Capitalism and the Depletion of Fossil Fuels
by David Sims
The End of Industrial Civilization
INDUSTRIAL CIVILIZATION will finish, and it will have been a singular pulse in the history of Earthly life. Humans might become extinct. If humans continue to exist, their culture will be that of a Stone Age impoverished by the way their near ancestors, while adjusting to reduced circumstances, depleted the fertility of farm soils and hunted to extinction nearly all edible species of plant and animal.
“Star Trek” is the future that might have happened, if the hominid population had been limited to its best representatives (i.e., if all the others had been culled out of the breeding stock), and if the political objectives of their leaders had been the right ones. Instead of material gain and individual happiness, the objectives should have been racial betterment and greatness.
We blew it. And there is no second chance. The political mess cannot be straightened out before the accessible remainder of the Earth’s fossil fuel deposits has been used up. In my opinion, the outcome of the Second World War cost the Life of Earth, in whatever form it might have taken, perhaps at least 99% of its potential run through this universe.
There might, however, be one more chance, in the form of space colonization facilitated by private commercial spaceflight. I recently watched a documentary on SpaceX, which is a company that is developing space launch vehicles and has made very respectable progress in the past several years. Maybe Elon Musk can pull the future out of the jaws of history before it disappears forever. We’ll see.
The Impact of Technology on Humans
Technology has made us stupider. And weaker. And less agile. And reduced in physical stamina and hardiness. Technology has done these things by insulating our race from the rigors of natural selection, which once caused an early death for the stupid, the weak, the clumsy, and for those who easily became weary or sick. Accordingly, since the advent of technology, these inferior components of our race survived to breed children.
The struggle for human biological quality is somewhat like the Red Queen’s race in Through the Looking Glass. You have to go as hard as you can, just to keep your place. If you really work at it, you might be able to pick up a gain once in a while. But if you quit running, entropy brings biological degradation, heritable degradation, in a few generations. We’ve been making machines and chemicals do our running for us, meeting the challenges nature throws our way, and we’ve had no significant natural culling for about six generations, maybe more.
We’ve had eyeglasses for people who might otherwise have a fatal accident. Because they survived, we now have lots of people with bad eyes.
We’ve had medicines for people who might otherwise have died young from heritable conditions. Because they survived, we now have lots of people with malign heritable conditions (like diabetes).
We’ve had guns so that weak people could defend themselves from wild animals and stronger, aggressive other people. So our race became weaker over the generations. We’re not the men we were.
We’ve had sentimental political philosophies that attributed equal moral worth to humans (the idea of “human dignity”), and as the result we are now infested with criminals, bums, perverts, and retards in proportions seldom matched in history, if ever.
And all of it, even the sentimental political philosophies, has been empowered by exosomatic energy resources, chiefly fossil fuels. When the fossil fuels are depleted, most people will not be fit to resume life under the normal rigors of natural selection. Even if they were, there are just too many of them for all to survive. So there will be lots of death in the coming century, which could have been avoided if humans had taken the right fork in the road, instead of the wrong fork in the road, in 1945.
Capitalism and Marxism
Karl Marx was right about the injustices of capitalism, but he was wrong about the remedy. Capitalism’s biggest fault is that individual merit only determines success at the beginning. As time goes by, wealth gathers into the hands of a minority, where it becomes a decisive advantage in the pursuit of more wealth. The measure of man moves from his genes to his bank accounts, and then the possession of wealth becomes the supreme survival trait, easily overmatching strength, dexterity, agility, stamina, and, in the end, even intelligence.¹
The reason it works is the availability of exosomatic energy resources, chiefly fossil fuels. As long as money can buy gasoline, rich men can pretend that fossil power, put to use in engines, is power inherent in them as men. No one without money-privileged access to nature’s accumulated stores of exosomatic energy can compete with those who do.
That’s what Ayn Rand left out of Atlas Shrugged. It’s a fantasy in which things work out, of course, as its writer contrived, but it is a fantasy very seductive to rich people, who believe it because it flatters them. Ayn Rand spoke much of “men of ability,” leaving it very strongly implied that what enabled them were their personal qualities, such as intelligence, courage or decisiveness. She spoke often of coal-burning engines and other industrial uses of fossil fuels. But she used every trick she could think of to prevent her readers from connecting the ability with the fuels and observing that her “men of ability” really weren’t so much superior to everyone else as their wealth might lead one to suppose. In real life, wealth buys such men privileged access to energy resources, which then become their enabler.
The simple fact is, the employer merely stands between the customer and the labor. He listens, and then he points. And he’s mighty proud of the fact that he is the one who gets to do the pointing. He produces nothing himself and could be outdone by any of his workers were he to try it. Of course, it does matter whether or not the employer knows what to point at, which has a lot to do with what his personal motivation is. And that’s why capitalism is a bad system generally: most of its decision-makers are greedy, selfish bastards who only want to get rich and to hell with the world they will leave behind when they die. Visionary philosophers hoping to save the world will be as rare among business executives as they are among politicians.
When fossil fuels are depleted, as eventually they must be, the illusion will be dispelled: the lumberjack will again know himself stronger than the owner of the bulldozer, the engineer will again know that he is smarter than the corporate manager who once bossed him, and the banker will understand, at long last, that he is worthless. When fossil fuels are depleted, nature will present mankind with the bill for his accumulation of genetic defects, which temporarily had been put on the credit card of technology, and many hereditary lines will suddenly discover that they are not really fit to live in this world.
But Marxist socialism isn’t a good remedy to capitalism. It leads merely to the exchange of one kind of exploiter (the capitalists) by another (the communist party). The workers don’t actually get to behave as if the country were theirs; no, they must toe the communists’ political lines and jump through the communists’ legal hoops, more or less as they once did for their employers, or for corporate lawyers. The legislative and judicial bodies are just as corrupt under communists as they were under capitalists; they are in either case seldom more than a coat of paint upon the will of the powerful.
(1) In the evolution of dinosaurs, the dominant carnivores gained size and power across millions of years. The history of capitalism is like a much sped up version of that, except that the dinosaur predators reached a physical limitation to their size — the muscle strength to muscle weight ratio — whereas there has been no similar limit on the ability of the super-rich to absorb ever-bigger fractions of the wealth of the world.
The richest 1% of people own about 40% of the wealth today, compared with about 13% twenty-five years ago. No, the wealth of the world has not tripled or better during those 25 years. Ayn Rand was wrong: the gains of the rich really do drain the rest of us.
About half of the 100 largest organizations in terms of economic activity are corporations, rather than nations, and more than a quarter of the world’s economic activity is conducted by 200 corporations, which however employ less than one percent of the world’s labor force altogether.
* * *
Source: David Sims