Energy and Society: Chapter 6: The Historical Circumstances


Man’s ability to control energy has also affected his ability to prevent or promote social change. This fact has been disregarded by many people who have tried to explain human history. They have emphasized “human factors” only.

But there have also been numerous thinkers who have put the greatest, if not exclusive, emphasis upon the material conditions under which men have lived. Physical determinism was, by them, regarded as being a necessary result of scientific laws.  More recent developments in the hard sciences make such a finding unnecessary. Today’s theory supports the idea that things do interact, even those that have been discovered by different kinds of scientists, using different instruments, different postulates about the nature of nature, and different kinds of reasoning from their discoveries. Increasingly the interacting factors have come to be better understood as parts of systems rather than as subjects acting or objects being acted upon alone.

Most of us have recently come to accept this idea as it relates to “environment.” Ecologists have demonstrated how complicated are the relationships between soil, climate, and other physical characteristics of a place, and the network of plants and animals that persists in that place. Some of us have begun to accept the idea that “culture” is equally complicated. We realize that we can’t do any one thing because so many other things are changed when we alter one part of a system.

To understand what the effects of changes in energy are, we need to know which of the elements of the system we are studying will be altered if the amount, kind, or energy is changed, and in what way they will change. I want to emphasize that some of these effects will be physical, some biological, some will take place in the social order and structure, and some in the realm of values.

The assumption that progress is inevitable

To a great many people it doesn’t matter what the situation that now exists anywhere now are, they presume, that eventually the superiority of Western culture will be accepted all over the world. For some it is the adoption of such ideas as are represented by free enterprise, Christianity, and democracy that will necessarily produce everywhere all the conditions that today characterize the West. Others presume it is the acceptance of Western science, technology, and “know how” that will provide the key to unlock the future.

The fact that, in addition to all these factors, certain peculiar geographic and demographic conditions characterized the areas now occupied by westerners does not affect their belief that certain elements of Western civilization, particularly of the industrialized part of it, provide a model for the future development of the rest of the world.

It is obvious that the particular institutional development that took place in the United States at least made it possible, if it was not positively required for, the emergence of high-energy technology. But this does not prove that in another area, given other ecological, demographic, and cultural conditions, these same institutional arrangements will provide the necessary conditions for transition to high-energy society.

Although American ideas, institutions, and values did permit high-energy technology to develop in the United States there is no certainty that, if, when the Western invasion took place the American continent had been as densely populated as high energy society as we know it could have developed he re was, say, India. Many of the factors involved in the transition to high energy technology in the United States can never be reproduced for example there is only one Mississippi valley. But it may be true that even given the conditions that now prevail there, other societies can make the transition but only by using processes and evolving structures different from those that were successful in such places as the United States, Great Britain, or Germany.

The role of choice in history

We need, then, to be very careful in analyzing what has happened in the areas that have already advanced from low- to high-energy. We must distinguish things that had to happen because of values and the social system they used, those made necessary by the technology they used, and those required by the specific geographic, ecological, and demographic facts that they confronted.

There have been, as we have seen, numerous instances in the past when a society equipped with some of the means necessary for progress toward high-energy technology began the transition only to be pulled back by the limiting effect of the absence of one or more of the other necessary conditions. Those who believe in the inevitability of progress will not be deterred from claiming that these abortive attempts do nothing to weaken their thesis, that in the long run, “progress” is inevitable. I take the position here that the evidence can as well or better be used to deny as to support the inevitability of universal transition from low- to high-energy society.

I am assuming that both material things and human choice are involved in what happens in a society. I hold that unless human choice does matter, there is no use trying to find out what is likely to happen because even if we know what it will be, we can’t do anything about it. Ability to predict what will happen won’t enable us to alter it. We just have to accept what comes.

On the other hand, if individuals are perfectly free to make any choice they wish, regardless of the effects that it will have on them or on other people, or on the environment, there is also no use in trying to predict human behavior because it will be guided by nothing that anybody can anticipate. But, in fact, all of us behave as if experience does affect the way we act and influences the choices we make. Further, most of us accept the fact that our ability to share what others have experienced is a tremendously more effective way to learn than is blind trial and error based only on unpredictable impulse or on individual unique experiences implemented by logic. And our choices reflect this.

It is also true that only rarely do we find an individual, let alone a large aggregation of people, who are able to satisfy in action all their desires. In the world of fantasy a man’s every wish can be fulfilled, but in the real world only those wishes can be achieved which the wisher has the power to achieve. Limits on his power to achieve his objectives force him to choose which of his values he shall subordinate, and which he shall actually attempt to realize. This means that of the limited possible courses of action, he chooses that which he feels can be attained with least sacrifice of his other values.

The role of energy costs in history

The great significance of a change in the cost of energy arises from the fact that energy is a part of the cost of achieving all values. It takes energy even to dream. Now, as we have seen, the values that must be sacrificed to secure a given amount of energy may be enormously greater or less if one source of fuel or one converter is used rather than another. For example, it costs much more in terms of both energy and time for man to get a calorie of heat from corn than from coal. So where heat is all that is being sought, coal will probably be used as fuel rather than corn if both are available.

Shifts in energy source are, however, varying in significance. The cost of obtaining the necessary energy may represent a large part of the cost of one good, and only a very small part of the cost of another. So when there are changes in their energy costs, the costs of achieving various ends change, not equally for all of them, but differently, so value hierarchies get changed.

Change in the "underdeveloped" world

Recently there have been enormous efforts to induce certain people, in “underdeveloped” areas to adopt the ways thought to be necessary for industrialization. Many such theories were based on the idea that since the demonstrated gains from the adoption of high-energy fuels and technology were so great, it required only that energy and machines be supplied in great enough quantity and the transformation would take place automatically. However, an intimate study of what is actually required to make a particular change will show that while many may gain from it, others will lose as much or more. In fact, the whole fabric of the society may be riddled by the loss of values sacrificed in the effort to increase the flow of energy. So we can predict the outcome of introducing specific changes in the energy available to men in different times and places only if we know the values that existed among them before those changes took place. The degree of resistance to be encountered will have to be foreseen if one is to anticipate what the consequences of change will be. If the costs of such resistance are large, they either may potentially or actually exceed the gains to be secured by proposed change and it will be blocked.

We can today, thanks to the work of physical scientists and technicians, discover the energy gains and the energy costs of introducing particular converters in so far as the physical aspects are concerned. We cannot, however, set up any general theory that at once takes into account these costs and the other kinds of costs that were involved when the transition was made. For present, judgments are made in terms of current and estimated future costs, whereas judgments made in the past had to be based upon costs encountered in the past that were often different from what we now confront.

There are many points at which a different choice might have “changed the course of history.” It is interesting to speculate about how the world would look today if the Greeks had been able to extend the use of the steam engine; if the Romans had developed techniques of navigation permitting them to expand into the oceanic world; if Napoleon had used the surplus of France for conquering the Ruhr and building a network of railways instead of sending his legions to Russia and to Egypt; if the Germans had earlier fully appreciated the possibilities of land-based power and had not attempted to rival England’s control of the sea; and if the Japanese seafarers had, in the early seventeenth century, been able to overcome the power of Japan’s feudal lords and expand trade.

But any scientific hypothesis must be tested by the examination of empirical evidence, and we have no such evidence, no historical facts about what might have but didn’t happen, to examine. So these hypotheses must remain in the realm of speculation.

It was England that first made the transition to a high-energy system, it was English coal and English waterfalls that provided the surplus energy, it was English economic, political and military power that overcame the resistance of hundreds of little low-energy societies. Until very recently, it was English institutions, explained by English political and economic theory that came to dominate all those areas of the world outside Europe, except Japan where the use of high-energy converters reached any spectacular level.

We know that these techniques, institutions and ideas, combined with the ecological and demographic situation that then existed, did lead to the transition. We can presume that they would again produce similar results under similar circumstances. But we also know that neither the ideas nor the techniques nor the demographic factors nor the ecological factors are now what they were then or can ever be again.

The course of history has given direction to the organizations that now exist. But while its present direction is a consequence of what then was, each system that now exists has a structure, and any change will be affected by that fact. We can profitably examine the past to understand the future, only with these things in mind.

What is necessary for successful change?

One of the propositions on which the theory of the inevitability of technological progress rests is the idea that practically all the gains made by substituting high-energy (cultural) converters for organic ones can be used to accumulate more such converters, capable of converting more energy. This can then be used to create still more converters and further increase the flow of energy. In the light of what we have just said it is clear that only that portion of the increased surplus energy which is not required to overcome the costs arising out of the changes necessary to secure the increase can be used that way. If these costs mount faster than new surplus, regression is more likely than progress. Analysis of past transitions may show what are some of the conditions under which it has been possible in the past to make surplus available in quantities sufficient to meet these costs and still provide for more new converters.

The population factor

The crucial area for analysis centers is the relationships between food raisers and other members of society. Arrangements must continue to be such that food for all will be produced, even for those who produce no food. The minimum requirement for energy in the form of food is a function of the size of the population. This must be met before the need for any other form of energy can be met. In a sense, this statement is tautological:  Obviously, those with power enough can deny access to food, or the means to produce food, to those weaker than they, but the inevitable consequence of the denial is a reduction in population to the point where the minimum requirements for food are met.

