Or How Bright Minds Manipulate Facts to Make Progress Look Believable
In a 1957 speech foreseeing an end to the age of fossil fuels, Rear Admiral Hyman Rickover started by presenting a reasonable state of his present day. But when he moved on to explain “the rise and fall of civilizations”, he got nearly everything wrong.
Let me use this speech as an example of how bright minds can twist facts around in order to convince people that history tells a story of “progress”. Admiral Ricker:
Possession of surplus energy is, of course, a requisite for any kind of civilization, for if man possesses merely the energy of his own muscles, he must expend all his strength – mental and physical – to obtain the bare necessities of life.
Actually, primitive men living in Australia or Africa today spend about 20 hours a week providing for their food, shelter, and clothing needs. They get the rest of the week off to do whatever they like. They don’t work alone, they work as communities. They engage in spiritual matters or religious activities much more than modern people do.
Ricker mistakenly bought into the belief in progress. This belief goes as follows: In the past, everything was always bad. And thanks to technological inventions, we are making real progress. That’s why we now have to work 40 to 60 hours a week to make ends meet and we don’t even have time to support our religious communities.
Surplus energy provides the material foundation for civilized living – a comfortable and tasteful home instead of a bare shelter; attractive clothing instead of mere covering to keep warm; appetizing food instead of anything that suffices to appease hunger. It provides the freedom from toil without which there can be no art, music, literature, or learning. There is no need to belabor the point.
Ricker repeats: The past was always bad, the future is always better. He ignores that giving up a more primitive life comes with the cost of losing community and faith. He discounts these things in favor of “art, music, literature, or learning” but people of the past always engage in art and music, anyway, and without a bureaucracy, there’s no need for reading if you can retell the oral histories of your ancestors by a campfire.
The progress Ricker points to is one of a loss of meaningful activity in favor of substitute activity. This is a topic best explained by Uncle Ted (the Unabomber) in his manifesto Industrial Society and Its Future.
What lifted man – one of the weaker mammals – above the animal world was that he could devise, with his brain, ways to increase the energy at his disposal, and use the leisure so gained to cultivate his mind and spirit. Where man must rely solely on the energy of his own body, he can sustain only the most meager existence.
Man isn’t “one of the weaker mammals”. Using the energy of their own body, ancient Germans were fat, muscular, and healthy people thriving 2,000 years ago as pastoralists. According to Roman historians, these people spent their summer days basking in the sun, playing board games, and their evenings drinking with friends. What “meager existence”?
Man’s first step on the ladder of civilization dates from his discovery of fire and his domestication of animals. With these energy resources, he was able to build a pastoral culture. To move upward to an agricultural civilization he needed more energy.
Ricker mistakenly suggests that “pastoral culture” is a mere step on the way “upward to an agricultural civilization”. This is blatantly false. Pastoralism and agriculture are two separate modes of civilization. The one doesn’t lead to another. In fact, pastoralism is a way to escape the settled (restricted) life of agriculturalists.
Children of pastoralists grow up on a diet of protein and animal fat. Consequently, these children tend to be healthier, though pastoralists do tend to have fewer children. Agriculturalists tend to have more children but their children, weaned on a high-carb diet, tend to be less healthy and are weaker.
Pastoralists exploit the unpredictable whereas agriculture specializes in controlling the predictable. Agricultural societies are settled and result in the establishment of cities. A pastoralist can move his herds to wherever rain has fallen. He can build carts to carry supplies with him, making his life independent from the environment.
Cities and their agricultural territories are ruled by written laws. Pastoralists are ruled by orally transmitted morals. Cities are inherently matriarchal (the whore of Babylon), whereas pastoralist societies are patriarchal (the strong brothers who defend the cattle).
In the past this was found in the labor of dependent members of large patriarchal families, augmented by slaves obtained through purchase or as war booty. There are some backward communities that to this day depend on this type of energy.
Agricultural societies don’t start out with slaves. In fact, agricultural societies tend not to wage war, because wars destroy crops and land, and soldiers pillage the grain reserves and the livestock kept in pens. It is the cities that wage the wars, and they wage them to serve the ostentatious lifestyles of urban elites.
In fact, cities first introduced slavery: Stories from early Mesopotamia detail how “wild women” were captured by urban merchants and forced to do work in sweatshops producing the aforementioned “attractive clothing and appetizing food” for the urban bourgeoisie.
Patriarchal pastoralists have little need for slaves since they have cattle, and slaves can’t be trusted not to run off at night with one’s cattle. In a settled agricultural society, a slave has nowhere to run but into the wilderness where a man, on his own, has no chance of survival.
Slavery, then, is a function of urban-agricultural life. Today, who dares to deny that office workers or coffee baristas or tram conductors aren’t simply well-paid slaves, groomed with lies about a better life and a meaningful future? Precisely by making an urban workforce believe their ancestors were worse off in the past, the workers stay put. In reality, their ancestors may have been less wealthy but surely freer.
Slave labor was necessary for the city-states and the empires of antiquity; they frequently had slave populations larger than their free citizenry. As long as slaves were abundant and no moral censure attached to their ownership, incentives to search for alternative sources of energy were lacking; this may well have been the single most important reason why engineering advanced very little in ancient times.
Ancient Rome had top-notch mechanical engineering. They had mechanical taxi meters on their carts that could tell the price or the distance traveled. They had heated floors. They had many such modern amenities that we still appreciate today.
It wasn’t slavery that held back Roman technological advancement. Romans never found the steam engine or the combustion engine and as a consequence thereof, they resorted to slavery in order to fuel its upper class’s insatiable desire for luxuries and wealth. The modern need for cheap fuels also stems from this desire for luxury!
A reduction of per capita energy consumption has always in the past led to a decline in civilization and a reversion to a more primitive way of life.
Though this is true, a “primitive life” is rather a more traditional life. Traditional living centers more on freedom. It does away with the bureaucracy that comes with literacy. it does away with the millions of laws and regulations required to maintain a complex society. It abolishes said complexity. It gives people back a sense of freedom and autonomy absent in the urban world.
The belief that technological innovations will somehow keep supporting a growing human population is a fantasy.
Anyone who has watched a sweating Chinese farm worker strain at his heavily laden wheelbarrow, creaking along a cobblestone road, or who has flinched as he drives past an endless procession of human beasts of burden moving to market in Java – the slender women bent under mountainous loads heaped on their heads – anyone who has seen statistics translated into flesh and bone, realizes the degradation of man’s stature when his muscle power becomes the only energy source he can afford. Civilization must wither when human beings are so degraded.
Ricker completely misses the reality here. What he describes as the Chinese farm worker and the slender women bent under mountainous loads are the worker ants in the service of a large-scale civilization. In a traditional way of life, these same people would have had a much easier life.
Civilization, then, is what puts a strain on people, not the lack of technology to replace muscle.