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17 - The Wheels of Industry

THE MODERN ECONOMY GROWS THANKS to our trust in the future and to the willingness of capitalists to reinvest their profits in production. Yet that does not suffice. Economic growth also requires energy and raw materials, and these are finite. When and if they run out, the entire system will collapse.

But the evidence provided by the past is that they are finite only in theory. Counter-intuitively, while humankind’s use of energy and raw materials has mushroomed in the last few centuries, the amounts available for our exploitation have actually increased. Whenever a shortage of either has threatened to slow economic growth, investments have flowed into scientific and technological research. These have invariably produced not only more efficient ways of exploiting existing resources, but also completely new types of energy and materials.

Consider the vehicle industry. Over the last 300 years, humankind has manufactured billions of vehicles – from carts and wheelbarrows, to trains, cars, supersonic jets and space shuttles. One might have expected that such a prodigious effort would have exhausted the energy sources and raw materials available for vehicle production, and that today we would be scraping the bottom of the barrel. Yet the opposite is the case. Whereas in 1700 the global vehicle industry relied overwhelmingly on wood and iron, today it has at its disposal a cornucopia of new-found materials such as plastic, rubber, aluminium and titanium, none of which our ancestors even knew about. Whereas in 1700 carts were built mainly by the muscle power of carpenters and smiths, today the machines in Toyota and Boeing factories are powered by petroleum combustion engines and nuclear power stations. A similar revolution has swept almost all other fields of industry. We call it the Industrial Revolution.

For millennia prior to the Industrial Revolution, humans already knew how to make use of a large variety of energy sources. They burned wood in order to smelt iron, heat houses and bake cakes. Sailing ships harnessed wind power to move around, and watermills captured the flow of rivers to grind grain. Yet all these had clear limits and problems. Trees were not available everywhere, the wind didn’t always blow when you needed it, and water power was only useful if you lived near a river.

An even bigger problem was that people didn’t know how to convert one type of energy into another. They could harness the movement of wind and water to sail ships and push millstones, but not to heat water or smelt iron. Conversely, they could not use the heat energy produced by burning wood to make a millstone move. Humans had only one machine capable of performing such energy conversion tricks: the body. In the natural process of metabolism, the bodies of humans and other animals burn organic fuels known as food and convert the released energy into the movement of muscles. Men, women and beasts could consume grain and meat, burn up their carbohydrates and fats, and use the energy to haul a rickshaw or pull a plough.

Since human and animal bodies were the only energy conversion device available, muscle power was the key to almost all human activities. Human muscles built carts and houses, ox muscles ploughed fields, and horse muscles transported goods. The energy that fuelled these organic muscle-machines came ultimately from a single source – plants. Plants in their turn obtained their energy from the sun. By the process of photosynthesis, they captured solar energy and packed it into organic compounds. Almost everything people did throughout history was fuelled by solar energy that was captured by plants and converted into muscle power.

Human history was consequently dominated by two main cycles: the growth cycles of plants and the changing cycles of solar energy (day and night, summer and winter). When sunlight was scarce and when wheat fields were still green, humans had little energy. Granaries were empty, tax collectors were idle, soldiers found it difficult to move and fight, and kings tended to keep the peace. When the sun shone brightly and the wheat ripened, peasants harvested the crops and filled the granaries. Tax collectors hurried to take their share. Soldiers flexed their muscles and sharpened their swords. Kings convened councils and planned their next campaigns. Everyone was fuelled by solar energy – captured and packaged in wheat, rice and potatoes.

The Secret in the Kitchen

Throughout these long millennia, day in and day out, people stood face to face with the most important invention in the history of energy production – and failed to notice it. It stared them in the eye every time a housewife or servant put up a kettle to boil water for tea or put a pot full of potatoes on the stove. The minute the water boiled, the lid of the kettle or the pot jumped. Heat was being converted to movement. But jumping pot lids were an annoyance, especially if you forgot the pot on the stove and the water boiled over. Nobody saw their real potential.

