“Energy will do anything that can be done in the world; and no talents, no circumstances, no opportunities will make a two-legged animal a man without it.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)
“Technology and change follow the liberation of energy. The lifestyle of contemporary America was destined by the development of fossil fuels in this seminal era.”
-Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival, 1974), p. 45.
Labor Day commemorates productive America. Begun in the late 19th century by the U.S. labor movement, the first Monday in September is celebrated annually as a public holiday.
The unofficial end of summer also is a peak travel time. This Labor Day weekend, a record 17.5 million passengers are expected to fly to hundreds of U.S. destinations and around the world, according to the trade group Airlines for America. And that means a high demand for energy, specifically petroleum to fuel the planes.
Labor Day could also be called Thank Energy Day. Human productivity is enabled by the appliances and machines that run on mineral (dense) energies, either directly or indirectly via electrical generation.
To capture the essence of human-freed labor, Buckminster Fuller coined the term “energy slave” in 1940 to provide a rough translation of how modern energy did the work of countless would-be laborers in the industrial economy. “Bucky saw that coal, oil and gas were batteries for ancient sunshine that allowed civilization to, for the first, live beyond its [direct daily] solar income,” Stuart McMillen wrote in an illustrative comic of Fuller’s insight.
Energy experts took up the analogy. “Mineral energy provides a greater concentration of power than could the most ingenious and efficient use of untold human and animal labor,” wrote Gloria Waldron and J. Frederic Dewhurst in Power, Machines, and Plenty (1948: 11). Added Erich Zimmermann:
The shift to machine power changed America from a rural agricultural nation to an industrial giant. It also made men’s lives easier and richer. In 1850, the average American worked seventy hours a week. Today he works forty-three. In 1850, our average American produced about 27 cents’ worth of goods an hour. Today he produces about $1.40 worth in dollars of the same purchasing power. (World Resources and Industries, 1951: 58)
Today, the average workweek for an American (non-farm; 16 years or older) is just under 35 hours, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. That person in the office and at home employs hundreds of “energy slaves” without even realizing it. That productivity permits time off and allows an unprecedented quality of leisure when off.
Critics Dispute Good
The energy-slave metaphor has been badly polluted by Fuller’s disciples. In The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude (2012: xi), Andrew Nikiforuk wrote:
Both Aristotle and Plato described slavery as necessary and expedient. We regard our new hydrocarbon servants with the same pragmatism. To many of us, our current spending of fossil fuels appears as morally correct as did human slavery to the Romans or the Atlantic slave trade to seventeenth-century British businessmen.
Nikiforuk then mentioned yours truly as a trafficker of such “pseudoscientific absurdities” as expanding depletable resources. He states (pp. 144–145):
Bradley … claims that the world’s material progress is “the result of advances in energy technology made by people living in freedom” and so will continue unerringly…. Bradley, does, however, acknowledge the importance of inanimate slaves. Thanks to hydrocarbons, the proportion of industrial world performed by human hands in the United States has fallen over the last hundred years from 90 percent to 8 percent. This blessed emancipation has given each American the fossil-fuel equivalent of about three hundred slaves, and Bradley predicts that the number of virtual slaves will only grow.
“It is hard to overstate the significance of this trend. It means not just more creature comforts but a fundamental change in the human condition,” he writes. “If we take the current population of the United States as being about 280 million people then the country as a whole has an equivalent of 8.4 billion energy slaves.”
I plead guilty as charged. Thanks to dense, mineral energies running countless machines and appliances, Americans have a leisure side to their work personae. So, this Labor Day, take a well-deserved day off for a long weekend—or even more—in good conscience.