The absolute requirement for the survival of any social system is energy in the form of food. And as we have seen, the overwhelming part of man’s time on earth has been spent where the human body, fueled by food, was the only converter available to produce mechanical energy. So during most of man’s time on earth all productivity that involved work was done by man. Everything else that he used was the “free gift of nature.” Nobody paid God for his bounty though in many cases men did, and do, believe that some sacrifice to God or some Holy Spirit is required of them. All costs were human costs and all goods were the result of work. The introduction of work done by other than muscle power was not noted. But all work defined by the physicist is a product of energy; everything from the movement of stars to alterations in the orbit of an electron. Work has been being done since the creation of the universe. The portion of that work that has been, and is at man’s command, is miniscule. But my concern in this book is centered around the ways man has been able to alter the tiny bit that he has learned how to manipulate for his own purposes, and the consequences of doing it. When he learned how to use the power of the wind and the flowing stream to secure his own ends, he introduced into the process of production work that did not come from muscle power. He noted only the consequences of using them. He continued to use the word work as he had previously done – something involving human effort. He disregarded the fact that some of what man was achieving was no longer a result of man’s physical effort. As other sources of energy were added, most men still continued to regard work as being solely the product of the worker.
Subsequently the word work was more narrowly applied only to that part of man’s activity that was not an end in itself. Work represented acts designed to secure something other than the satisfaction gained from doing them. In other words, work was the opposite of play or leisure or recreation, something man would do for its own sake.
It is obvious that such a definition excludes a very large part of what is involved in the conversion of energy. And if we are to account for all that is “produced” by looking only at the part that has to be paid for we will never satisfactorily account for what is going on. The introduction of surplus energy has robbed the concept of phrases like the “productivity of the American worker” of most of the meaning it had when only the muscles of men did the work that was done.
The great increase in production that accompanied the widespread use of the sailing ship to reduce the costs of transportation and take advantage of the differences between the costs of various goods in different parts of the world was attributed not to cheap, non human energy, but to the social arrangements that permitted the use of energy from the wind. Thinkers seeking to explain and rationalize the new wealth emphasized the social and psychological aspects of the commercial revolution. To justify the traders’ morality they invented a past in which, they asserted, men have always been motivated in the same way that they believed their own contemporaries were.
Values were physical objects that required work for their production. To get people to work there must be a direct reward commensurate with their effort. So exchange values mediated through objects explained all economic effort. In the light of what we now know about low energy societies this is a hopelessly archaic and simplistic way to deal with what went on, and still goes on where energy from food, converted by muscle provides the work done.
What actually happens is tied in with the whole system. Work is assigned in terms of the necessity to maintain the society. Generally the division of labor is sexual, and in terms of age. Women do what is necessary to beget children and provide at least part of the food that is eaten by all. Men may be primarily hunters, warriors, and/or the gatherers of certain products like fish from the sea or the materials to build boats or shelters. Often they also are the builders. Children are assigned tasks based upon the limits set by their immaturity, old people do the things they are still capable of doing. The idea that each should claim the part of the product that is due to his personal contribution would in most cases be regarded as immoral and a threat to the survival of the family, tribe or band of which he was a part. Rights and duties were not separated into those that produced material things and those that were other kinds of service. They related to the whole system of values shared by the group.
In some places specialists like smiths, arrow makers and medicine men were directly compensated for their specific efforts, but this represented only a small part of the productive effort.
In some hunting-gathering societies, particularly those in which it was possible to secure adequate supplies with the expenditure of only a small part of the time available to the producer, it became possible to defend the idea that some who did not work could be entitled to share what was produced by others. The helplessness of the human infant provided a prototype. The physical weakness of females and the old in combat with the mature male provided another. So surplus food could be produced and consumed by other than the immediate members of a family. None of these systems were involved in exchange except in a very limited fashion and exchange was more likely to be dominated by tradition and social norms than by the market place.
The chief point I am making is that the regular production of much food in excess of the requirements of those entitled to share it changed the relationships that had characterized man’s existence during the overwhelmingly larger portion of it. In low-energy societies the service performed by one man for another, or others, might result in penury for some and a degree of luxury for others. But as we have seen, the narrow limits imposed on societies based on muscle to do the world’s work made such differences relatively small. Primary production was confined almost entirely to small groups in limited space. Moreover, what was produced was almost all used in the immediate consumption which justified it.
The use of the wind and water and fossil fuels disrupted this closed loop feedback system. Now production and consumption could be separated in both time and space. But a lot of economic thinking is still based on the fallacy that human labor produces everything. It is held that production can still adequately be measured in terms of the man hours, days, or years required to produce a product, without reference to the total energy expended. If we are to understand how systems based on other than food and muscle function, we have to be careful how we treat productivity that results from inputs of fuel rather than food, and converters other than men’s bodies.
It remains true still that man must eat if he is to survive. Humans are still the consumers and even production of other goods than food ultimately must be measured in terms of its effects in increasing or decreasing human satisfaction. But man as consumer, in his effort to increase his own satisfactions may choose to use in production a converter that requires for its use lower costs (the sacrifice of fewer or less highly valued goods or services) than does the use of another man as energy converter. The human body as an energy converter has now, in a great many cases, to be compared with other converters, capable of using fuel other than food to do things that could not previously done without human labor. The close connection between production, and the means that justify it, consumption, is no longer guaranteed.
The use of converters of cultural energy in production required the development of systems of division of labor, both occupational and regional. To coordinate the efforts of these varied groups in production required a new way to evaluate the services of the producers.
