Fire and the Wheel

The first two major inventions, or skills, mankind acquired were fire and the wheel. The first epitomizes the ability to manage the forces and energies of nature for our benefit. The second is a simple version of machinery which shaped our ability to control and configure our surroundings and move across distances.

We all use energy to heat and cool our homes. the need for it is so obvious that it shouldn’t need mentioning. We use machinery of various forms to help use perform tasks more easily and more quickly.

Cheap energy and good equipment are the key ingredients in the rise in the world’s standard of living in the last two hundred years. An interesting YouTube video makes this point very well. The ability to harness cheap energy raised the living standards and life span of most of the world.

Cheap energy lets us use less of our effort and income on heating and cooking. Machinery powered by cheap energy makes the goods we buy cheaper. More importantly, the combination of the two increases human productivity so that our efforts can be more rewarding. This give us a combination of more income and more leisure time.

I am writing this piece on a machine (in this case, a computer) powered by electricity. This combination of machinery and energy drives the “Information Age” sector which is the “cleanest” part of the economy. The internet is hosted on a network of computing machines powered by electrical energy.

Yet somehow, the combination of cheap energy and machinery has become something to fear. It started with trying to get everyone into “cleaner” jobs. We started to believe the idea that we could all engage in “information processing” or other professions and “outsource” all the dirty work.

This won’t work. In any society, there are people whose skills vary widely. The wonderful thing about an energy-machinery society is that large numbers of relatively “unskilled” workers can make a bigger economic contribution when they are part of a larger manufacturing or production facility. The rise in the living standards of blue collar workers in America for most of the twentieth century is an example of this.

The attempt to “clean up” all the jobs in the U.S. has caused a major increase in unemployment and a lowering of the living standards for millions of Americans. It is also a major contributor to most of the economic problems we are facing.

One alternative would be to allow the exploitation of natural resources in a way which would employ more blue collar labor and help reduce their unemployment. Yet we seem determined to close off all drilling, digging and exploration and then wonder why chronic, long-term unemployment keeps getting worse.

Now, even those with cleaner jobs are starting to feel the burden of higher energy costs. There are predictions of five dollar a gallon gas by 2012. This will have a disastrous impact on the economy. And yet, every effort to provide more energy is contested.

Even when “clean energy” is tried, the lawsuits continue. Constellation Energy in Maryland spent $140 million to build windmills in the mountains in the westernmost county of Maryland. Yet, just as the project was about to go live, another lawsuit is trying to block it in order to protect the Indiana bat.

For several years, there have been warnings about energy shortages in Washington, D.C. and its suburbs in 2011 or 2012. There is a need for more power sources and power lines. But the opposition is unending.

The rise in the cost of energy and the refusal to find cheaper (not necessarily greener) energy plays a major factor in most of our current economic problems. When more of our money goes to energy, the cost of everything goes up for individuals and governments. We have less to spend on housing, so that market takes a hit.

Our reduced standard of living has major political impacts. Citizens are touchier and angrier about taxes while government employees and beneficiaries want more to cover their costs. Layoffs caused by higher energy costs add to the demand for “safety-net” benefits.

The solution to our problems is easy to state. The question is whether we will do it. We need to take advantage of the vast energy resources of our country, oil, natural gas, coal, hydroelectric and even nuclear. On windy days we can use windmills. On sunny days we can use solar power. We have to get out of our own way and use the resources we have.

The question is simple: Will we do it before or after the social chaos which will occur from an energy shortage or massive price jump?

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