Discuss: Energy and moral capabilities

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I have questions for you! Please weigh in. In 1865, W.S. Jevons wrote about the eventual depletion of coal in England. Here’s the quote:

“This question concerning the duration of our present cheap supplies of coal cannot but excite deep interest and anxiety wherever or whenever it is mentioned. For a little reflection will show that coal is almost the sole necessary basis of our material Power, and is that, consequently, which gives efficiency to our moral and intellectual capabilities. England’s manufacturing and commercial greatness, at least, is at stake in this question, nor can we be sure that material decay may not involve us in moral and intellectual retrogression” (ix).

This is eerily similar to some contemporary political rhetoric regarding US energy policy. To what extent is dependence on fossil fuels tied to “moral and intellectual capabilities?” If we did switch entirely to renewable energy sources, would the moral/intellectual character of our national identity change?

6 thoughts on “Discuss: Energy and moral capabilities

  1. You would think with as much as I read of your blogs I would be able to give a much more intellectual retort but to cut straight through the honey, honestly do not think so. My Logic “People Are Lazy!” Inherently we switchover from Fossil Fuels to Wind, Sun; Shit Plutonium driven homes and transportation and then generations down the road yeah, a Kid in school could explain how Solar cells work or how to create a coldfusion circuit but his parents and a majority of his peers will still not care enough about these processes that have become automated and disconnected from actual average human interaction. Now if every man and woman had to build their own solar cells, like most Families of the past had to grow their own food, then people would become wise to the technology they actually had to use everyday. but the masses have never put importance on knowing and understanding how things work as much as just needing it to work! Now as far as the image/ identity thing… Yeah sure other first/second world countries would take note and paint a pretty rainbow over North America but I only see small changes of actually closing the intelligence humanitarian gap. – Pessimist Me.

    I’m an IT support tech “specialist” for a Large Company and Most of my end users don’t care how it works, how to work it, or even if it’s working properly as long as it works. I have friends Male and Female alike who have gone over 6 months without looking under the hood of their car… As long as it works. Now It may cause people to live longer and feel better and hopefully live better. The rate of human cognitivity may rise with a change of how we create energy but Ultimately The Human Condition seems to always hinder the what should be Natural act of HIgher Evolution. – Realist Me.

    Heck yeah! We’ll be better and all the people who don’t get on board after that we can drag along the belt straps down the infrared light beamed road of Progress baby! This World is Always changing and People are always having to refine themselves out of the need to stay relevant and survival! So On with Progress and Taking all The Small Steps! 🙂 – Optimistic Me.

  2. It would seem to me that the basic cognitive functioning of regular people in cheap tennis shoes does not change much.

    Your example of the quote from the 1800’s shows this, and translates to the current views on oil/fossil fuels. Consider solar energy, then. We would most likely have the same view if faced with some unforeseen crisis in the supply sometime in the future, were we dependent upon it. Let’s say that someday in the future we gathered all, or most of our power from the sun. (We should be so lucky and smart!)

    There would be infrastructure to do this, and some sort of materiel from which to build the infrastructure. Perhaps that material falls into short supply, and there’s a crisis, a shortage, or the nation that supplies it has a corner on the market and the price is shooting through the roof (who knows, I’m postulating here). I could picture a scenario where people would be more than willing to rape the Earth to get the raw essences to produce and supply the market with whatever they thought was needed, and sell it at a premium, sure. And many would cluck and cry about how horrible it is that we are doing this, while at the same time using the power produced from the raping.

    Because historically, people have done this. For money, for gain, for control, for production of power, for industry, for safety, for nation-building, for life, for whatever.

    The question you ask as to whether or not we would change – I don’t think so, no. I would love to believe that it would change, but I don’t think it would. Not unless a major societal, worldwide sweep of change in mindset occurs.

    Major. Societal. Worldwide.

    There are ways to effect such a change.

  3. soopremekommander

    It would seem to me that the basic cognitive functioning of regular people in cheap tennis shoes does not change much.

    Your example of the quote from the 1800′s shows this, and translates to the current views on oil/fossil fuels. Consider solar energy, then. We would most likely have the same view if faced with some unforeseen crisis in the supply sometime in the future, were we dependent upon it. Let’s say that someday in the future we gathered all, or most of our power from the sun. (We should be so lucky and smart!)