As we saw, a trader’s morality emerged, in which a common denominator prices and means of exchange, money, was developed. What we want to emphasize particularly here is that some human services are now put among the productive factors to be evaluated in terms of price. To the consumer the price of labor is just one of the costs he must pay to obtain what he wants from the market. Measured in terms of price it makes no difference whether his money goes as payment for the product of work done by a human body or that of some other converter which can use cheaper and more abundant fuel than human food to do the same task. The declaration by statute that labor “shall not be treated as a commodity” does not successfully dispose of the hard fact that in any society that uses cultural energy, labor is regularly so treated.
Let us come back now to the unavoidable fact that men must eat. As the historic facts show, if food is produced using only human labor, there is very little surplus energy available to do anything beyond the production of that food. As draft animals and ships permitted larger energy surpluses to be generated it became possible for men who were no longer needed to produce food, to do other things. But, it was only as food raisers were able to increase their productivity that this new freedom could be created and maintained. Many other things besides surplus energy were required to increase the productivity of the farmer and the land he used. The consequences of a money economy were a necessary part of this system. We do not pretend to examine all of the characteristics of industrial society. Our concern is with the results of increasing the flow of energy from other than food.
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to separate gains in agricultural production that result from the increased use of surplus energy derived from fossil fuels from those secured through the application of other means to increase efficiency. But, if we are to predict the future of mechanized agriculture, we must do what we can to discover what part energy plays in it.
Once price is used as a basis for exchange in a system where labor has the alternative of working in the fields or in the factories, it may be cheaper in monetary terms to replace men with machines than the reverse. Because we have become accustomed to these situations, we tend to rate production as measured in price terms as being equivalent to physical production. This is of course not necessarily so, or even probable. Great amounts of energy from, say, petroleum may be exchanged for a very small (comparatively speaking) amount of energy in the form of food. Yet in physical terms the petroleum costing no more than one man day of labor may be used to do work that would require the labor of hundreds of men. Because petroleum is cheap, one man may use it to produce food for many. So the price of food may fall precipitously. But, measured in energy terms, that food may be tremendously more costly than is food produced using only hand labor.
Actually as a little reflection will reveal, the energy costs of the operations involved in mechanized food raising are far higher than those incurred in hand cultivation. This is so because:
- More energy is required because the work is done in a shorter time. While the physical acts performed in, say, hoeing are not identical with those, say, in plowing, the amount of work involved in turning the soil by the plow is at least equal to that expended by the man with a hoe. It will be recalled that the energy required to do a job varies not only with the mass and the distance involved but also the time consumed. The amount of energy is not directly proportional to the increase in speed; rather it varies as the square of the velocity. Thus, decreases in time are purchased at greater and greater penalties in the form of the amount of energy used.
- The implements that permit the great increase in the power used must themselves be larger, heavier, and more complex than the hand tools which they replace. Therefore, they take more energy for their production, maintenance, and repair.
- The greater area per production unit involved requires that more energy be used in getting to and from the work site, and in transporting the product to the place where it will be consumed.
- In most cases, the productivity of land varies within the areas cultivated. In utilizing the larger and more powerful machines which permit increased speed, much of the selectivity possible in hand cultivation is sacrificed. The result is decreased yield for a given expenditure of energy.
- In many areas where a shift to larger farms is to be made, there already exist fixed assets in the form of farmhouses and barns, roads, fences, and hedges which become useless when production shifts to larger units. There may also be assets such as schools, churches, shrines, and government facilities, and commercial enterprises such as stores and artisans’ shops, as well as the residences of their operators, which become useless as the decline in population density in an area reduces the number of people they can serve below the point necessary to maintain the artisan or trader. Thus, in addition to the operational costs of the new system, there are initial physical losses to be compensated for, or the resistance of their owners to sustaining their loss to be overcome in other ways.
- There is the previously noted fact that human sentiment and habit create resistance to change. To overcome this requires the expenditure of energy.
- Finally, of course, there is the problem of finding employment at favorable terms for the population made no longer locally useful because it has been replaced by the use of other converters. This may be the problem most difficult of all to solve.
Hoe versus plow
Before going further, let us examine some concrete illustrations of what we have been discussing in the abstract. Oscar Lewis made a study showing something of the relative costs of hoe and plow culture in terms that can be converted into energy units. He compared the two systems in Tepoztlán, a village in Mexico, and gives specific figures drawn from a sample that is probably representative of many other areas. He shows that cultivating corn by hoe takes more than 3 times as many man-days as does plow cultivation using oxen. The figures average out at about 50 days for the plow and 165 days for the hoe, for each hectare (2.47 acres) cultivated. The proportion of those days in which oxen are used in plow areas as compared with those in which men work without oxen is not given. From the description of the work, however, it is clear that the oxen are used a good deal of the time. If we rate a team of oxen a 1½ horsepower and assume that of the 50 days spent in plow-culture farming, there are 30 days in which the team is used 10 hours a day, we get a total of 450 horsepower-hours for the oxen and 50 (figuring the man at 1/10 horsepower, or 1 horsepower-hour per day) for the men used, or a grand total of 500 horsepower-hours to produce a hectare of corn with the plow as compared with 165 horse-power hours for hoe culture.
