About ten years ago I was on the edge of a conversation involving a few people of my parents' generation (though not my parents themselves). David McCullough's biography of John Adams had recently come out, and the people in the heart of the conversation had all read it. They were marveling at how moral the Founding Fathers were, and how our politicians today are nothing like that.
And of course the folks in this conversation were right. For one thing, nobody on the contemporary American political scene owns slaves (though with a few of them you wonder if they don't kinda miss the old days ... certainly some of their constituents think slaves had a good deal).
I'm not trying to engage in cheap delegitimization here. The fact that many of the founders were slaveholders doesn't invalidate their work in setting up our system of government. And besides, many people in their day considered slavery to be normal.
At the same time, full-on moral relativism doesn't cut it, either.
For one example, George Washington was seemingly troubled by slavery and his will provided for his slaves to be freed after his widow's death (in the event, she freed them herself a year after he died). And after he switched from cotton to mixed crops, his labor needs went down, but he kept his slaves at personal expense, to avoid breaking up families, according to Wikipedia. (On the other hand, if he didn't need those extra slaves, why didn't he free them?)
So he knew that slavery in some sense was wrong, but he didn't free his slaves during his own lifetime.
Jefferson did less for his own slaves than Washington, and his public actions regarding slavery were contradictory. But he is also the author of the line, regarding slavery, "Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just," and "The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other." (Both quotes can be found here.)
Part of the reason for the conflicted statements and actions of men like Washington and Jefferson was likely that they couldn't see a way, if they were to free their slaves, to continue the way of life they considered normal. In American Canopy, Eric Rutkow writes, "Southern planters, who composed the top 1 or 2 percent of the white population in mid-eighteenth-century Virginia, used slaves to handle the majority of farming's pedestrian tasks, which left them time to pursue creative endeavors." (p. 50-51)
That's not so different from us.
A physically fit human can produce about 1 horsepower for a short time (a minute, or a few minutes)--in other words, a fit person can briefly work as hard as James Watt estimated an average horse to work for four hours at a time. On a sustained basis, that same person can produce about 1/10 of a horsepower.
By comparison, the Toyota Yaris can produce up to 69 HP, while the Toyota FJ Cruiser can produce up to 264 HP. Now, those are their maximum levels (in the case of the Yaris, it's at 6000 RPM, which you wouldn't want to maintain for very long).
If we cut the horsepower numbers in half to allow for more sustainable operating speeds, we see that an inexpensive modern car is about 300 times more powerful than a reasonably fit human.
I'm not sure where I first heard the term, but "energy slaves" is a really vivid way of capturing what that gasoline is doing for us in the engine. (I suspect I read it Richard Heinberg's The Party's Over, but even if that's where I found it, I don't know if Heinberg is the guy who coined the term.)
(UPDATE: Gene Marner asked Richard Heinberg about the "energy slaves" image. Heinberg looked it up and he thinks Buckminster Fuller coined the phrase. Thanks, Gene!)
According to convert-me.com, a horsepower is the same as 746 Watts, so a human can produce about 75 Watts for an 8-hour day, or about 600 Watt hours (Wh). If you did physical work for 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, that would be 75 Watts times 2,000 hours, or 150,000 Wh, or 150 kWh (kiloWatt hours). For our household of four, our monthly electricity usage ranges from 300 to 1,000 kWh.
Or you can compare food to other energy use. On the statistics site of the Food and Agriculture Organization, you can get "food balance sheets" for just about every country. The one for the U.S. says we had 3,688 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day in 2009. We could knock that down to 3,000 to account for food waste, then multiply it by 365 to get 1,095,000 kcal per person per year.
We can convert that to Btu (British thermal units) and find that the average American takes in 4,345,000 Btu per year in food energy.
The Energy Information Administration at the U.S. Department of Energy measures the country's overall energy usage in quads, which is short for quadrillion Btu. According to this document, U.S. energy use in 2011 was 97.7 quads. If you divide that by the roughly 310 million people in the country, you get 0.0000003152 quads per person.
Which may not seem like much, except that a quad is a quadrillion Btu, which means that each American uses, on average, 315,200,000,000 Btu. And our food provides 4,345,000 Btu. In other words, our energy use is 72 thousand times greater than our food consumption. Energy slaves indeed.
In a very abstract sense, you could design a car with treadmills for 300 people and gearing that allowed their walking speed to be converted to a 60 mph ride for you, over an 8-hour drive. But beyond the problems of how to arrange all those people effectively, you now have to carry their weight, which would likely be something around 50,000 pounds (compared to the the Yaris's 2,000 pounds), so you'd actually need 7,500 people just to move the weight of the 300 people you need to move your own car, and then you need people to move those extra 7,500 ... You can see where this is going.
And besides, with all the structure needed to carry all those people, where would you park?
So not only does a simple gas engine give you more power output than 300 humans, it's far more useful than slavery. And that's without even touching on the immorality of slavery.
Except that I'm not sure it's that simple.
In our own time, climate change is becoming ever more a moral issue, one where the continued unrestricted emission of CO2 is coming to be regarded as an injustice. We don't really know what kind of a world we're leaving for our grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Some people are being affected already, and there are scientists who are concerned we're locking ourselves into some pretty catastrophic conditions down the road. Those 315 billion Btu per person that the U.S. uses? 84% of it comes from fossil fuels.
It's facile to simply hold up slavery and carbon emissions as equivalent forms of immorality. Most obviously, slavery is a horrific injustice done to a specific person, whereas the worst future effects of climate change are uncertain and will affect people probabilistically, rather than specific people identifiable today. It could even be all of us.
And the effects of climate change will lack the personal, direct acts of cruelty that occur in slavery, the "unremitting despotism" Jefferson described.
But I still think we can learn from the comparison.
Many slaveowners knew that what they were doing was morally fraught, yet they persisted.
In our day, we have a dawning sense that our fossil fuel use is morally fraught, yet we persist. And I'm not exempting myself. I drive, I fly, I use energy in ways that aren't strictly necessary. Just looking at the parts of my household's energy consumption that are easy to measure, our electricity use, natural gas use, and driving are equivalent to using energy continually at a rate of about 1,100 W per person. If you add in a couple of flights a year; food, clothing, and other consumer items; and our "share" of the energy used to build and maintain the public spaces we enjoy, we're somewhere well above the line of 2,000 W that's been proposed as a goal for people in rich countries.
And why don't we do what we're starting to suspect is right?
Why didn't Jefferson and Washington do something about being slaveowners? Going back to Rutkow's point, their slaves left them, ironically, free to "pursue creative endeavors," such as setting up a new country. But weren't there other ways to have done that? Couldn't they have had hired labor and still had time for non-farming activities? Presumably that would require that they give up some of the luxury they enjoyed, but it doesn't seem like slavery was necessary for them to do the good work that they did.
In rich countries today, our access to vast quantities of energy has freed the great majority of us from physical labor (though not necessarily from drudgery), but it is also enmeshing us in an enterprise of dubious morality.
In practical terms, what could we do differently, what could we give up, to limit the harm we're doing while still living well?
And if things turn out as bad as some scientists fear, how will our descendants judge the morality of the choices we're making today?