This necessity to supply the population with food greatly affects the way in which, as well as the probability that, the transition to high-energy society will be made. Continuous and frequently increasing demand for food may require the adoption of practices different than those which could be adopted if there were a free choice between increasing the supply of food and increasing the number of new converters or the supply of other fuel.

Western history shows that a large food-raising population can be made to switch to the use of high-energy converters if an economic and political system can be set up which brings this population into effective control over the products of a large area of sparsely settled arable land. Germany, France, and England and their neighbors adopted high-energy converters only after they got large supplies of food from Eastern Europe, the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand to supplement that produced at home. These regions were occupied in pre-Columbian times by people with an agricultural technique that left vast areas uninhabited and only populated the inhabited regions very thinly.

Russia, once a food exporter, today is making, and has made use of, Siberia and other sparsely settled land in the U.S.S.R. Still it has come to depend on imported food.

Japan started her revolution with a population limited by feudalism. Through Western trading practices, she gained access to food from the surplus-producing regions of the Americas and Asia. By conquest, she gained control over sparsely populated areas in Manchuria and Oceania. Even so, the growth of its population has outstripped Japan’s capacity to find people willing and able to supply food to her people except by exchanging for it the product of high-energy technology.

Since there are no longer available the empty continents of pre-Columbian days, the method of expansion and conquest can no longer be considered a method of transition to high-energy society. Alternatively then, if such a transition is to be made, some other means of creating the necessary relations between food raisers and operators and manufacturers of high-energy converters must be found.

One thing we must know, however, is the relative productivity of the systems. For a number of reasons it is difficult to discover exactly how the productivity of food raisers was, and is, being affected by high-energy technology, even in those areas in which such technology has had widespread effects. Two of these reasons are outstanding. In the first place, other changes in farm practices, not directly related to the use of high-energy converters, have had much to do with changes in that productivity. While such practices of scientific agriculture as rotation, fertilization, insect control, and the application of plant and animal genetics may originally have depended upon the appearance somewhere of a high-energy society that would afford the necessary research and investment, many of those practices can now be adopted on farms without the use of increased power.

So when these practices are introduced together with power agriculture, it is difficult to discover how much of the gain in productivity can be assigned to each factor and what conditions are necessary to produce each type of gain. Equally hindering to the researcher is the fact that the overwhelming bulk of published data is in terms of monetary units. This is a legitimate way to deal with the problem since the immediate decisions affecting production are preponderantly made in terms of money. But for the longer run, where gain due to energy probably is more apparent than it is for the short run, monetary terms are not as satisfactory as measures in terms of energy itself. The best that can be done here is to attempt to overcome this very real handicap by making use of such data as are available to me in energy terms. However difficult to discover it, the fact is that the ratio of population to possible food production is highly significant in explaining the transition from a low- to high-energy society. A limit to the maximum population in an area such as that occupied by a nation, for example, is set by the total of the food it is possible to make available in that area, divided by the average level of food per capita consumption to which the population can adapt. The minimum number of food raisers needed to secure that amount of food is set by the “peak load” which is required in the bottleneck operations connected with planting, cultivating, and harvesting the crop.

It is possible by the use of migratory labor to make the number of workers available during “peak load” much greater than that which is continuously resident and continuously employed in farming. Alternatively, it is possible to find within the food-growing area other regular employment from which workers will be excused during the most labor-demanding times on farms. Both these alternatives require a kind of social mobility that is difficult, for reasons we shall discuss later, to maintain but since they are possibilities that should be kept in mind throughout the subsequent discussion.

In American agriculture

Peak-load operations may come, as in the cultivation of wet rice (particularly in two-crop countries, where the harvest of the wheat and the planting of rice crowd each other), at planting time. In some cases, as in raising fruits and vegetables, the peak load may come at harvest time. In the temperate zone, where the growing season is limited, the greatest demand for labor for a great many field crops is likely to come in connection with the preparation of the seedbed and in planting.

Certainly, this is the case in the farm areas of North America, where land is abundant. Here the horse, which could increase the area that could be cultivated in the time available, more than earned his keep. The use of the horse made possible a net increase in the total food produced per capita of farm population and an increase in the surplus energy produced per capita. With the advent of the iron plow, capable, when drawn by a team of horses or oxen, of ripping open the thick turf that had defied the efforts of the food raising Indians to cultivate the land it covered, the great fertile plains of the Mississippi Valley became available as a new food source for the world. The use of the horse enlarged the bottleneck at plowing time. But even if plowing could now be done by horses, harvesting was still a hand operation. The scythe and cradle handled by manpower proved inadequate to the task so put on them. The horse drawn reaper gave the answer to the problem of getting the standing grain off the land before it should shatter and lose grain from the heads or the straw should collapse and make harvesting so time-consuming as to cause great losses.