A partial breakthrough in converting heat into movement followed the invention of gunpowder in ninth-century China. At first, the idea of using gunpowder to propel projectiles was so counter-intuitive that for centuries gunpowder was used primarily to produce fire bombs. But eventually – perhaps after some bomb expert ground gunpowder in a mortar only to have the pestle shoot out with force – guns made their appearance. About 600 years passed between the invention of gunpowder and the development of effective artillery.

Even then, the idea of converting heat into motion remained so counter-intuitive that another three centuries went by before people invented the next machine that used heat to move things around. The new technology was born in British coal mines. As the British population swelled, forests were cut down to fuel the growing economy and make way for houses and fields. Britain suffered from an increasing shortage of firewood. It began burning coal as a substitute. Many coal seams were located in waterlogged areas, and flooding prevented miners from accessing the lower strata of the mines. It was a problem looking for a solution. Around 1700, a strange noise began reverberating around British mineshafts. That noise – harbinger of the Industrial Revolution – was subtle at first, but it grew louder and louder with each passing decade until it enveloped the entire world in a deafening cacophony. It emanated from a steam engine.

There are many types of steam engines, but they all share one common principle. You burn some kind of fuel, such as coal, and use the resulting heat to boil water, producing steam. As the steam expands it pushes a piston. The piston moves, and anything that is connected to the piston moves with it. You have converted heat into movement! In eighteenth-century British coal mines, the piston was connected to a pump that extracted water from the bottom of the mineshafts. The earliest engines were incredibly inefficient. You needed to burn a huge load of coal in order to pump out even a tiny amount of water. But in the mines coal was plentiful and close at hand, so nobody cared.

In the decades that followed, British entrepreneurs improved the efficiency of the steam engine, brought it out of the mineshafts, and connected it to looms and gins. This revolutionised textile production, making it possible to produce ever-larger quantities of cheap textiles. In the blink of an eye, Britain became the workshop of the world. But even more importantly, getting the steam engine out of the mines broke an important psychological barrier. If you could burn coal in order to move textile looms, why not use the same method to move other things, such as vehicles?

In 1825, a British engineer connected a steam engine to a train of mine wagons full of coal. The engine drew the wagons along an iron rail some twenty kilometres long from the mine to the nearest harbour. This was the first steam-powered locomotive in history. Clearly, if steam could be used to transport coal, why not other goods? And why not even people? On 15 September 1830, the first commercial railway line was opened, connecting Liverpool with Manchester. The trains moved under the same steam power that had previously pumped water and moved textile looms. A mere twenty years later, Britain had tens of thousands of kilometres of railway tracks.1 Henceforth, people became obsessed with the idea that machines and engines could be used to convert one type of energy into another. Any type of energy, anywhere in the world, might be harnessed to whatever need we had, if we could just invent the right machine. For example, when physicists realised that an immense amount of energy is stored within atoms, they immediately started thinking about how this energy could be released and used to make electricity, power submarines and annihilate cities. Six hundred years passed between the moment Chinese alchemists discovered gunpowder and the moment Turkish cannon pulverised the walls of Constantinople. Only forty years passed between the moment Einstein determined that any kind of mass could be converted into energy – that’s what E = mc2 means – and the moment atom bombs obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki and nuclear power stations mushroomed all over the globe.

Another crucial discovery was the internal combustion engine, which took little more than a generation to revolutionise human transportation and turn petroleum into liquid political power. Petroleum had been known for thousands of years, and was used to waterproof roofs and lubricate axles. Yet until just a century ago nobody thought it was useful for much more than that. The idea of spilling blood for the sake of oil would have seemed ludicrous. You might fight a war over land, gold, pepper or slaves, but not oil.

The career of electricity was more startling yet. Two centuries ago electricity played no role in the economy, and was used at most for arcane scientific experiments and cheap magic tricks. A series of inventions turned it into our universal genie in a lamp. We flick our fingers and it prints books and sews clothes, keeps our vegetables fresh and our ice cream frozen, cooks our dinners and executes our criminals, registers our thoughts and records our smiles, lights up our nights and entertains us with countless television shows. Few of us understand how electricity does all these things, but even fewer can imagine life without it.