Oxen are about as efficient as men in converting plants to mechanical energy, so to produce fuel for a team of oxen rated at 15 horsepower-hours per day takes land on which plants yield food plants provide 15 times as much energy as is required to feed a man. This is not to say that it will take 15 times as much cropland. The ox will eat feed grown on land that will not grow food crops. Moreover, it eats no energy-wasting animal products and dos not require any land for the raising of fiber for clothes, as would a man. Nevertheless, the costs are real, and some of the land used for ox feed must be subtracted from that which could otherwise be used by the hoe-culture farmer for raising food. Moreover, the ox, like the man, must eat every day even though there are many days he produces nothing. If land was available in sufficient quantities and the growing season was short, this loss could be compensated for by the increased crop made possible by the increase in the area which could be cultivated by the use of the ox. However, in Tepoztlán, the growing and planting seasons are long, and land is not abundant. There are many other areas now using hoe culture were the same situation exists.
In the case under study, Lewis found that a comparison of the yields of two types of agriculture reveals that hoe culture yields are equal to the best yields in plow culture and are generally about twice as high as the average yields of plow culture. This is primarily due to the facts that the hoe farmer can select soil of greater fertility and that he can raise a type of corn which cannot be raised with the plow.
These findings agree with those of Rappaport which I mentioned earlier. In fact, the New Guinea tribe that he studied produced in a hoe culture more surplus energy in the form of food than any other farmers that have been studied up to now, so far as I know.
In the area which Lewis studied, the plow farmer has taken over most of the land which can be put under the plow, leaving to the hoe farmer only the fringes and the areas where rocks, thin soil, and other factors make plowing impracticable.
The necessity of having to spread his efforts over a large area has the effect of requiring the hoe farmer to spend a great deal of time and energy going to the work site and returning to the village. Thus, hoe farming as it is now practiced is less productive on the average than it could be if the whole village were engaged in it. If hoe farming at its greatest possible efficiency could be compared with plow farming as it is now practiced, the general disparity in energy costs between the two systems could be shown to be even greater than the estimate just given.
Rising population in Tepoztlán has forced more and more of the hoe farmers to go back to the methods which characterized the country in an earlier period, when the forest was cleared by burning and two crops were taken from the soil so made available. But it takes land so long to recover its fertility, once it has been so cropped, that this offers no permanent solution. In the meantime, the mounting pressure on the hoe-culture farmer induces him to offer higher and higher rents for the use of more convenient land.
Now the plow farmer is attached, through the export of his surplus food, to urban areas which will supply him products in amounts sufficient to overcome his relative inefficiency in producing surplus energy. More recently many farmers in the Tepoztlán area have taken to raising vegetables and fruits like tomatoes. They sell these and are able to buy corn from areas where it can be cheaply raised in greater quantities than they could have produced. But plow culture, which limits the size of the local population, is under constant and increasing pressure, as more babies are produced and the resultant mounting rents make it probable that in time the owner of what is now plow land will get greater rewards from renting it to hoe farmers for more intense cultivation than from using draft animals to produce corn to sell to those in urban areas.
Before the Second World War, in Yunnan, a province of China, owners of as little as 5 to 10 acres of land no longer thought of working, since they were able to secure labor for a fraction of the total return from their land. It is easy to see why under such conditions tension between landowner and farm labor mounted, and why the peasantry was easily induced to join a movement for redistribution of the land. However wasteful by Western standards the hoe culture made necessary by this reduction of the size of individual holdings of land may appear to be, it provides a greater return to the tiller himself than did large private landholding. At the same time we could anticipate that mounting costs of food in urban areas would result in support for political measures which will assure that the hoe farmer will be kept from preempting the urban food supply.
Under the Maoist government of China, many small farms have been combined into large communes. These use migratory labor from the cities during peak demand for labor. This was done in part as a means of protecting the urban food supply against needs of the subsistence farmer and his children. How successful it may be in the longer run is still problematical.
It is even more difficult to compare tractor farming with hoe farming than to compare the latter with plowing using draft animals. Many of the productive factors involved in tractor farming are not of local origin, and are part of a system that produces many other products so it is difficult to estimate the functions of various operations involved in the production of various types of goods and services.
Some time ago economists began to evaluate the functions carried out by various factors in the production of different kinds of goods and services. They subtracted from the price of a good when it left a producer’s hands, its price as it came to him. The difference between these two represented “value added” by him. This is very useful if one is interested only in price measure and results. But as I have just been saying, there is no one-to-one ratio between price-measured value and physical production.
Until comparatively recently almost nobody measured production in terms of energy input and physical output. There are now some who have done this in connection with agriculture, and I will cite them as illustrations. But that is what they are, illustrations of what will be found as more research is done.
Rice production: Japan and the United States
The Japanese wet-rice farmers probably produce more than any other large class of hoe-culture people. The average return is about 4,463 pounds per acre. Cultivation and harvest take about 90 man-days per acre, or 90 horsepower-hours. Compare these figures with those of a study made in Arkansas, 1947, where wet-rice farming yielded about the same rice per acre. To raise it required 807 horsepower-hours.
Comparison shows that the operating-energy costs alone ran about 9 to 1 against machine agriculture. Japanese average production was 5,663 horsepower-hours per acre heat value, or at 20 percent, 1,132.6 horsepower-hours mechanical energy. Subtracting 90 horsepower-hours for the 90 man-days used in cultivation, the surplus was 1,042.6 horsepower-hours mechanical energy. Taking the Arkansas product at the same figure, subtracting the costs only of the energy actually used in operation and making no allowance for repairs and amortization of the machines, the surplus is only 326.06 horsepower-hours per acre. On the other hand, the Japanese surplus was only 1.25 horsepower-hours per man-hour, while that of the American was 23.1 horsepower-hours per [[man-hour]].