Now the bottleneck appeared in connection with separating the chaff and straw from the grain. The old method of storing the sheaves, to be threshed out by the flail or trodden by livestock and winnowed by the breeze, would not suffice to handle the increased product the binder made possible. Two approaches to this problem were made. The first was the use of the steam engine to drive a stationary threshing machine; the second was the horse-drawn combined reaper and thresher. Between these, they solved the problem to the extent that plowing again became the factor limiting production.

The steam engine was inherently not capable of providing a way out of this impasse. Because of its great ratio of weight to power it often could not negotiate fields that were not too wet to be plowed by horses. Consequently, in the United States the size of the family farm began to be stabilized at the level set by the use of horses in plowing.

During the First World War, there was a tremendous increase in the world demand for food necessitated by the enormous use of military manpower. The shortage of manpower on the farms in turn made very valuable factors that would, with fewer men, increase the yield obtainable. The development of the tractor was the answer. The tractor was originally regarded merely as a substitute for the plow horse and tools which would make its power available for operations other than plowing were slow to be invented. However, as the potentialities of the tractor were realized, new tools were developed which permitted it to be used for cultivating, planting, weeding, fertilizing, sawing, spraying, elevating, combining, hay baling and chopping, picking corn, cotton, potatoes, and sugar beets, and other farm operations. The tractor raised the productivity of the man on the farm to new heights. It is hard to say what the eventual limit may prove to be, but a single Middle Western farmer who frequently is able to produce 7,500 bushels of corn in a growing season has produced a total of food far beyond the wildest dreams of the hoe-culture farmer.

There is a tendency, in view of the successive removal of limits on the size of the crop which one family can grow, to conceive of the series as being an endless progression of larger and more ingenious machines, replacing more and more men and giving rise to larger and larger surpluses. This kind of thinking is precisely what led to the creation of the enormous state farms that were set up in Russia. Considering the disastrous failure of many of these farms, and many similar experiences in the Americas, it behooves us to examine the process more carefully in order to see where the limits on the use of machines in agriculture lie.

We need to know the degree to which these limits are set by the nature of plants, climate, topography, technology and transportation as well as the social and psychological barriers. We need also to know the cost at which these limits can be reached.

The American way

The use of energy in agriculture is an alternative to the use of that energy to do other things, so agriculture completes for energy with other industries. What is technically possible, then, may be so costly that it will rarely, if ever, be done.

It is clear that if men are to be relieved of food raising, each remaining farmer must produce more food. To increase the amount of food raising per farmer, either the amount raised per acre must be increased or more acres must be cultivated by each farmer, or both. The American answer has largely taken the form of increased acreage, though both methods have been used. In the days of Thomas Jefferson, the size of the American family farm was about 20 acres. With the use of the horse-drawn iron plow the area that could be cultivated by a family increased to 40 or more acres. This meant in the older, already settled areas, halving the number of families directly dependent upon farming.

Early in American history along the Eastern seaboard, particularly in the Northeast, commercial and industrial pursuits making increased use of the energy of falling water and sail provided employment in their own vicinity for the populations displaced from the farms. In many areas of New England, it was often the pull of such occupations rather than the threat of failure or starvation that depopulated agricultural areas.

Farther west the adjustment was greatly facilitated by the enormous amount of cheap land available. A farmer in the older and more settled areas, confronted with the fact that he could not locally buy enough land upon which to settle his sons, could frequently sell his land for enough money to buy at the frontier a farm for each of them as big as or bigger than that which he originally owned. In 1862, the Homestead Act provided 160 acres of free land for each adult member of a family. This was at the time far more than could be cultivated by a single family. In most places, the land varied in fertility and in other factors that affected its capacity to bear crops. Consequently, only the land most suitable for crops was cultivated; the rest of the homestead was set aside for pasture, wood lot, or wasteland.

Sometimes the number of farmers moving west to these larger farms was not great enough to sufficiently reduce farm population in already settled areas. Increased production resulted in lowering the unit price of food. If he were to survive, the farmer had to sell more food than he could raise on the smaller farms. The consequence was a series of farm failures, mortgage foreclosures, and tax sales that produced emigration and permitted these farms to be integrated into larger farm units. Some small farm areas included too little land fitted for commercial agriculture to permit this kind of aggregation. Often a succession of poorer tenants mined the soil and used up existing fixed structures such as fences, sheds, barns, and houses until the land fell into complete disuse, became part of a pure subsistence system, or was incorporated into a larger unit that could be used for pasture, wood lot, or recreation. Such areas as these never contributed to the food surpluses necessary to feed the industrial populations. Hence, they cannot help us to understand how similar areas elsewhere in the world might contribute to the transition to a high-energy system.