An Ocean of Energy

At heart, the Industrial Revolution has been a revolution in energy conversion. It has demonstrated again and again that there is no limit to the amount of energy at our disposal. Or, more precisely, that the only limit is set by our ignorance. Every few decades we discover a new energy source, so that the sum total of energy at our disposal just keeps growing.

Why are so many people afraid that we are running out of energy? Why do they warn of disaster if we exhaust all available fossil fuels? Clearly the world does not lack energy. All we lack is the knowledge necessary to harness and convert it to our needs. The amount of energy stored in all the fossil fuel on earth is negligible compared to the amount that the sun dispenses every day, free of charge. Only a tiny proportion of the sun’s energy reaches us, yet it amounts to 3,766,800 exajoules of energy each year (a joule is a unit of energy in the metric system, about the amount you expend to lift a small apple one yard straight up; an exajoule is a billion billion joules – that’s a lot of apples).2 All the world’s plants capture only about 3,000 of those solar exajoules through the process of photosynthesis.3 All human activities and industries put together consume about 500 exajoules annually, equivalent to the amount of energy earth receives from the sun in just ninety minutes.4 And that’s only solar energy. In addition, we are surrounded by other enormous sources of energy, such as nuclear energy and gravitational energy, the latter most evident in the power of the ocean tides caused by the moon’s pull on the earth.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the human energy market was almost completely dependent on plants. People lived alongside a green energy reservoir carrying 3,000 exajoules a year, and tried to pump as much of its energy as they could. Yet there was a clear limit to how much they could extract. During the Industrial Revolution, we came to realise that we are actually living alongside an enormous ocean of energy, one holding billions upon billions of exajoules of potential power. All we need to do is invent better pumps.

Learning how to harness and convert energy effectively solved the other problem that slows economic growth – the scarcity of raw materials. As humans worked out how to harness large quantities of cheap energy, they could begin exploiting previously inaccessible deposits of raw materials (for example, mining iron in the Siberian wastelands), or transporting raw materials from ever more distant locations (for example, supplying a British textile mill with Australian wool). Simultaneously, scientific breakthroughs enabled humankind to invent completely new raw materials, such as plastic, and discover previously unknown natural materials, such as silicon and aluminium.

Chemists discovered aluminium only in the 1820s, but separating the metal from its ore was extremely difficult and costly. For decades, aluminium was much more expensive than gold. In the 1860S, Emperor Napoleon III of France commissioned aluminium cutlery to be laid out for his most distinguished guests. Less important visitors had to make do with the gold knives and forks.5 But at the end of the nineteenth century chemists discovered a way to extract immense amounts of cheap aluminium, and current global production stands at 30 million tons per year. Napoleon III would be surprised to hear that his subjects’ descendants use cheap disposable aluminium foil to wrap their sandwiches and put away their leftovers.

Two thousand years ago, when people in the Mediterranean basin suffered from dry skin they smeared olive oil on their hands. Today, they open a tube of hand cream. Below is the list of ingredients of a simple modern hand cream that I bought at a local store:

deionised water, stearic acid, glycerin, caprylic/caprictiglyceride, propylene glycol, isopropyl myristate, panax ginseng root extract, fragrance, cetyl alcohol, triethanolamine, dimeticone, arctostaphylos uva-ursi leaf extract, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, imidazolidinyl urea, methyl paraben, camphor, propyl paraben, hydroxyisohexyl 3-cyclohexene carboxaldehyde, hydroxyl-citronellal, linalool, butylphenyl methylproplonal, citronnellol, limonene, geraniol.

Almost all of these ingredients were invented or discovered in the last two centuries.