More recently, while continuing to use hand labor, the Japanese have, in order to increase their physical output, utilized a great proportion of the means which modern technology provides. Their use of fertilizers and their methods of seed and plant selection, cultivation, and harvesting bring their productivity per acre up to that in the United States. Thus it is possible, at least in rice farming, to secure as much total energy, or feed as many people, from an acre with hand labor as is secured in the United States from an acre tilled with machines and supplied with fertilizer, insecticides, pesticides and irrigation.
From the Japanese point of view, it would not make sense to use in agriculture a large amount of energy which could otherwise be applied in industry, particularly when they would thereby be creating unemployment among erstwhile farm workers. They in turn must consequently either starve or eat without producing.
From the American point of view – or considered strictly from the angle of producing surplus energy – the 23 horsepower-hours per man-hour of surplus energy to be gained by expending energy on the production of rice when compared with about 40,000 horsepower-hours per man-hour of surplus from the coal miner, and more from some other sources, leads to the conclusion that the rice-producing operation represents in energy terms an unwise choice. Of course, before any firm figure is used, the relative energy costs of the converters required to produce and maintain the tools and machinery used by both coal miner and rice grower must also be computed.
The case of rice was chosen because figures were available, and not because it is necessarily representative. Japanese rice production is very high as compared with that of India where in 1971, only 1,526 pounds per acre were produced. On the other hand rice production in the United States in 1970 averaged 4,641 pounds per acre, about the same as Japan. Here the comparison is obviously relevant.
As another illustration, a comparison of the energy costs of United States corn with those of corn raised in a Mexican village is enlightening. Average production of corn in the United States for 1949 was 37 bushels per acre. This is the equivalent of about 1,500 pounds of shelled corn. Lewis reports that in Tepoztlán during the period observed the average production using the plow was 1,181 pounds of shelled corn per acre. In accordance with his estimate that hoe culture produces much more than plow culture, running up to twice the average of plow land, we can assume for the purposes of comparison an average production by hoe to be about 1,500 pounds of shelled corn. On the other hand, the average cost of Tepoztlán corn, previously shown to be 66.8 horsepower-hours per acre, is to be contrasted with 158 horsepower-hours spent directly in Arkansas to produce only 25 bushels, or 1,000 pounds, of shelled corn. When we recall that hoe culture in Tepoztlán including clearing the land as well as planting and harvesting the crop, the contrast is the more startling.
Studies that are more recent show the energy costs of producing corn in the United States. One deals with only the energy used on the farm itself, the other with all of the energy involved including the production of the tools and machines used, transportation and so on. They provide a more accurate estimate than those previously cited.
The increase in production of corn has been enormous. In the early 1950’s the United States average yield was about 40 bushels per acre. In 1973, it reached 90 bushels and more. There are of course specific areas where the yield is far in excess of that (a recent record 338 bushels per acre was produced in Iowa) but the trend in average yield is quite clear; it doubled in less than 25 years. What we have also to take into account here is the costs, in energy terms, of that increased production. Pimental and his associates prepared the table below. It shows how the energy costs of corn have gone up during the time that the great increases in production took place.
Summarized, what this table shows is that between 1945 and 1970, while mean corn yields were increasing, energy costs of raising corn mounted even faster. The result was that the surplus energy (the difference between output and input) decreased from 3.7 calories per unit of input to about 2.8 calories. There is a good deal of evidence to show that this figure is too high in many of the situations where very high yields have been produced. In some cases, it is apparent that more energy was put in than was taken out.
In another study, Steinhart and Steinhart (‘74) have computed the total costs of food in the United States in energy terms. They compare hoe culture which requires no energy not generated by men, with the system in use in the United States. They find that in the United States there has been a continuous energy subsidy to the food system from other energy sources rising from a little more than one-calorie input per calorie output in 1910 to more than 9 in 1970.
In still another study, Heichel (‘73) compares the efficiency of energy use in crop production in different systems. He shows that the New Guinea people that Rappaport studied produce more surplus per unit of input than any other farmer. Next most efficient in these terms were rice farmers in the Philippines, who produce about sixteen calories of food for each calorie expended on that production. Early in the 20th century, the American farmer with the aid of draft animals and fossil fuel increased the yield, but the caloric gain fell to about five calories. Using the most modern methods producers of corn have been able to maintain that level of surplus energy, but producers of some other crops such as rice, peanuts or sugar beets, the gain has fallen to between one and no calories per calorie input.
It is difficult to see the significance of these figures if one is in the habit of measuring only in terms of price. So long as food calories can be exchanged for a much greater number in the form of other fuels, the market justifies putting more and more energy in, at a continually declining rate of caloric return. So it is not surprising to find that modern agriculture in the United States has long since passed the point of maximum energy return in the form of food output for inputs from other fuel sources. With the enormous increase in the price of energy the money costs of intensive fertilization, cultivation, pesticides and other purchased inputs have in many cases reached the point of declining or no return. Commoner (’75) reports the tentative conclusions of a study made comparing the net monetary return to farmers using organic fertilizer with those getting more bushels through using high cost inorganic fertilizer. This evidence indicates that the latter spent more to get the higher return than they got from the increased yield.
Where the shoe is on the other foot, and hoe culture people, using their own bodies as converters, have to compete with other people using less costly energy sources, the transition may be impossible. Nothing that they can produce with their muscles will buy for them the inputs required to shift to mechanized agriculture.
Where the hoe is indispensable
In every case, these illustrations cited show hoe culture producing more surplus energy per acre than mechanized methods. It would, of course, have been possible to cite less efficient low-energy societies. The comparisons used indicate that it is possible for hoe culture to produce more food from a given land area, and more surplus energy, than mechanized farming. As a matter of fact, hoe culture can more effectively make use of such scientific practices as plant and seed selection, hybridization, thinning and pruning, soil selection, the selective application of fertilizer and insecticides than can machine cultivation. Thus once the techniques are developed, more food and more energy can be produced from a unit of land without machines than with them.
