in the Weekend Review of the Irish Times of Saturday December 29 2001. I immediately e-mailed Richard as follows:

Richard I read your essay in yesterday's Irish Times supplement with great interest. The historical analysis is very close to what I regard as the classic Marxist, but it stops short of the final step, namely, if the capital was owned by the workers, and the environment was co-operative, they could use it to save labour and have more leisure. Classically the Ralahine co-op workers welcomed the McCormack 'reaper and binder' when if first came in, while elsewhere farm labourers were wrecking it. I forget if this aspect is touched on in Connolly's chapter on Ralahine, but it almost certainly is in the memoirs of Craig the co- op manager.

We do need to quantify and politicise the process of transfer to renewable energy. Much will depend on settlement policy. Re-invent the village, self- supporting in locally produced food, exporting added value in goods and services, with transport costs minimised. Discourage maxi-urbanism. Recycle everything possible. Energy from sun, wind, tide and biomass. We need to get people used to the idea of work being in walking distance, and travel being exceptional. Existing maxi-urbanism could perhaps be reconstructed in village mode, with all housing in walking distance of shops and work-places, and proper use made of gardens.

Can you perhaps send me an ASCII version of your essay, in a file saved as .RTF (rich text format), as I might like to reference it in my current publication project, which involves a hypertext referencing system supportive of a printed overview?


Richard replied immediately, with his article duly attached in an RTF file, as follows:

When should we have stopped?

Richard Douthwaite

Where did humanity go wrong? When did we take a path which, because 'one path leads to another' in Robert Frost's phrase, inexorably led us to becoming totally dependent on a grotesquely unsustainable economic system? To put this another way, why is our way of life under threat from the way we generate our livelihoods?

Humanity's story is better regarded as a progression rather than progress, although if we stick with the latter term, the qualifier 'rake's' comes to mind. Its key feature over many centuries is that people have moved from simple ways of organising themselves and supplying their needs to much more complex ones. For example, the shift 10,000 years ago from hunter-gathering to depending on settled agriculture was obviously a step from a simple to a more complex way of life. It was also a step which, in turn, allowed even more complex ways of living to develop. It led to towns and cities, to specialists and priesthoods, to the development of the notion of private property, and, as a result of that notion, to the rule of the many by the few. With settlement came crafts such as pottery, and then literature, science, most music and art, each an example of greater complexity.

Complexity can be measured. Two ways have been proposed for doing so. One is to count the number of roles that people play. Hunter-gatherer societies are said to contain no more than a few dozen distinct social personalities, while modern European censuses recognise 10,000 to 20,000 unique occupational roles, and industrial societies may contain more than a million different kinds of social personalities overall. The second way of measuring is to count the number of different artifacts in daily use. Compare, for example, the number of lines sold in a typical shop in an Indian village - salt, sugar, rice ... matches and very little more - with that in a modern British or Irish supermarket which could well have 15,000 different products on display. Sainsbury's flagship store on the Cromwell Road in London sells 40 different types of apple, six varieties of caviar, 50 different teas, and 400 forms of bread. "Someone came in on Christmas Eve and asked for banana leaves," a keen young manager told a journalist recently "and you know something? We had them."

The transition from one level of complexity is always marked by an increase in energy use. In earlier days, this usually meant that people had to work harder. Farmers had to spend more time growing food than hunter-gatherers had had to spend on collecting it. Bushmen apparently only had to collect food every third or fourth day.

Initially, of course, agriculture may not have produced less food per hour's work than hunter-gathering. However, as more complex social structures evolved, the emerging elite found ways - through rents and tithes, for example - of ensuring that farmers had to grow enough to support it too. In modern industrial societies, things have gone so far that one farming family typically produces enough to feed fifty other families, and the market is rigged to ensure that it does. The compulsion is applied by increasing the difference between the price the consumer pays and the price the farmer gets after paying for his inputs. In a market economy, this increasing gap is the only way that an increasing number of people not directly involved in food production and distribution can be fed, but it leaves farmers struggling to maintain their incomes by growing even more.

There's no evidence that the transition from hunter-gathering to settled agriculture was the fatal mistake we are looking for in the sense of it marking the start of a system that would have eventually proved unsustainable. After all, it did survive for thousands of years anyway, despite many local unsustainabilities along the way, such as the steady decline of irrigated farming yields in Mesopotamia because of the increasing salt content in the soil. (The lower crop yields caused by the salt meant that the human energy required to run the complex system could not be maintained. There was too little food to operate the Sumarian bureaucracy and, more importantly, its army, which led to the state's conquest and collapse.)