While the westward movement was taking place in the United States, food surpluses being produced in the New World were transported to industrial and commercial areas, most of which were located in Europe. This facilitated industrialization there, for it supplied means whereby the people required for initialization could be fed without themselves being kept on farms. As we have seen, at that time the converters in use in manufacturing required concentration of workers in a very small area. Such congested populations could not have been fed from the small food surpluses produced in their immediate vicinity by small farms using low-energy converters.

Effects of immigration

At the same time, means to increased productivity in both the New World and the Old came from the rapid exploitation of nonrenewable “crops” in the colonies. Forest products, including naval stores, furs, and buffalo hides, were gathered much faster than they would be reproduced. Similarly, in many areas the soil was rapidly exhausted by the failure to fertilize or rotate crops and by the mining of the readily available minerals. These practices provided the means to build towns and cities, roads, schools and churches, factories and machines that in their turn could often be made useful long after the land upon which they were originally produced had ceased to produce anything of value. The supply of converters was further increased by the very extensive outpouring of energy from the coalmines in England, and later France and Germany, delivered to the United States in the form of machines and tools supplemented by skilled workers with the knowledge necessary to operate and reproduce them. Thompson estimates that in the nineteenth century alone more than 60 million people emigrated from Europe. These immigrant populations have frequently been looked upon as unskilled manpower, capable of adding only the energy of their muscles to the building up of the frontier. The truth is that many of them were transplanted operatives of a high-energy society; they had not only the skills and knowledge necessary to build and operate high-energy converters, but also the attitudes and economic values which that system had developed in Europe.

To sustain and enlarge the system built up around sail, and the concept that trade was an adequate means of making effective use of resources, the British poured out energy like water, and with the flow of goods went millions of Britons, bound to preserve much of the culture developed at home. To this flow, of course, there was ultimately added the tide of energy from the coalmines, oil and gas wells, and waterfalls of the United States.

We may gain further insight into the nature of the process by which the transition to high-energy society was achieved in the West by considering the effects these conditions and processes had on food raisers in Europe itself.

Industrialization of Britain and west Europe

We have already in part discussed the effect this movement had upon the British, for it took place under the dominance of sail. Social organization that permitted surplus energy to be traded and which called for the creation of specialized patterns abroad supplementary to those at home was well adapted to the spread, if not to the ultimate maintenance and development, of the use of steam. Coal at tidewater gave England a great advantage that was shared by no other naval and trading power. The rise of the industrialist led to the formation of a new political alliance. The trader and the industrialist became powerful enough to challenge the landed aristocracy. British constitutional history shows the shifting political institutions through which this alliance was made manifest.

A study of marriages into the aristocracy by rising industrialists and the creation of new titles of nobility shows one of the means by which the social consolidation was effected. Legislation such as the repeal of the Corn Laws reveals how the doctrines of mercantilism were effectively replaced by the new liberal theories of the Manchester school.

In other words, in place of the previous belief that controlled trade could be made to foster the kinds of exchanges that would bring wealth to the nation, the idea was developed that trade should be carried on with anyone with whom traders found it profitable to trade. The code protecting agricultural England was ruthlessly destroyed, and the British farmer was forced to compete for the products of British mines and factories, with people across the sea who were, by climate, topography, technology, and land-to-population ratio, better fitted than he was to produce food.

The advantages which Britain originally held through her control of the sea, the political structure of empire built with the surplus of sail, the early techniques of power manufacture, the abundance of coal at tidewater, the culture which permitted rapid conversion of energy surpluses into new converters – all these facilitated the abandonment of protection for agriculture, to the accompaniment of a tremendous accretion of new wealth and a rising standard of living. It was only as these initial advantages disappeared that Britain began to question the wisdom of the laissez-faire system as developed by Adam Smith and the classical economists and sanctioned by the achievements of Victorian England.

Even so, it was only because millions of her subjects migrated that Britain was able so rapidly to change her technology to one dependent upon food grown elsewhere. Emigration contributed to the solution of the problem in two ways. First, it transplanted to other lands, people already familiar with British culture, hence willing to operate in a new country in cooperation with the mother land; secondly, it removed from British politics large numbers of unemployed who, had they remained in Britain, probably would have resisted the change which drove them off the land.

Had the conservatives been able to call, for the support of their reactionary policies, upon a newly enfranchised electorate that included those myriads who went abroad, the story of Britain might indeed have been different. As is turned out, the great majority of those who supplied British food got a vote, if at all, in some other political unit than that which controlled British policy.