The denigration of old cultures, by Westerners, in the name of progress has resulted from a failure to adequately examine the actual input-output that characterizes them. In a study of some regions of Angola, deCarvalho (’74) shows that the bio mass produced for human consumption by the traditional pastoral nomads there is equal to or superior to the ranch style agriculture introduced by Europeans. The old methods resulted from centuries of human adjustment to the eco system on which these cultures were based. New methods ignored these. For example, the new methods eliminated a large part of the wild game which had been part of the traditional diet. This deprived the people of food they previously got from wild animals that could survive where domestic animals could not live. It also permitted the invasion of agricultural land by shrubs and other plants inedible by cattle and horses that were previously held in check by wild ruminants. Obviously, the adoption of European agriculture provided no effective means to permit these people to make the shift to high energy culture, and it forced the people to make many socio-economic changes which disrupted their lives.
It is not surprising that there is resistance to the changes by rural people when the introduction of the new methods that would mean forced migration for some of them and continuous limitation of opportunity for those who remained to use land for their own and their families’ subsistence.
Moreover, Western practices are very likely to be introduced under the auspices of the same movements that work to reduce infant and maternal mortality and the death rate from disease, and otherwise to promote population growth. This goes on in the very areas in which with machine cultivation, even the existing numbers of people would be locally less employable. With the size of the population base that exists in Asia and Eastern Europe and much of Oceania and Middle America, it is probable that, as happened in Japan, the introduction of more scientific agriculture will result in increased agricultural productivity but will also be accompanied by changes which increase population by such numbers as to make the continuation of intensive hand methods of food cultivation an absolute necessity if starvation for many people is to be avoided.
It appears that, if the objective is to secure survival of the largest possible population, hand methods of intensive cultivation provide the answer. If a higher material standard of living is sought, it can be secured only by limiting population to the number that can be fed by methods that use high-energy converters in agriculture to release men from the land. It must be kept clearly in mind that securing the largest possible population and securing a higher material standard of living are mutually exclusive objectives.
Another method of increasing the supply of food, where land is relatively abundant and labor is the bottleneck at certain periods has already been mentioned. This is the temporary use of migratory labor in food raising during peak load for labor and its supplemental employment elsewhere. The Chinese under Mao and the Cubans under Castro have used this system. In the United States, migratory labor provides temporary farm workers for some crops. The difficulty encountered in doing this in a society completely or primarily dependent on low-energy converters, is that the energy increase available to this mobile part of the population can be no greater than the increase in productivity which results from this use in the bottleneck operation. The increase is, except under unusual conditions, necessarily small, and the costs of transportation, the maintenance of dual living facilities, and/or costs of transporting and maintaining migratory families usually militate against any considerable use of migratory farm workers.
Some special relations between high-energy societies that provide seasonal employment for the labor surplus of overpopulated agricultural regions do, of course, help these regions at once to deal with their problem of overpopulation and to supply the demand for food in the urban areas to which they are attached. But this is merely another example of the way in which a high-energy system can be supplemental to a low-energy one. It offers no solution to the problems of the low-energy area taken as a self-contained unit.
Where those engaged in agriculture are permitted to operate in the same economic and political system as those using high-energy converters, with the population having the free choice of entering industry or staying on the farm, and prices and wages reflect the monetary consequences of the choice, urban bids for food will be weighted against demands for food and for other goods by those living and working in the farming areas. They may choose either to remain and produce food or to leave and enter urban employment. There, they can produce among other things agricultural machinery and other means to replace them in supplying food.
In a completely agricultural area, where people have no opportunity to migrate to high-energy-producing regions and no choice of using the products of such regions save through exchange of food or goods which must be produced with the aid of men and/or other plant-consuming converters, the purchase of agricultural machinery and the fuel to run it leads to a different kind of judgment about the use of men versus the use of machines.
The primacy of food as an energy source
Food is of course different from other energy sources. It can be substituted for other forms of energy which cannot, in turn, replace it. Since life itself is dependent upon food, in times of scarcity its value to the consumer may be so high that it will be exchanged for any amount of other energy available to him who seeks it. Where food is scarce enough, it may command services at a price equal to that brought by all the energy made available by a man consuming that food and producing another fuel. This may happen even though the other fuel so produced yields a hundred times the energy of the food consumed. For example, the coal miner might, as he apparently did in Russia, have to turn over all the coal he mined in a day for little more than the food he and his family ate in a day. The heat value of the coal he mined might be a thousand times that of the food he and his family consumed. The coal miner is not able, in most cases, in the Russian system, to exchange his product directly with those who have food for exchange. Between him and them stand not only the authority of government but also all those who must cooperate to make and to manage the converters by which coal is transformed into the goods sought by the farmer and those who process and deliver food. All these must share in this energy, and judgments to the validity of their claims on it must take into account technological and geographical as well as socioeconomic conditions.
What the industrialist demands from the farm is not the maximum energy he can secure, or necessarily any labor force; it is food itself, in sufficient amounts to maintain the industrial population and assure its growth. However, once this specific need is met, food, along with other goods and services, is sought at the least sacrifice of the values prevailing in the industrial society. As I said earlier, it may be a matter of indifference whether the goods bought are produced with the energy of food put through a man or another animal or with that of coal, oil, nuclear fuel, or falling water put through a machine.