In my view, the wrong turn was taken in England in the 16th Century as the population began to recover from the Black Death. The increased numbers - a rise from 1.6 million to 5.5 million in less than 200 years - naturally put greater pressure on resources and caused communities to have problems living within the limits imposed by their local environments. In 1631, Edmund Howes described how this had forced them to start to burn coal:

"Within man's memory it was held impossible to have any want of wood in England. But such hath been the great expence of timber of navigation, with infinite increase of building houses, with great expence of wood for household furniture, casks and other vessels not to be numbered, and of carts, wagons and coaches, besides the extreme waste of wood in making iron, burning of bricks and tiles, that at this present, through the great consuming of wood as aforesaid, and the neglect of planting of woods, there is so great scarcity of wood throughout the whole kingdom that not only the City of London, all haven towns and in very many parts within the land, the inhabitants in general are constrained to make their fires of sea-coal or pit coal, even in the chambers of honourable personages and through necessity which is the mother of all arts, they have in late years devised the making of iron the making of all sorts of glass and the burning of bricks with sea-coal and pit-coal."

That was it. The thin end of the wedge. The slippery slope. For the first time, humanity was starting to depend on a non-renewable, and hence unsustainable, energy source for its comfort and livelihood. It was understandable that it did. Which of us would have worried about the long-term consequences of burning black stones collected from beaches in Northumberland, or which had been dug out of shallow holes in the ground?

As the demand for coal increased, however, the easiest, shallowest mines were soon exhausted, and deeper and deeper pits had to be dug. This posed enormous problems since, if a shaft is sunk below the water table, it floods and a pump has to be installed to keep things reasonably dry. The early pumps consisted of rags or buckets on continuous chains which were turned by horses or, if a stream was handy, a water wheel. However, the deeper a shaft went, the longer the chain had to be and the more friction the horse or the wheel had to overcome. As this placed a real limit on how deep a mine could go, mine-owners were keen to find other ways of powering their pumps. Around the time Edmund Howes was writing, coal-fired steam power began to be used for the first time for pumping water out of mines. In a somewhat incestuous way, coal energy was being used for mining coal.

These first steam engines just moved a piston back and forth, which was all that was required to work a cylinder-type pump. It was only during the following century that the piston was attached to a crank to turn a revolving shaft, an innovation in response to a demand for rotary power from cotton mills unable to find additional sites for their waterwheels. This was the type of engine, of course, that powered the industrial revolution and led with an alarming inevitability to the problems we have today. It was steam power, in fact, which made the widespread use of machines both necessary and possible.

The distinction between a tool and a machine is not clear-cut. In general, however, machines require more energy to operate than do tools, which are frequently powered by the person using them. Machines also require more resources - including fossil energy for their manufacture because of their larger scale. And, because their output is higher, they need a wider market in which to sell. This in turn means that their use is dependent on a more extensive transport infrastructure, which in turn takes human effort or fossil energy to provide.

True, power-driven machines were in operation long before steam came along. Waterwheels were known in Roman times but when Vitruvius wrote about them in the first century BC, he relegated them to the section of his book De Architectura reserved for little-known devices. There are fewer than a dozen contemporary accounts of the use of water wheels in ancient times because their power was unnecessary plenty of human labour was available and people felt that it ought to be used. The Roman historian Suetonius describes how, when a mechanical engineer offered to carry some heavy columns to the Capitol cheaply using a labour-saving device, the emperor Vespasian 'gave no mean reward for his invention but refused to make use of it saying: "You must let me feed my poor commons."..'

Several centuries later, however, the monasteries were always short of labour. Under the Rule of St. Benedict, their monks had to observe strict limits on the amount of time they spent on physical work to allow them to study, worship and pray. Moreover, the monastery could not simply take on outside workers. It had to be self-sufficient in order to isolate itself from worldly influences. Of all the religious orders, the Cistercians did most to develop water power and by 1300 they had more than 500 monasteries, many with five or more mills.

Feudal lords were keen on water-power too, because the possession of a mill was a handy means of extracting more revenue from their peasantry, who were frequently compelled to use their lord's mill for grinding their grain. As a result, when William I of England had his commissioners survey his kingdom for the Domesday Book in 1086, they found that there were 5,624 water mills at more than 3,000 locations. This worked out at roughly one mill for every fifty households.

Gradually, mills, whether powered by water or wind, began to be used for much more than grinding flour. They crushed olives and sugarcane in Sicily in the 12th Century, washed woollen cloth, crushed ore for the smelter, hammered iron at the forge, separated flax fibre and, as we have seen, pumped water. By 1694, France was estimated by the Marquis de Vauban, a military engineer, to have 15,000 industrial mills and 500 iron mills in addition to 80,000 others for flour.

Although the 18th Century French philosopher Montesquieu criticised the water mill for 'depriving labourers of their work', it was only the advent of steam power that enabled workers to be displaced on a massive scale. Until steam, jobs had been protected by a shortage of suitable sites for water-power and the fact that using human energy was often cheaper. Moreover, until early in the 19th Century, employment was protected by a general attitude that labour-saving innovations were undesirable. For example, in An Unfinished History of the World (1979), the right-wing historian Hugh Thomas tells the story of a Nottinghamshire curate, William Lee, who invented a machine for knitting socks in 1589, apparently because the woman he was courting spent more time on her knitting than with him. The Crown discouraged him from taking the invention any further, and, when armed rioters beset his house, he had to flee to Paris, where he died of grief.

John Kay, inventor of the flying shuttle, which doubled a weaver's output when it was introduced in the 1730s, also had to flee to Paris for safety but managed to survive the experience. And when Joseph-Marie Jacquard, who had invented a loom that allowed designs to be woven into the fabric rather than being embroidered on later by hand, was sent for by Napoleon in 1803 he was not sure if he was to be rewarded or arrested.

In 1795, however, one of the 'fathers of economics', Adam Smith, advanced the idea in The Wealth of Nations that an 'invisible hand' would ensure that if an entrepreneur followed his own advantage (in other words, if he adopted labour-saving, fossil energy-using techniques) he would 'promote an end which was no part of his intention' and do more to promote the interests of society than if he had deliberately set out to do so. This concept overwhelmed the old thinking because it suited the interests of the ruling class perfectly. Indeed, it merely reflected what they already thought. As Joseph Schumpeter writes, Smith 'disliked whatever went beyond plain common-sense. He never moved above the heads of even the dullest readers And it was [his] good fortune that he was thoroughly in sympathy with the humours of his time. He advocated the things that were in the offing, and he made his analysis serve them.'

If an economic system is to be sustainable it must avoid doing serious harm to society. The economy based on steam energy was socially damaging, however, and this nearly brought it down. Early in the 19th Century, the introduction of power-driven machinery for making socks caused thousands of jobs to be lost in Nottinghamshire and the surrounding counties. In March 1811, bands of the displaced workers, the Luddites, began roaming from town to town damaging the new machinery. They received widespread public support, in part because the machine-made socks were inferior to hand-made ones.

But, armed with Smith's ideas, the government was intellectually prepared to take a firm stand. It sent 12,000 troops to the area to put the disturbances down, more than Britain was deploying in the Peninsular War at the time. The soldiers had little enthusiasm for their task. Officers sometimes refused to enter a building without a magistrate's warrant, even though they could hear machinery being smashed inside. Thomas believes that the attitude of Lord Liverpool, who became prime minister in 1812, was crucial: 'Doubtless, if the governments of the early industrial age had wished, or had been forced, to please the workers, the factory movement and the industrial revolution would have been brought to an end' he writes.

He might be right. If the rapid displacement of human labour by fossil energy had continued, there would almost certainly been other, more serious disturbances and restrictions might have been placed on the use of steam-powered machines. What is certain is that the rioters were right. David Ricardo, another founding father of economics, had his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation published in 1817, just five years after the Luddites had been put down. In it, he pointed out that if a powered stocking machine enabled one man to do the work of four and the demand for socks only doubled, it was inevitable that some workers would lose their jobs. In such circumstances, the use of machinery was detrimental to the workers' interests.

The essence of mechanisation is that it produces lower-cost goods by using capital equipment to replace the skilled, and thus relatively expensive, labour used in artisanal production. As a result of the switch, the proportion of each enterprise's income going to people to pay them for their labour falls while that going to investors and moneylenders rises. Ricardo recognised that this shift in the distribution of income would mean that sales of industrially-produced goods would inevitably be lower than those of the craft workshops they had displaced because the people who lived off the workers' earnings would have less spending power. The only way to avoid the situation, he pointed out, was to find foreign markets to make up for the lower domestic demand.

What saved the situation for the workers, and thus for steam-powered machinery, was the end of the Napoleonic War in 1815. If the war had gone on and Britain's industrial pioneers had been unable to export a sizable chunk of their output to Europe and elsewhere, the industrial revolution would have been still-born. Without wider markets, firms using powered machinery would have consumed themselves in a competitive frenzy and collapsed, or the technology would have been banned as a result of popular unrest.

The continental European market allowed the production of machine-made goods to continue in Britain: it took almost 60% of all British exports in 1816-22 and 51% in 1829-30. Not that it did so willingly: France, Russia, Prussia and Austria tried to stem the flood of imports with high tariffs. However, their efforts were undermined by smugglers to such an extent that Prussia adopted a low tariff regime in 1818 on the basis that it was better to get a moderate revenue from low import duties than next-to-nothing from the high rates because of the smuggling.

The consequences were dire for the unmechanised workers. Within a few years, Silesia had completely lost its overseas markets for its yarn 'defeated by the murderous competition of English mechanised spinning mills; within the following twenty years, linen export too dropped to nearly nothing. Utterly destitute, cottage workers died by the thousands during the 1840s, just as in Ireland.'. Those still in employment had to work much longer hours to try to compete. In Prussia, the average working day rose from 12 hours to 16 or 17 hours, six days a week.

Eventually, British imports put most continental craft producers out of business and left the remainder with no alternative but to adopt mechanised methods too. In some cases, the surviving producers received state grants to help them re-equip, such as those given to the ironworks and engineering companies owned by the Cockerills in Belgium after that country became independent from France in 1830. More generally, however, governments, or leading public figures, helped them acquire the new technology by organising - and sponsoring - demonstrations of the latest British equipment. Tariff barriers were also maintained to allow the new continental industries to build themselves up until they could not only compete with their British rivals but had acquired export markets in which to sell themselves. It was the need for exclusive external markets to solve the problem of mass unemployment at home which led the European powers to scramble to assemble competing empires and eventually to confront each other in the First World War.

In a sales pyramid the early participants get rich because they receive commission on the stock they sell to people whom they have persuaded to become dealers too; dealers who, in turn, can earn a commission from others they induce to join the pyramid as dealers later on, who themselves recruit and stock further dealers. And so it goes on, setting up a situation in which everyone in the pyramid can only fulfil their income aspirations if the pyramid does the impossible and expands indefinitely, eventually involving infinitely more people than there are in the world.

The machine-production system became dominant by expanding on exactly the same lines. Just as British factories had needed to take over the markets previously served by craft-scale manufacturers in Europe to survive, industrial Europe had to oust artisanal producers elsewhere in the world, and the British sold them the machinery to do so. As each successive group of countries was forced to adopt mechanised production methods themselves in the hope of escaping poverty, so those who had mechanised earlier sold them the equipment. And so the industrial pyramid grew and grew until it reached the point some years ago when there were no more markets supplied by craft producers to take over. This left firms in the pyramid with no-one to displace but each other, and since then, international competition has become much more intense.

Firms have adopted two strategies to survive: one is to automate, eliminating the need for human labour almost entirely. The other is to move production to countries where labour is cheap. The combined result of the two is that the share of industrial revenues being paid in wages and salaries has fallen rapidly and larger and larger numbers of people are being left without the financial means to buy manufactured products. In more than 100 countries, average per capita incomes are lower today than they were 15 years ago, and more than a quarter of humanity -- 1 6 billion people -- is worse off now than it was then. In Britain, the proportion of national income being paid in wages and salaries fell from 72% in 1974 to only 63% in 1995, an unprecedented fall in so short a time.

In short, the machine-based production system is proving itself to be unsustainable on two counts. One is that, because manufacturing companies are racing against each other to achieve ever lower costs, the system is progressively denying its customers the incomes they need to buy its products, just as Ricardo said. It is thus curtailing its own markets and imploding. With surplus production capacity in almost every sector, the world is now poised on the brink of an economic collapse more serious than that in the 1930s. It is not that there is no demand for the additional products the factories could produce. The potential market is huge. It is just that because of the high levels of unemployment, those who would like to consume more do not have the income to express their demand.