I have earlier pointed out how the British took advantage of their peculiar situation to produce the conditions necessary for the increasing use of the sailing ship. As I then indicated, their original gains came primarily from taking advantage of cheap transportation and the regional specialization of production that this made possible. The development of law and morality supporting trade was accomplished simultaneously with the development of democratic government. It resulted in a social situation within England in which the surpluses of trade were spread in such a manner as to create and sustain the culture necessary to continue and expand that trade. But the monopolistic character of trade based upon sail also tended to reserve to those countries with naval power, the surpluses gain from trade. The share of surplus accruing to the other party to the deal usually was enough for only a few. Thus, at home, the Englishman’s concepts of “human nature,” “property rights” and other ideas necessary to the operation of foreign trade tended to create and preserve them, and they in turn rationalized the system. Abroad, however, democratic ideas frequently had the opposite effect. The very migration of Englishmen trained in traditional British “rights” led them as colonists to resist the system as it operated abroad. Wherever these rights of Englishmen existed primarily as a consequence of the military power which England was able to deliver through use of her navy, they disappeared as soon as that power was weakened. The “mature” colony thus gained materially through seizure of the surplus that had been produced by converters largely built with British tools and the energy of British sail and British coalmines.

The international respect for the private property of foreigners which arose through and was maintained by British power and the transfer of people bearing British institutions to sparsely populated lands thus initially supported and later undermined the illusions so carefully nurtured by the Manchester liberals.

For the Continental countries, the problem was much more difficult, though seemingly it should have been easier. Germany, having converted directly from feudalism to industrialism, had the advantage that her old system facilitated centralization of much of the new surplus in the hands of a few, who profited from and thus could more easily be induced to accept change than could the mass of peasants. Moreover, the Germans were able to profit from British experience in creating the technology required for the efficient use of coal. Thus they were spared both the costs of unsuccessful physical arrangements and, sometimes more important, the costs of creating social arrangements that did not work very well. They could use the great flow of energy from the Ruhr to change social structure and values that had developed in rural Germany under the conditions prevailing in low-energy societies. They had the physical means to entice men from the pursuit of values through the old ways to the pursuit of the same values through new means, or to the pursuit of new values which high-energy technology could secure for them more easily.

Even here, however, the transition was not easily made, and peaceable means had to be supplemented by “blood and iron.” People in the Old Catholic areas of Germany such as Bavaria strongly resisted, exacting concession after concession before changing their way of life. Even under Hitler, these areas made continued industrialization of agriculture difficult, if not impossible. It was the surpluses produced in the United States, in areas controlled by the British, such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and in those making use of feudal landholding, such as Argentina and Eastern Europe, that supplied the largest part of the increased food upon which Germany’s new industrial populations fed.

In France, just as a new technology emerged which might have rationalized the previously centralized control over large landholdings and the resultant surpluses, the Revolution distributed the control over those surpluses among the peasants. Consequently, mechanization was very difficult and even today the greatest block to the use of high-energy technology in France is probably the resistance of the peasant-proprietor on his small holdings. All of Western Europe shares, in some degree, the problems of Germany and France.

Let us recapitulate. The modern use of high-energy converters developed, originally, in England. Two hundred years of operation under sail, the then most effective converter, wrought many changes in a culture previously adapted to low-energy converters. The new system resulted in the widespread migration of Englishmen, relieving the land of some of its burden of overpopulation. The same movement carried British institutions into new areas, where further migration from original colonies could relieve the overpopulation that had been created by the spread of mechanized agriculture. The British property system also permitted the transfer to these new lands of enormous quantities of goods produced by English mines and machines. Thus while title and “legal” control remained in the hands of British owners, the new converters and machine-made durable goods actually were frequently located in the agrarian countries, often replacing or more than replacing the nonrenewable assets that were destroyed by the invasion of industry. The achievement of local control over the income from these assets, whether through nationalization involving outright seizure, confiscatory taxation, increased demands by organized local labor, or otherwise, was in most of these areas simply a matter of time and opportunity.

The development of these new lands abroad through migration enabled all the states of Western Europe to use the English-developed pattern of transition to some extent. But even this enormous migration did not enable Europe itself to adopt the necessary changes in farm size. For example, today Denmark has 43 acres of cultivated land available per agricultural worker, but only 1.43 acres cultivated per member of its population. Yet agricultural products constitute a sizeable portion of her exports. Greece provides 1.087 acres per agricultural worker. Italy affords only .64 acres per person in the population. The average for the nine members of the E.E.C. is 11.98 agricultural acres per member of the agricultural labor force and .88 cultivated acres per person in the population. In Japan the average farm household is only 2.7 acres. Farmland per member of the population is only .28 acres. In contrast are the other industrialized states. For example, in Canada the average farm is 464 acres. There are 323 acres available for each farm worker. The United States provides 254 acres agricultural land, 95.5 of them cultivated, per member of the agricultural labor force. But that is now only 5.5 percent of the total population.

Obviously, any effort to extend U.S. and Canadian crop-producing techniques into most of the inhabited world must be self-defeating. Even the averages cited above give a poor picture of the realities that will be faced by anyone trying to industrialize agriculture in the areas long occupied. There are an enormous number of farmers living on very small plots from which they have gained some sort of living or survival for centuries. To disrupt their way of life in order to provide farm units large enough for mechanized farming would require a long destructive effort with little promise of success.

Accurate information as to the size and number of these holdings in other parts of the world is lacking. Different parts of China, India and Africa are so varied that averages mean little. But what evidence there is supports the idea that farm size in a great proportion of these areas provides little more than family subsistence.

In the United States, it is difficult to maintain a small farm on a paying basis. In Ohio, for example, a farm of 100 acres of average land would not support a family on any other basis than raising specialized products with unusual value, such as tobacco, or those requiring a large amount of labor as compared with that required to raise corn or wheat, like truck or fruit farming. Contrasting the per capita area required for the kind of mechanization used in the United States with that available to the world’s farmers, it is obvious that international migration has ceased to offer a means whereby the size of the average farm can be greatly increased.

Internal migration from farm to nonfarm regions might provide a means to solve the difficulty. But to make this possible it would be necessary to provide jobs for the migrants under such conditions that they would return to the farmer enough goods and services to compensate him for increasing his production sufficiently to feed them.

To reduce the number of farmers to the point where high-energy converters could be used on the farms would take an immense amount of employment in nonfarm production. It is estimated that to put Indian agricultural labor on 10-acre farms equipped with a pair of oxen would produce a surplus of 15.5 million farm workers. To put them on 25-acre farms would require 30 million new jobs in 10 years if in the meantime there was no change in the survival rate. Obviously, 25-acre farms can make little use of the kinds of machines that advantageously use the power of high-energy converters. On the other hand, the volume of new nonfarm employment required for even this change in man-per-acre ratio is enormous. It would require an immense increase in the available converters to give industrial employment to 30 million workers. This is more than a third of the number of workers currently gainfully employed in the United States.

We shall examine a little later the energy costs of efficiently employing men in industry. For the moment it will suffice to say that no one has yet to come forward with any reasonable proposal by which India or China could supply enough energy to provide the converters necessary to employ those rendered unemployed by farm mechanization or even by the restriction of the number of farmers to that required for hoe-culture farming at its point of maximum return.

Internal migration has, of course, been part of the answer in both Europe and America. In Europe, those who left the farm for the city in the early days of industrialization were forced to compete with each other for job opportunities that would enable them to secure food. They worked for little more than the cost of subsistence. The goods they produced with the aid of the energy of coal and falling water were exchanged for goods produced abroad with the expenditure of much less energy. But the increased productivity of the European industrial workers, high in energy cost but low in price, could be exchanged abroad for much more food than the workers consumed. This food was used to induce otherwise unemployed ex farmers to produce more machines, which could in turn use more coal and/or waterpower to produce more goods for exchange for more food.

In Western Europe the rising power of the industrialists, both worker and employer, forced farmers to submit to competition with cheap food from abroad. The consequence was a fall in the price of food, a decline in agricultural prosperity, and new waves of migration, both internal and international. In Eastern Europe, on the other hand, the hold of the landlord was not broken. With the support of the peasantry, tariffs and other restrictions were used to stop industrialization. But the landlord, faced with the necessity of buying abroad the industrial goods he could not produce at home – particularly the weapons necessary to defend his system – was also faced in the export market with falling prices for the food he had to sell in order to buy these industrial goods. He thus made greater demands on the peasantry. At the same time the population of Eastern Europe was increasing. The result was great disparity between the increased population and the decreased income. Consequently, Eastern Europe today, in demographic terms, resembles Asia more and more closely. Wholesale displacement of farm population appears to be less and less probable.

In the crowded areas where private ownership of land is prevalent, the price of farmland is greater than the capitalized rent, for since the limit on productivity is set by the amount of land available to him, and since his labor can be applied in no other way, the peasant often not only pays the landowner rent, but also shares with him part of the increment resulting from his own labor.