On the other hand, the hoe-culture farmer faces different alternatives: he must use his food-fueled body either directly to produce what he wants or to produce food for exchange for other goods. In either case, what he offers is a low-energy product. Those who control the use of land may consider substituting, in the productive process, converters that permit him to use inputs of low-cost fuel instead of labor which must be fed with high-cost food.
If his social system permits, the landowner may choose to exchange a day’s supply of food for only a fraction of the energy made available by say a coal miner in a day rather than for a full day’s work from a laborer who is willing to work for him on the farm at subsistence but is able only to deliver through his work a fraction of the energy that could be secured through employing the coal miner. Thus, apart from claims which can be made through kinship or other means of social identification, man-power produced in low-energy systems may be denied all claim to a rising industrial productivity.
Increasingly, modern men are for some purposes considered to be merely an alternative to machines, which can be run on the cheap surpluses of coal, oil, gas and falling water. In comparison, food is a high-cost fuel to be put through an expensive converter. A man with converters which will use cheap energy can displace many men whose fuel costs make them unemployable in an economy that attempts to disregard claims not based on price measured inputs and outputs.
I reiterate that if a set of people with equal access to the factors used in producing food and to other sorts of fuel increased in numbers to the point that food supply was insufficient for everybody and food was offered in the market, the food raiser could command the product of all the other energy produced in that society.
But such conditions rarely if ever exist. Two things make their appearance unlikely. First, population will be limited. There is a great deal of evidence that over a long period of time the culture of a given people living in a particular environment will sanction practices that produce a steady state, sometimes only at subsistence, but sometimes as I have shown, at a level far above that which is strictly a result of food shortage. Secondly, a “free market” for food rarely exists. There are claims of kinship, religion, government, and other social controls that limit the market in low-energy societies. Neither is the free market for food likely to be allowed where the transition to high-energy culture has been made. As I pointed out earlier, energy can be used not only to induce people through reward, seduction, and corruption to choose a new way of life. It can be and has often been used to coerce physically those who have only their bodies and its product with which to resist the much greater physical power of those using high-energy fuels and their converters. So those who dominate permit the market to function only within the limits they impose.
In feudal times in the West, population was limited by the fact that productivity was a function of organic converters. The worker’s share was a fixed amount of goods or a fixed fraction of what was produced; it did not necessarily increase as his family increased. As a consequence, population could increase during years of plenty, but weaker individuals, children and old people were bound to die off in the years of scarcity. The feudal lord sought the maximum surplus; beyond a given point, increased numbers of laborers yielded less than the food consumed by that labor. Those landlords too “humane” to recognize this fact were frequently conquered by those who restricted the number of laborers, raised draft animals, which produced greater surplus, and used that surplus to overrun their weaker neighbors.
The feudal lord was usually the only man who controlled food in excess of his personal needs; he was in control of more political and military power than those who might otherwise have forced him to disgorge that food on their own terms. He commanded the loyalty of those whom he protected and owned the land on which their animals fed. Since with low-energy techniques the greater portion of the population must be attached to the land, he was able to subordinate other men and their values to those which he favored. The balance between population and resources was kept at a point above subsistence, and the landlord did not have to enter a free market.
We have seen how the hold of the feudal lord was broken in England. He has undergone a similar fate in some other parts of the world. Today industrialists command tremendously greater quantities of energy for military purposes than do farmers. Consequently, land can be made, by fire and sword if necessary, to serve the values of industrial populations.
Those in industrial areas now have the means both to coerce and to persuade landowners to use land “wastefully” in terms of the maximum population it might feed, while denying people in low-energy areas access to the land on which they might maintain a larger population.
For his part, the farmer with control over sufficient land and with access to industrial workers, may also secure more of his own values at the cost of less sacrifice of those values by producing “food-wasting” beef, poultry, and dairy products for sale to industrial workers than by cooperating with those who are willing to work for bread but can offer only their bodies to serve as converters.
The industrial worker supplied with 20 or 30 horsepower-hours a day of cultural energy may, even though he demands beef in return, produce enough to deliver his product at less cost to the farmer than his low-energy competitor who only demands bread. Thus the farmer, by attaching himself to the high-energy system, may reduce the efficiency of the land used – in terms of the numbers obtaining food from it – while increasing the supply of other goods which exchange of that food with industrial systems will provide for him.
The same situation prevails among those employing men for any other purpose. They may choose to employ workers who are able to demand a wage which offers to each of them much more goods than could be demanded by low-energy producers but who produce so much more in an hour or a day that the unit cost of their services is less than the alternative of employing hand labor. For example, in the United States the coal miner currently uses in the mine about 1 kilowatt-hour of energy derived from food daily. He averages about $80.00 a day in wages, plus fringes. He daily mines an average of about 18 tons of coal, but some strip mines produce more than double that. If converted to electricity at 40 percent efficiency his wages amount to about a quarter of a cent a kilowatt-hour of. On the other hand the rice farmer who must eat each day 2 pounds of rice currently selling at about 45 cents a pound is being paid at a minimum 90 cents a kilowatt hour for his labor just to feed him. He averages 10-kilowatt hour’s surplus so his energy output costs 9 cents a kilowatt-hour. That is 36 times the costs of the American coal miner. There are, of course, other costs required for both; the Japanese farmer must provide more than food for himself, and his family, and from the energy, the coal miner produces must be deducted other costs of mining. But it is certainly questionable whether it is desirable to base trade where the energy output differs this way.