The second source of unsustainability is that the fossil energy which made mechanisation possible is beginning to get scarce. There is still plenty of coal in the ground, of course, but in energy terms, the amount of coal required to produce coal has climbed and climbed. It has been calculated that American strip-mined coal only produces 2.5 times the amount of energy required to mine it when it is burned if scrubbers are fitted to remove sulphur dioxide from the smoke so as not to cause acid rain.

The same is true for other fossil fuels the amount of energy required to find and extract them is taking an increasing share of the energy they produce. Once energy input equals energy output, the fuel in the ground might as well not be there. This is the reason that the world's oil production from conventional sources is expected to peak within the next five or six years. Output will then fall away so that by 2050, it will be around the level it was in 1950, but having to be shared out among four times as many people. It might be possible to exploit unconventional oil sources like the Athabaska tar sands, but the extraction techniques developed so far require too high an energy input to make the process profitable. Moreover, even if a better method of extraction was found, it would only ease oil supplies for a few more years. With gas, the situation is even more serious. World output is expected to peak around 2020 and then go into a steep decline.

So we are coming to the end of our dalliance with fossil-fuel-powered machines and it's going to be a sticky one. All the systems of production and distribution that have been built up over the past two centuries are going to have to be radically changed, and there is very little fossil energy left to bring about the transformation.

Billions of people will probably die during the reversion to a more sustainable system. Jay Hansen did not call his website on these issues dieoff.com for nothing. After all, the population of the area now controlled by the EU was around 50 million when it was last reasonably sustainable. This was in the period between the early 14th Century, when unclaimed land ceased to be plentiful, and the beginning of the 17th Century, the time that Edmund Howes was writing, when population levels had recovered, or exceeded, those before the plague. It is seven times that 50 million figure today. Have our non-fossil energy-using agricultural technologies advanced enough since to enable us to feed the increased number? And can everyone be kept clothed and warm?

It was the use of fossil-fuel-powered machinery that permitted this population increase. If you look at a graph of the population of England and Wales, you will see that it stabilised at around 1300 at about 3.5 million and stayed that way for almost 50 years until the plague broke out. George Huppert, an American historian, thinks that the plague itself was produced by population pressures. Considering Europe as a whole he writes: 'Chronic malnutrition weakened resistance to disease. Small waves of famine and local epidemics prepared the way for the catastrophic epidemic of bubonic plague which broke out in the summer of 1347, racing northward from the Mediterranean faster than a forest fire. The Black Death, as it came to be known, destroyed as much as perhaps a third of the population within months.'

Around a century after the plague, the population of England and Wales began to grow again and reached about 5.5 million in 1640 before stabilising, almost certainly because it had run up against resource constraints. It stayed at that level for another hundred years before beginning a steep rise which continued into the early years of the 20th Century. Similar rises took place in other countries when machinery and fossil fuels were introduced, and it is this additional population the world is going to find it impossible to support once the power to run the machines is no longer there.

So the answer to Element's question 'What should we ask machines to do?' is that, if they are powered from unsustainable energy sources, we shouldn't ask them to do anything at all. But we, or at least, the British, did, and once some people had started subsidising their production by using non-renewable forms of energy, everybody had to do so as well. Contemporary records shows that even the blockade mounted by Napoleon was unable to halt smuggled imports of cheap British goods into mainland Europe. Instead, it was the Luddite riots that came nearest to stopping the mechanisation process.

Looking back, it is impossible to see a point at which humanity was presented with a clear choice of paths to take and should have chosen the other way. The evidence for taking a different route just was not there. Only within the past few years has it been evident to those with open minds that energy shortages will bring our complex system tumbling down. This was not something to worry about in 1631. Even today, most people are in denial about this. If they think about the energy problem at all, they assure themselves that something - cold fusion, perhaps, or fast breeder reactors - will be developed in time to save the day. Hard technologies that is, essentially, machinery - will come to our rescue again.

They might, but I doubt it. And if they don't, we will be forced to unscramble our complexities and to adopt soft that is, low energy technologies as quickly as we can. And the most important of these technologies will involve horses, waterwheels, windmills and, yes, simple, unsophisticated, common or garden hand tools. Humanity's mistake was to give them up.

Copyright (c) for the foregoing is with Richard Douthwaite richard@douthwaite.net

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