The creation of large units suitable for machine agriculture results in greater agricultural unemployment and even more pressure on the remaining land and still greater increases in the price of land in many areas. Landlords can consequently secure tenants so easily that rents may run to 60 to 70 percent of the crop. Such a reward is, in many cases, far in excess of what could be secured by investment in farm machinery and the resultant industrialization of agriculture. Moreover, it is “natural” in the sense that no elaborate social structure, with its attendant costs, is needed to keep it in operation.

On the other hand, a system that involves the shipping of food away from a locality while a part of the local population starves requires constant bolstering up through a continuous supply of energy from other sources. Those who occupy more than enough land to feed themselves must be protected from those who have less land than they can cultivate and less than enough to support families of the size that it is there considered moral to beget and rear. If for any length of time that outside supply of energy is not forthcoming, in the form either of goods to induce or force to coerce, the land is likely to be broken up into smaller family-size holdings which it is later very difficult to combine. This is what happened in Mexico, Poland, and many other areas, including both Communist China and portions of the U.S.S.R.

Forced collectivization of the land

A good many schemes have been attempted which would induce farm populations voluntarily to abandon these small holdings. None seems to have been very successful. Only outright seizure of the land, with no, or very limited, compensation to the owners, seems to offer a solution. In most areas of the world, such seizure would be possible of course only with a complete revolution in ideas about the sanctity of property.

It will be recalled that in the United States and in the British, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies the land was originally claimed by Westerners in huge tracts. This revolution took place during the period of European conquest, when the property rights of the local population were pretty much honored in the breach. Such seizure is not now favored by the Western states. It is, however, the method proposed today by the Communists.

But wholesale confiscation and forced migration have not as yet resulted, save in a few areas of the U.S.S.R., in a ratio of land to population which would permit efficient use of most of the techniques possible with high-energy converters. All the known means of persuasion, plus the invention of new means of coercion, have been necessary to induce the Russian peasant to abandon his land and the techniques around which his old social system was built. In the meantime, two developments have been taking place that make the problem for the Communists even more difficult. The first is an immense increase in the Russian population resulting from the use of preventive medicine and public health measures. There was also a period when both abortion and diffusion of knowledge of contraception were prohibited and a policy of public approval of high birth rates was followed. In the last decade or so, some of the effort to prevent contraception and abortion has been reversed. It has met with success chiefly in the urbanized areas of the U.S.S.R. The rural minorities continue to multiply at a rate that threatens the superiority in numbers held by the Russians.

The second factor is the addition of satellites to the Russian orbit. A population of more than 600 million people who are now largely dependent on low-energy techniques has been added to the Russian sphere. If these people are to make the transition to a higher-energy base they must do so with the aid of the surpluses from their hoe culture, from the small industrial base left to them from an earlier day or from the increased output from Russian factories and mines.

To complicate matters for the Communists there is a great drain on the Russian system to provide the rapidly obsolescing weapons believed to be necessary to hold the “gains” of the revolution against the feared onslaught of the non-Communist world and to intimidate those who, within the system, might otherwise revolt. The combination of these factors reduces the probability that the Communist effort will succeed, at least in the whole of the greatly expanded area over which it presently is attempting to operate.

On the other hand, the Russians are greatly aided in their effort by the fact that their old feudal culture permitted a large part of the surplus produced in an area to be used at the discretion of a very small minority. They might, if they thought best, remove that entire surplus from the local community. This is in sharp contrast with the social system of China, another Communist state, where feudalism was abolished about two thousand years ago and where claims on most surpluses have long been in the hands of families largely physically resident in the local community, who consumed the greater part of it there. So the problem of transition for China is even greater than that faced by Russia.

Communism versus capitalism

At the moment then, only two general approaches to the problem of transition are offered. One accepts the British system under which private property holders, induced by the hope of profit, compete with one another in an effort to create the kind of agricultural unit that will make high-energy technology efficient. In this struggle, the principle of the sacred rights of property acts to prevent such interference by government as might otherwise arise from the efforts of those who regard the actions of property owners as being intolerable.

The Communist view is that efforts to create efficient land units by a government controlled by a minority are legitimate and desirable. If my analysis is correct, neither approach seems to offer great hope of success. The problem of transition is frequently glossed over or disregarded by proponents of capitalism and communism. By both schools, it is assumed that industrial agriculture is so productive that it will eventually be practiced by all the peoples of the world. I do not subscribe to that position. Some of the reasons have already been given. In the analysis which follows, I shall provide further evidence.

This is a chapter from Energy and Society (Revised): The Relationship Between Energy, Social Change, and Econonmic Development (e-book).
Previous: Chapter 5: Steam: Key to the Industrial Revolution  |  Table of Contents  |  Next: Chapter 7: The Industrialization of Agriculture




Cottrell, F. (2009). Energy and Society: Chapter 6: The Historical Circumstances. Retrieved from


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