Energy costs of industrial farming
What is gained by using high-energy converters on the farm is not always more total food, or more product per unit of energy expended, or more surplus energy. It is a reduction in the time which must be spent by human beings in producing food. Many units of energy from fuel may have to be expended for every unit of energy from food saved by this substitution. The man-hours required to secure that energy from coal, oil, or falling water are many fewer than those required to secure it from food. So the farmer with more land than he can cultivate by himself seeks to substitute inputs of this time-cheap energy for inputs of energy from time-costly manpower. On the other hand, what is sough by the urban worker is food itself, and he will sacrifice whatever portion of the energy available to him is necessary to secure it.
The release of manpower by the use of high-energy converters in farming has the effect, in areas where the population has previously been climatic for a hoe or plow culture, of releasing men – or put another way, creating agricultural unemployment. It is the inevitable result of this process of substitution.
We may now be able to see a little more clearly the factors that lead men to decide whether or not to increase the number and capacity of high-energy converters in agriculture. The key is to be found in the relation between the money cost to them of time and of energy. When the cost of the time used is greater than the cost of the energy from sources other than manpower require to replace it, machines tend to replace men. When the cost of the time purchased is less than the cost of the energy required to replace it, men will not be replaced.
There are thus two sets of factors operating, each of which can be represented by a mathematical series. One series represents the rate of population growth, which determines both the maximum supply of labor and the minimum demand for food. The other stands for the rate of accumulation of other converters. This sets limits on the mechanical energy available from sources other than manpower. The ratio between them is a critical factor in the course of industrialization.
Population as a factor
A given rate of population growth provides a certain number of human bodies which are potential converters. Social arrangements may determine what proportion of those persons who might be used in production will be so used, and these vary tremendously from place to place and time to time. Social arrangements may also dictate how the mouths shall be fed, that is, whether all shall eat bread before anyone eats cake, or whether, for example, the demand of some for steak is to be met before all the children are provided with milk. But these arrangements must supply a minimum diet if the population is to be maintained. They cannot, however, use more manpower than the number of people using that food. If, for example, the British are to maintain their present population of 56 million, they have to supply food for that many people. They may get the food from British farms or from abroad. They may have to expend ten calories from other British energy sources for every calorie of food produced in Britain. They might have to spend fifty or more calories in the form of exports to get a calorie of food from abroad, depending on what others competing for that food are willing to pay to those who are exporting it. Either way, a heavy subsidy in the form of other kinds of energy will be required to get energy in the form of food.
If the British population grows or the portion of that population that can be employed in the labor force diminishes, the subsidy will have to be increased. It is the fact that population growth creates an increasing demand for food that constitutes one of the two competing series.
Converters as a limiting factor
The other series is one that reveals the rate of accumulation of non-human converters. These permit increased use of surplus energy from “cultural” or nonorganic sources. The limiting factor here is the rate at which converters other than men can be produced. As has been shown, the low cost of producing surplus energy from coal, oil, gas, nuclear fuel and falling water makes man a relatively expensive converter using an expensive fuel. The calculation of opportunity costs will thus favor a continuous increase in the use of machines wherever they can successfully replace men. Here the choice lies between using energy to make converters which will increase the capacity to use cheap surplus energy, as opposed to the use of energy to increase the production of food so that men can be released from agriculture. Frequently the latter course merely renders useless a portion of the manpower, whose demands for food require diversion of cheap fuel to produce relatively expensive food.
If population can be limited, an increased number of high-energy converters can be used to increase the supply of surplus energy and of additional high-energy converters. This results in a mounting per capita output of those goods which can be produced by machines. Consequently, the costs of reproducing high-energy converters fall, and their greater use causes the disparity between their costs and those of hand labor to increase even faster. So by limiting population growth and immigration, and accelerating the rate of accumulation of converters a society gains the physical means to increase material well-being. Hence if the series which represents the rate of accumulation of non-human converters accelerates more rapidly than that of the population, the society is likely to move in the direction of high energy. If the reverse is the case, regression movement in the direction of low-energy is to be expected.
Moreover, in determining whether to use converters to increase the supply of food or of other goods, those who control surplus energy may calculate the results of both courses. Investment in agricultural machinery competes with investment in machinery for industry. If converters are likely to be equally effective in the two fields, the bidding is as apt to result in expanded mechanization of agriculture as of industry. However, if agriculture has any inherent characteristic that necessarily limits the effectiveness with which high-energy converters can be used, a differential rate of entry into the two fields is, to the degree that purely economic considerations govern, to be expected. We need, then, to see whether the energy inputs required to secure in agriculture a given reduction in costs are in fact likely to be equal to or greater than similar inputs in industry. The significance of the difference will vary as energy costs represent a greater or smaller fraction of all the costs to be considered.
The utilization of machines in agriculture
A great deal of the increased productivity in industry other than agriculture can be shown to arise from the use of converters that make available surplus cultural energy. In these industries, increased output closely follows use of increased energy. There are, of course, many other factors involved, but none can operate beyond the limits imposed by the fuel and the converters used.
In agriculture, the connection is not so direct. There output is more dependent upon some factors that are independent of the cultural energy supplied or the social arrangements that put it to use. Plants, as I have shown, are the basic converter, the means by which solar energy can be converted. The plant has genetic characteristics that limit the amount of solar energy it can convert. It is also dependent on the soil for nutrients without which it cannot function. It is subject to the vagaries of weather. The supply of water in the right amount, at the right time, is a vital requirement. The plant must also compete with weeds. It is subject to disease and the inroads of microorganisms, insects and animals. None of these is directly related to the amount of energy used in planting, cultivating and harvesting, not to the fuel source used.
