Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Scales of morality

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, 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?

(A follow-up.)


  1. Hi Karl, interesting stuff. I'm particularly intrigued by your connecting of the dots of slavery, morality, and our choices around climate change, especially in the light of the Steven Pinker essay that is all the rage these days, Science Is Not Your Enemy. Pinker mentions the abolition of slavery as one of the very few things that were not gifted by science and insists that "every global measure of human flourishing is on the rise." As others have already pointed out, one of those measures on the rise is indeed the global temperature, with consequences that could be quite devastating.

    You also may find this of interest because it relates to some of our liberal arts conversations, although I question Pinker's depiction of student trends.


    1. Thanks for the reference to the Pinker essay.

      Over the last couple of decades since leaving music school, my enjoyment of music has continued to fuse with an understanding of my enjoyment of music. I reduce, as it were, what I'm hearing to a series of expectations created and then either fulfilled or denied.

      It offends some people, seeming to strip music of its mystical essence. For me, it only increases my appreciation for the art, that such powerful effects can be produced by such conceptually simple means (though using those simple means is damned difficult!).

      It's like the old canard that the theory of evolution impoverishes us by robbing our existence of mystery. Personally, I get the opposite effect: the idea that the diversity of life can be produced by such a conceptually simple process fills me with a quiet awe.

  2. A more obvious point is that we have not abolished the coercion of disenfranchised people or the human rights abuses that come with slavery. We just outsourced slavery and insist that it is not slavery because we throow our nickels and dimes into the paychecks of sweatshop workers to manufacture our goods at WalMart prices because there are not enough Americans who appreciate those jobs.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Jacqueline.

      I would agree that a piece of our material prosperity in the rich countries comes from political arrangements that allow us to procure the labor of people in other countries (and some here) at atrocious wages, and with varying degrees of coercion.

      But as a thought experiment, assume some crafty deity were to offer us a choice: foreswear more than minimal use of fossil fuels, or relinquish slavery and slavery-like arrangements. I think it would be easier on our way of life to drop slavery than to drop sweet, sweet carbon.

      After all, the world's sweatshop workers do more physical labor than any white-collar person, but in most cases it's the coordination of their hands that's being exploited, not their power output. The machinery they operate gets its motive power from commercial energy, usually fossil fuels. And the inexpensive goods they make for our thoughtless enjoyment, those travel our way on oil-driven ships, made from steel whose production required large amounts of coal, etc.

      Slavery is a real problem of the contemporary world, but take it away and it's not too hard to see how to construct a materially good life. But take away fossil fuels, and our modern forms of slavery won't do us much good.

  3. An essential point that you failed to touch on is how climate change is something caused by rich nation people for a comfortable lifestyle at the expense of 3rd world people who will not be able to afford water, do subsistence farming, or have access to farming that their econcmies are more reliant on because of the changes caused by climate change. It divides the rich from the poor like slavery does.

    1. I agree with the point that the impacts of climate change are not equally distributed, and won't be in the future, and that the contributions to it have also not come equally from all populations.

      But in the more catastrophic scenarios, it's not going to be pretty for most of us in the rich countries, either. In the case of serious social upheaval, no amount of money will give anyone sure passage (the Russian Revolution being something of an object lesson for just how far things can go when you assume you're immune from the fate of your compatriots).

      How touching: climate change could potentially unite us all ...

  4. I like your analogy, it's sophisticated yet clear. What I don't like is how you admit to NOT doing your part. And all after doing research and writing such a post! Stranger than fiction...

    1. Thank you for your comment. I started to reply to your second sentence, but then realized it was actually a whole post: