Yesterday, we set out early. An autumn mist still lay on the fields. The Sun barely made an impression.
We were headed south, driving from our farm near Annapolis, down the spine of Anne Arundel and Calvert counties, and then over the Patuxent River through Charles County to the Potomac River bridge to Virginia.
Maryland was the ‘most English’ of the American colonies. Almost all the first settlers came up from English outposts in Virginia. But in the middle of the 1700s a new group came into the port of Baltimore. They were people with very different religious views from those of the Anglican settlers. They were ‘Anabaptists’ from Germany and Switzerland. Called Mennonites or Amish, they thought the technology of the 17th century was as good as it should get.
The first Amish immigrants put down roots in nearby Pennsylvania. Later, some arrived in Charles County Maryland, where they remain.
We have a sister who married into an Amish family that had left the community. And we go down there occasionally to buy lumber or fenceposts from the Amish sawmills. So we know the culture fairly well.
The Amish of Charles County eschew modern technology, but they are selective about it. They’ve adapted to…and profited from…the modern, energy-driven economy around them. When we had an Amish crew put in a fence, for example, they came in a new Ford truck. The truck’s owner and driver were not Amish; they paid him to bring them back and forth to the jobsite. Nor did they dig the post-holes by hand; they used our tractor. They ride in horse-drawn carriages. But they power their sawmills with large engines — either electric or diesel. And while they rely mostly on their own farm output for food, they buy from farmers’ markets too — where most of the produce comes from modern farming methods.
Could you go back in time and really live without modern machines and conveniences? Occasionally, we benefit from accidental or unintentional tests. Such a test was conducted by a Russian family, over a 40-year period.
It began in 1936. The family were part of a Russian Christian group called the ‘old believers’, much like the Amish in the US. They stuck to their old ways…and their old religion.
But in the Soviet Union at that time there was no room for religion…or religious minorities…or for anyone who wouldn’t go along with the great new communist crusade. Karp Lykov saw his brother shot dead by the government’s enforcers and decided to take his family into the Siberian wilderness to escape.
They took with them some seeds, some clothes, and some tools, and not much else. The family of four — the two parents and two young children — built makeshift shelters and moved further and further away from civilisation to make sure they were safe. Eventually, they came to settle in a mountain location, 150 miles from the nearest town, with no roads, no electricity, no machinery…and importantly, no fossil fuels.
They could till the ground…and plant their vegetables and rye. They could cut down trees and heat their hovel with wood. They could hunt animals occasionally, running them to ground or catching them in traps; they had no guns, not even a bow and arrow.
Two more children were born. And thus did the family live for four decades, until they were rediscovered by Soviet geologists exploring the area, looking for fossil fuels and minerals.
How did they make out? They had fresh air. Sunshine. A stream of cold, clear water next to their shack. What more could they want?
Well, food. They lived for many years on the edge of starvation. And when a late frost in 1961 destroyed their garden, Karp’s wife confronted a grim choice. But it was a choice that women had confronted many, many times in history. There was not enough for the whole family to eat. She could eat. Or her children could eat. She chose to let the children eat. She starved to death.
A few years after they were rediscovered by Soviet authorities, three of the children died too. Two died of kidney failure — perhaps from the limited and very poor diet. The other, Dmitry, died from pneumonia.
Dmitry grew up in the wilderness, with no fossil fuels to warm his house, power his car, provide him with food, or entertain him with Netflix or Facebook.
He became a hunter. And he became incredibly hardy. He could chase an antelope for days, barefoot in the wintertime…and sleep out in the cold. He had spent his whole life in conditions that most people today couldn’t survive for 48 hours. But he had also been far from the colds and bacteria that most of us face every day. When the geologists came…they brought sickness too. Dmitry had no resistance.
Life without fossil fuels was pretty grim, though not impossible. But the test was imperfect. The family lived in conditions that were far from ‘normal’ and perhaps harsher than those we would face if we were suddenly forced to give up fossil fuels. A resourceful family — properly equipped with tools and technology made possible by the modern carbon-based economy — could probably live well in the wilderness.
But most people live in cities and suburbs, where they rely 100% on an extensive economy — powered by fossil fuel. How would they fare if electricity were suddenly cut off? What would they eat if food deliveries were interrupted? What would happen if the ATMs went dark…the gasoline pumps went dry…and grocery store shelves were bare?