During World War One, Germany was placed under blockade and suffered severe shortages of raw materials, in particular saltpetre, an essential ingredient in gunpowder and other explosives. The most important saltpetre deposits were in Chile and India; there were none at all in Germany. True, saltpetre could be replaced by ammonia, but that was expensive to produce as well. Luckily for the Germans, one of their fellow citizens, a Jewish chemist named Fritz Haber, had discovered in 1908 a process for producing ammonia literally out of thin air. When war broke out, the Germans used Haber’s discovery to commence industrial production of explosives using air as a raw material. Some scholars believe that if it hadn’t been for Haber’s discovery, Germany would have been forced to surrender long before November 1918.6 The discovery won Haber (who during the war also pioneered the use of poison gas in battle) a Nobel Prize in 1918. In chemistry, not in peace.

Life on the Conveyor Belt

The Industrial Revolution yielded an unprecedented combination of cheap and abundant energy and cheap and abundant raw materials. The result was an explosion in human productivity. The explosion was felt first and foremost in agriculture. Usually, when we think of the Industrial Revolution, we think of an urban landscape of smoking chimneys, or the plight of exploited coal miners sweating in the bowels of the earth. Yet the Industrial Revolution was above all else the Second Agricultural Revolution.

During the last 200 years, industrial production methods became the mainstay of agriculture. Machines such as tractors began to undertake tasks that were previously performed by muscle power, or not performed at all. Fields and animals became vastly more productive thanks to artificial fertilisers, industrial insecticides and an entire arsenal of hormones and medications. Refrigerators, ships and aeroplanes have made it possible to store produce for months, and transport it quickly and cheaply to the other side of the world. Europeans began to dine on fresh Argentinian beef and Japanese sushi.

Even plants and animals were mechanised. Around the time that Homo sapiens was elevated to divine status by humanist religions, farm animals stopped being viewed as living creatures that could feel pain and distress, and instead came to be treated as machines. Today these animals are often mass-produced in factory-like facilities, their bodies shaped in accordance with industrial needs. They pass their entire lives as cogs in a giant production line, and the length and quality of their existence is determined by the profits and losses of business corporations. Even when the industry takes care to keep them alive, reasonably healthy and well fed, it has no intrinsic interest in the animals’ social and psychological needs (except when these have a direct impact on production).

Egg-laying hens, for example, have a complex world of behavioural needs and drives. They feel strong urges to scout their environment, forage and peck around, determine social hierarchies, build nests and groom themselves. But the egg industry often locks the hens inside tiny coops, and it is not uncommon for it to squeeze four hens to a cage, each given a floor space of about twenty-five by twenty-two centimetres. The hens receive sufficient food, but they are unable to claim a territory, build a nest or engage in other natural activities. Indeed, the cage is so small that hens are often unable even to flap their wings or stand fully erect.

Pigs are among the most intelligent and inquisitive of mammals, second perhaps only to the great apes. Yet industrialised pig farms routinely confine nursing sows inside such small crates that they are literally unable to turn around (not to mention walk or forage). The sows are kept in these crates day and night for four weeks after giving birth. Their offspring are then taken away to be fattened up and the sows are impregnated with the next litter of piglets.

Many dairy cows live almost all their allotted years inside a small enclosure; standing, sitting and sleeping in their own urine and excrement. They receive their measure of food, hormones and medications from one set of machines, and get milked every few hours by another set of machines. The cow in the middle is treated as little more than a mouth that takes in raw materials and an udder that produces a commodity. Treating living creatures possessing complex emotional worlds as if they were machines is likely to cause them not only physical discomfort, but also much social stress and psychological frustration.

Just as the Atlantic slave trade did not stem from hatred towards Africans, so the modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity. Again, it is fuelled by indifference. Most people who produce and consume eggs, milk and meat rarely stop to think about the fate of the chickens, cows or pigs whose flesh and emissions they are eating. Those who do think often argue that such animals are really little different from machines, devoid of sensations and emotions, incapable of suffering. Ironically, the same scientific disciplines which shape our milk machines and egg machines have lately demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that mammals and birds have a complex sensory and emotional make-up. They not only feel physical pain, but can also suffer from emotional distress.

