“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 [a century later] he works forty-three.” – Erich Zimmermann, 1951
Labor Day should also be recognized as Energy Appreciation Day. Why? Because energy, defined as the capacity to do work, has been instrumental in America’s productivity gains, wealth creation, increased leisure time, and longer living.
Energy is ubiquitous to modern industrial life. It is the fourth factor of production in addition to the textbook triad of land, labor, and capital. Julian Simon coined the term master resource to describe the resource of resources, energy.
Work was once limited by a person’s muscles or those of domesticated animals. This changed with the Industrial Revolution when massive amounts of dense, mineral energies powered the machines of progress. “Fossil fuels cannot explain the start of the industrial revolution,” Matt Ridley noted in The Rational Optimist. “But they do explain why it did not end.”
The role of modern energy has been recognized since the beginning of the transformation. It began with coal, which replaced wood and the limited, unreliable renewables of water and wind. William Stanley Jevons wrote in 1865:
- Coal, in truth, stands not beside but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material energy of the country—the universal aid—the factor in everything we do. With coal almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back in the laborious poverty of early times.
Coal was the fourth great energy moment in the history of humankind. Wrote John Fowler:
- The great forward steps of civilization are at least connected in part to breakthroughs on the energy front. The discovery of fire gave primitive man security and comfort on the ground; the domestication of animals added their greater muscle capacity to his. Later on, the waterwheel opened up a new source of energy to exploitation, greatly increasing the power available to his tasks. Then, in the nineteenth century the industrial revolution was fueled by coal.
Crude-oil products then joined in, beginning in America. John Draper noted in 1864:
- Kerosene has, in one sense, increased the length of life among the agricultural population. Those who, on account of the dearness or inefficiency of whale oil, were accustomed to go to bed soon after sunset and spend almost half their time in sleep, now occupy a portion of the night in reading and other amusements; and this is more particularly true of the winter seasons.
Natural gas was next to complete the three pillars of the fossil fuel era, representing the sun’s work over the ages, a huge step up from the dilute, intermittent flow from the sun.
Today, more than 80 percent of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels. Take fossil fuels away, and the population would shrink, drastically. It would be the dreaded neo-Malthusian world resulting from government, not free men and women in the marketplace.
Peak supply? Peak demand? No, for energy’s work is never done. “I am ashamed at the number of things around my house and shops that are done by … human beings,” Thomas Edison once remarked. “Hereafter a motor must do all the chores.”
Regarding labor time, the average American today works less than 39 hours a week—and enjoys more retirement years than ever before. That’s a good thing—and worth bettering.
This Labor Day weekend, thank energy and institutions allowing the master resource to reach its full potential.