Without a doubt, the single thing that gave man the upper hand against nature was nature herself. She had stored up millions of years’ worth of solar energy. And there it was — mountains of coal…and underground lakes of oil and gas.
Plants rely on the Sun. Animals rely on plants. And over the millennia, this carbon-based energy was laid down and piled up, compressed…and turned into high-density fuel. Trains used to run on wood-fired engines. But it took carloads of firewood and a couple of full-time stokers to chuck logs into the firebox. Diesel fuel took up much less space, and it dripped into the engine by itself.
In the 19th century, using these ‘fossil fuels’ became widespread. They were used to heat, of course, but also to move things around, hammer them, and shape them. Beginning with James Watt’s steam engine of 1776, inventors and tinkerers found ways to convert the heat energy into mechanical energy — to turn gears, wheels, belts, chains, drive shafts, and assembly lines.
The energy contained in these ‘fossil fuels’ is stunning. You can test it yourself. Just put a single gallon of gasoline into your car…at a cost of less than US$5. Then, drive the car as far as it will go.
Now push the car back home. It will take you and your friends many hours of hard work to do it. You can also get a hint of the relative efficiency of fossil fuel from the experiment. A gallon of gasoline will take you and your car about 25 miles, in less than half an hour. Even if you ditch the car, you will only be able to travel at about four miles per hour on foot. So it will take you 12 times as much time to travel the same distance. And if your time is worth US$25 an hour…it will cost you 30 times as much.
And now imagine that the power in these fuels is put to use across the entire economy. Farmers, with a team of oxen, used to be able to plough an acre of ground in a day. Now, the latest tractors can plough 150 acres in a day — with A/C in the cab and self-steering technology.
Trucks move thousands of tonnes of merchandise…coast to coast. Aeroplane pilots take hundreds of passengers across the Atlantic in a single day.
Time is the ultimate limit on what we can do. There are only 24 hours in a day. What we can produce in those hours determines how well we live and how many people the Earth can support. Using the tractor as a measure, we increased productivity 150 times. Similar gains were made across the whole economy.
Let there be food
At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution — which might be more properly called the ‘fossil fuel revolution’ — there were two billion people on our planet. Now, there are four times as many. Those extra six billion people are only alive because of the energy in fossil fuels. Even today, after 20 years of supporting and subsidising ‘clean’ or ‘sustainable’ alternative energy sources, only about 15% of the world’s power comes from non-fossil sources. That means that the equivalent of 6.8 billion people depend 100% on fossil fuel — for their transportation, electricity, and food. Take it away, in whole or in part, and what would happen?
And how about you?
When you get up in the morning, do you drink coffee? How did the coffee beans get to your house? And milk, how was it kept refrigerated? And the house itself, how is it cooled…or heated? And when you go to work…do you drive an automobile? What makes the wheels turn? Most likely, it is a series of explosions in an engine, moving pistons up and down, whose energy is transformed by a crankshaft into locomotion. Even if you drive an electric vehicle, odds are that electricity comes from fossil fuels…and the vehicle itself couldn’t be produced without energy from coal, gas, or oil.
Grain production quadrupled since 1950. How was that possible? With diesel engines, farmers were able to cultivate more acres, more efficiently. Maybe even more importantly, they used a lot more fertiliser — especially nitrogen. Between 1950 and 2025, the quantity of nitrogen fertiliser increased 23 times.
Where does nitrogen fertiliser come from? From natural gas. And to get the nitrogen fertiliser into the ground — to make it, to ship it, to apply it — takes almost twice as much energy as in the fertiliser itself.
Food — like many of the other things we use every day — is a product, primarily, of energy. It was only because we were able to figure out how to use this stored-up solar energy that there are so many of us living so well on Planet Earth.
But what if fossil fuels were off-limits?
They say that we are just nine meals away from anarchy. What kind of chaos, confusion, and misery would come to your neighbourhood if hungry mobs roamed the streets, looting houses and taking whatever they wanted? What if you had to choose, between feeding yourself or feeding your children?
Outrageous? Impossible? Something that would never happen?
We can hope so.
For The Daily Reckoning Australia