Evolutionary psychology maintains that the emotional and social needs of farm animals evolved in the wild, when they were essential for survival and reproduction. For example, a wild cow had to know how to form close relations with other cows and bulls, or else she could not survive and reproduce. In order to learn the necessary skills, evolution implanted in calves – as in the young of all other social mammals – a strong desire to play (playing is the mammalian way of learning social behaviour). And it implanted in them an even stronger desire to bond with their mothers, whose milk and care were essential for survival.

What happens if farmers now take a young calf, separate her from her mother, put her in a closed cage, give her food, water and inoculations against diseases, and then, when she is old enough, inseminate her with bull sperm? From an objective perspective, this calf no longer needs either maternal bonding or playmates in order to survive and reproduce. But from a subjective perspective, the calf still feels a very strong urge to bond with her mother and to play with other calves. If these urges are not fulfilled, the calf suffers greatly. This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology: a need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer really necessary for survival and reproduction. The tragedy of industrial agriculture is that it takes great care of the objective needs of animals, while neglecting their subjective needs.

The truth of this theory has been known at least since the 1950s, when the American psychologist Harry Harlow studied the development of monkeys. Harlow separated infant monkeys from their mothers several hours after birth. The monkeys were isolated inside cages, and then raised by dummy mothers. In each cage, Harlow placed two dummy mothers. One was made of metal wires, and was fitted with a milk bottle from which the infant monkey could suck. The other was made of wood covered with cloth, which made it resemble a real monkey mother, but it provided the infant monkey with no material sustenance whatsoever. It was assumed that the infants would cling to the nourishing metal mother rather than to the barren cloth one.

To Harlow’s surprise, the infant monkeys showed a marked preference for the cloth mother, spending most of their time with her. When the two mothers were placed in close proximity, the infants held on to the cloth mother even while they reached over to suck milk from the metal mother. Harlow suspected that perhaps the infants did so because they were cold. So he fitted an electric bulb inside the wire mother, which now radiated heat. Most of the monkeys, except for the very young ones, continued to prefer the cloth mother.

Follow-up research showed that Harlow’s orphaned monkeys grew up to be emotionally disturbed even though they had received all the nourishment they required. They never fitted into monkey society, had difficulties communicating with other monkeys, and suffered from high levels of anxiety and aggression. The conclusion was inescapable: monkeys must have psychological needs and desires that go beyond their material requirements, and if these are not fulfilled, they will suffer greatly. Harlow’s infant monkeys preferred to spend their time in the hands of the barren cloth mother because they were looking for an emotional bond and not only for milk. In the following decades, numerous studies showed that this conclusion applies not only to monkeys, but to other mammals, as well as birds. At present, millions of farm animals are subjected to the same conditions as Harlow’s monkeys, as farmers routinely separate calves, kids and other youngsters from their mothers, to be raised in isolation.8 Altogether, tens of billions of farm animals live today as part of a mechanised assembly line, and about 50 billion of them are slaughtered annually. These industrial livestock methods have led to a sharp increase in agricultural production and in human food reserves. Together with the mechanisation of plant cultivation, industrial animal husbandry is the basis for the entire modern socio-economic order. Before the industrialisation of agriculture, most of the food produced in fields and farms was ‘wasted’ feeding peasants and farmyard animals. Only a small percentage was available to feed artisans, teachers, priests and bureaucrats. Consequently, in almost all societies peasants comprised more than 90 per cent of the population. Following the industrialisation of agriculture, a shrinking number of farmers was enough to feed a growing number of clerks and factory hands. Today in the United States, only 2 per cent of the population makes a living from agriculture, yet this 2 per cent produces enough not only to feed the entire US population, but also to export surpluses to the rest of the world.9 Without the industrialisation of agriculture the urban Industrial Revolution could never have taken place – there would not have been enough hands and brains to staff factories and offices.

As those factories and offices absorbed the billions of hands and brains that were released from fieldwork, they began pouring out an unprecedented avalanche of products. Humans now produce far more steel, manufacture much more clothing, and build many more structures than ever before. In addition, they produce a mind-boggling array of previously unimaginable goods, such as light bulbs, mobile phones, cameras and dishwashers. For the first time in human history, supply began to outstrip demand. And an entirely new problem was born: who is going to buy all this stuff?