Mechanization affects production primarily in terms of the time required to plant and harvest. Where weather varies during the year the time interval between frosts or droughts becomes crucial. The tractor that can prepare the seedbed and plant in much less time than that taken by a man or one using a draft animal, permits one man to cultivate a great deal more land. Similarly, a machine that harvest’s quickly also lengthens the growing season. But only to the limited degree that some seed will get into the ground earlier and some be harvested later than if the work was done by hand does machine tillage necessarily affect the yield. As I pointed out earlier, mechanization of agriculture necessarily increases the energy cost of producing food. Ultimately its increased use requires the input of more cultural energy than the energy others secured from the food produced. So those who have no way of claiming more cultural energy have to resort to the less energy-costly hand methods. The industrialized countries can continue to use their surplus energy to produce food at a price so low that the hand laborer cannot meet it.
But whether the investor in industrialized areas will continue to invest in increased food or will find it more profitable to invest in converters that produce other goods and services is another question. Following the concept of choice based on opportunity costs he is quite likely to produce instead of farm machinery, converters that will produce the things that industrialized workers are able to bid for after they have all the food they want to eat. The historic evidence proves very decisively that this has been the case.
Part of the investor’s choice derives from the physical facts involved. The cost of a converter must be met before it can be said to have made any net contribution to production. This takes time. And time like energy is measurable and costly. If one converter is used at a rate, say of 1,500 hours a year, while another can be used only say 50 hours, then each unit produced in a year in the latter case costs 30 times as much in terms of time than the former.
Most agricultural machinery suffers from this handicap. A hay baler can be used only fifty hours a year in a Middle Western state such as Kentucky. Similarly, the operations involved in tractor-drawn cultivating and seeding tools are limited in their use to periods of time when the crop can be worked. If larger, self-propelled, multi-functional cultivating machinery is used, a larger area can be handled by one man but again the time period in which it can be used is set by things like the weather and the characteristics of the crop being grown. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is producing a large number of studies that include costs in terms of energy as well as money. They have also provided estimated amount of use annually for some of the machines. Tractors are estimated to be used 600 hours a year, trucks 500, combines 100, multi-bottom plows 250, tandem discs 100, weeders 100, cultivators 100. These estimates are from agricultural engineers who are familiar with farm practices in many parts of the country and not little variance in the use of the same machine in various areas.*
On the other hand, industrial machines that are housed against the weather, supplied by very cheap fuel and are able to produce all the year round do not face this handicap. So an investor may be paid far more per year for the use of that machine than for an agricultural one while those who use industrial machinery pay only a tithe of the cost of farm machinery per unit produced.
In the short run the farmer, calculating his costs and income in price terms may disregard this fact. High prices for food compensate him for his excessive costs. But if food prices fall with increased supply investors are not able to get from the farmer anything like the money industrialists can afford to continue to pay.
In a capitalist economy, the farmer must bid against industry for money to buy machines and energy. If, instead of buying he hires custom work he pays a fee reflecting this fact, or loses as much in crops while waiting for machines (which are not at once available to everybody who needs them) as he would by buying or by paying enough rental to assure against such losses.
On the other hand, in a “socialistic” society, someone must make the decision to use machine tools and energy to produce farm machinery or other machinery, and, if he is rational, must similarly calculate the advantage or disadvantage of investing energy in agricultural machines with a very limited annual usefulness as against other machines with more extensive usefulness.
Thus, food suppliers seeking the cooperation of industrialists are at a disadvantage except during periods when food is scarce among industrial population. Only then are they likely to be able to increase mechanized production. At other times the price of food is usually not high enough to provide gains equal to those secured by businessmen supplying demands for goods other than food. Not only is the cost of food necessarily higher than that of an equivalent amount of fuel. The differential cost of the converters used also mounts.
In the earliest steps toward industrialization, or in areas entirely dependent upon the sale of low-energy products to secure high-energy converters, it may be possible to raise a child to the point where he becomes employable at a cost less than that of obtaining his mechanical equivalent. In the high-energy society a machine which will deliver mechanical energy equivalent to that of a fully grown man can frequently be secured for less than the fee of the obstetrician who delivers a baby. The amount of energy devoted to bringing a man to maturity will, if put directly into machines that use fossil or nuclear fuel, yield converters with far greater capacity than a man to do those tasks in which machines can be substituted for men. This would militate against unlimited expansion of investment in agriculture even if it were not true, as is the case, that the subsequent fuel and maintenance costs of machines are only a tithe of the costs of maintaining men. The householder seldom has any systematic idea about why he must pay the costs he must meet. But it is becoming clearer to families that the cost of raising a child often means that other family members are deprived of many goods and services that could be bought with the money spent on the rearing of that child. So birth rates are falling, particularly in urban areas where the costs of a child are very high as compared with those involved in getting the use of many things produced with high-energy converters. This is not apparent in cities where a large part of the population has no means to obtain such things, and on the other hand, children have some value as economic assets. Nor, even in affluent places do birth rates fall among those who do not share more goods by limiting their offspring.
Measures that provide incentives to limit population whether provided through the market or otherwise, thus promote increased use of high energy converters, while those that encourage population growth deter it.
Even military power is affected adversely by rapid population growth in an age where increased manpower that prevents industrialization is to be pitted against smaller numbers of men with access to such industrial products as tanks, planes and nuclear bombs.
Many of the old values stand in the way of effective use of high-energy technology, and the defenders of the older systems fight for them at a growing disadvantage.
This is a chapter from Energy and Society: The Relationship Between Energy, Social Change, and Economic Development (e-book).
Previous: Chapter 6: The Historical Circumstances | Table of Contents | Next: Chapter 8: Changing Claims on the Distribution of Energy Surpluses