    There would be infrastructure to do this, and some sort of materiel from which to build the infrastructure. Perhaps that material falls into short supply, and there’s a crisis, a shortage, or the nation that supplies it has a corner on the market and the price is shooting through the roof (who knows, I’m postulating here). I could picture a scenario where people would be more than willing to rape the Earth to get the raw essences to produce and supply the market with whatever they thought was needed, and sell it at a premium, sure. And many would cluck and cry about how horrible it is that we are doing this, while at the same time using the power produced from the raping.

    Because historically, people have done this. For money, for gain, for control, for production of power, for industry, for safety, for nation-building, for life, for whatever.

    The question you ask as to whether or not we would change – I don’t think so, no. I would love to believe that it would change, but I don’t think it would. Not unless a major societal, worldwide sweep of change in mindset occurs.

    Major. Societal. Worldwide.

    There are ways to effect such a change

  4. If one interprets “moral and intellectual capabilities” to mean the “basic cognitive functioning” of people, the outlook seems grim, indeed – for reasons touched upon by both Sethnicity and soopremekommander.

    But I’m not sure this is the sum total of what Jevons was getting at. He presents the plus side of modern, coal-driven industrial technologies – it has “given efficiency to our moral and intellectual capabilities” – and then immediately follows that with the down side: that the “material decay” (decline in manufacturing activity) brought on by coal shortage may “involve us in moral and intellectual retrogression.” This is a very sophisticated boost for industrialization as the driver for human beings to become more “civilized.” It was a common argument in the 19th century, that modern scientific and technological development, which contributed to the general progress of civilized society, was making us more moral, humane, and intellectually gifted human beings. Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously popped this balloon – in 1750, no less – and yet it continues to sail around above our heads as a kind of frenzied spectacle.

    Jevons seems to be assuming a strong connection between changes in our material environment and changes in our habits of thinking and behaving. I think this goes beyond “basic cognitive functioning” in that many of our habits are bodily; that is, they are not consciously done. Our basic ways of living can be analyzed in terms of what we think, say, and do; but what is most revealing of our most basic beliefs is what we *don’t* think and *don’t* do. What we consciously recognize as good or bad is only part of the story. What we even acknowledge as possible to begin with, and then as desirable afterward, is more indicative of what stands in the way of us making meaningful changes to our daily habits/lives.

    What I’m getting at is that much of the criticisms concerning continued energy development in spite of impending climatic changes and energy shortages concern what kind of lives we aspire to live, and what ways of living, or habits of living, are considered off-limits or undesirable to begin with. The consumer mentality is not just a set of cognitive assumptions regarding how to go about securing the means of living the kind of life one wants. It also conditions bodily habits and social relations (think about all the marketing frenzy around making every holiday into a gift-giving holiday); individual and cultural hopes or aspirations (which are often a mystery even to ourselves); and the capacity for us to imagine other ways of living. I would go farther with this last point in response to Jevon’s words: it is difficult for us to imaging other ways of living, and wanting other things from our lives than a family, a great job, a car, a house, a life-insurance policy, and some vacation time to boot. But it is even more difficult to imagine that other ways of living (that is, alternative relations to the natural environment outside of simply dominating and exploiting it) could be as good, or possibly even *better*, than how we live as fossil fuel addicts.

    • Quickly, to clarify what I meant with the balloon metaphor:

      The balloon that Rousseau popped (or tried to, as it were) was one that presumed that the progress of modern civilization was perfecting us as human beings – making us into the best human beings possible. Rousseau critiqued this strongly by pointing out that, in actuality, modern society’s emphasis on pursuing one’s self-interest has made us surprisingly crafty and quick to deceive and exploit one another, as well as making us feel incredibly isolated and disconnected from one another. We are simply more *comfortable* and *less inconvenienced* by life than our previous ancestors, but there is nothing to suggest that we are, in fact, more fulfilled and perfect human beings.

      Jevons, on the other hand, presumes that material prosperity is the way to achieve moral and intellectual perfection. I think the modern secular American experience of extreme anxiety and alienation – the rat-race of consumer capitalism – properly hits that assumption where the sun don’t shine.

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