The Age of Shopping

The modern capitalist economy must constantly increase production if it is to survive, like a shark that must swim or suffocate. Yet it’s not enough just to produce. Somebody must also buy the products, or industrialists and investors alike will go bust. To prevent this catastrophe and to make sure that people will always buy whatever new stuff industry produces, a new kind of ethic appeared: consumerism.

Most people throughout history lived under conditions of scarcity. Frugality was thus their watchword. The austere ethics of the Puritans and Spartans are but two famous examples. A good person avoided luxuries, never threw food away, and patched up torn trousers instead of buying a new pair. Only kings and nobles allowed themselves to renounce such values publicly and conspicuously flaunt their riches.

Consumerism sees the consumption of ever more products and services as a positive thing. It encourages people to treat themselves, spoil themselves, and even kill themselves slowly by overconsumption. Frugality is a disease to be cured. You don’t have to look far to see the consumer ethic in action – just read the back of a cereal box. Here’s a quote from a box of one of my favourite breakfast cereals, produced by an Israeli firm, Telma:

Sometimes you need a treat. Sometimes you need a little extra energy. There are times to watch your weight and times when you’ve just got to have something … right now! Telma offers a variety of tasty cereals just for you – treats without remorse.

The same package sports an ad for another brand of cereal called Health Treats:

Health Treats offers lots of grains, fruits and nuts for an experience that combines taste, pleasure and health. For an enjoyable treat in the middle of the day, suitable for a healthy lifestyle. A real treat with the wonderful taste of more [emphasis in the original].

Throughout most of history, people were likely to be have been repelled rather than attracted by such a text. They would have branded it as selfish, decadent and morally corrupt. Consumerism has worked very hard, with the help of popular psychology (‘Just do it!’) to convince people that indulgence is good for you, whereas frugality is self-oppression.

It has succeeded. We are all good consumers. We buy countless products that we don’t really need, and that until yesterday we didn’t know existed. Manufacturers deliberately design short-term goods and invent new and unnecessary models of perfectly satisfactory products that we must purchase in order to stay ‘in’. Shopping has become a favourite pastime, and consumer goods have become essential mediators in relationships between family members, spouses and friends. Religious holidays such as Christmas have become shopping festivals. In the United States, even Memorial Day – originally a solemn day for remembering fallen soldiers – is now an occasion for special sales. Most people mark this day by going shopping, perhaps to prove that the defenders of freedom did not die in vain.

The flowering of the consumerist ethic is manifested most clearly in the food market. Traditional agricultural societies lived in the awful shade of starvation. In the affluent world of today one of the leading health problems is obesity, which strikes the poor (who stuff themselves with hamburgers and pizzas) even more severely than the rich (who eat organic salads and fruit smoothies). Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world. Obesity is a double victory for consumerism. Instead of eating little, which will lead to economic contraction, people eat too much and then buy diet products – contributing to economic growth twice over.

How can we square the consumerist ethic with the capitalist ethic of the business person, according to which profits should not be wasted, and should instead be reinvested in production? It’s simple. As in previous eras, there is today a division of labour between the elite and the masses. In medieval Europe, aristocrats spent their money carelessly on extravagant luxuries, whereas peasants lived frugally, minding every penny. Today, the tables have turned. The rich take great care managing their assets and investments, while the less well heeled go into debt buying cars and televisions they don’t really need.

The capitalist and consumerist ethics are two sides of the same coin, a merger of two commandments. The supreme commandment of the rich is ‘Invest!’ The supreme commandment of the rest of us is ‘Buy!’

The capitalist-consumerist ethic is revolutionary in another respect. Most previous ethical systems presented people with a pretty tough deal. They were promised paradise, but only if they cultivated compassion and tolerance, overcame craving and anger, and restrained their selfish interests. This was too tough for most. The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum.

In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist-consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money, and that the masses give free rein to their cravings and passions – and buy more and more. This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do. How, though, do we know that we’ll really get paradise in return? We’ve seen it on television.

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