How the modern world turns

Turn crank to operateWe often congratulate ourselves about our civilization and how advanced it is. We’re modern and we have a high standard of living, and for that, we usually credit our ever-advancing technological know-how.

That’s only partly true. Modern civilization means machines, not just in the lab, but machines everywhere: machines we depend on in order to lead our modern lives. To be modern, in the popular conception of it, is to be sophisticated, comfortable, well-fed and well-served — all watched over by machines of loving grace, to borrow Richard Brautigan’s phrase.

But we shouldn’t overlook one central fact. The machines may be sophisticated, and they may take a lot of technological know-how, but for every one of them, something still has to turn the crank.

Early on, it was slaves that turned the crank that made the gadget go; sometimes it was oxen. Occasionally, if you had just the right location, you could get a river to turn the crank. But that took some looking around, and no doubt, meant some pricey real estate.

Little wonder that technology took so long to catch on. Pre-modern people weren’t any less clever than we are, so that’s certainly not it. And they were probably just as inclined to conserve personal energy. Leonardo’s devices, for example, didn’t lack for cleverness, but they all suffered from the same drawback: ultimately, somebody would have to turn the crank.

Then an ironmonger named Newcomen came along and showed that really hot water could turn the crank, given a bit of ironmongery between the two. Best yet, hot water wouldn’t complain about low wages or enslavement, so technology as we know it was off and running. All you needed was a way to boil the water — just put some fuel under it, light up, and you’re in business. In all, a great day for humanity: we could now replace slavery with fuel.

However, the fuel of the day was also in demand for making glass by the acre for ducal mansions and hundred-gun ships-of-the-line for royal navies. Just one of these vessels, James IV’s Great Michael, reportedly “wasted all the oakwoods in Fyfe.” Those trees just weren’t growing back fast enough to keep the dukes and kings happy, and most importantly, the water boiling. A lot of people were rallying to the idea of letting the fuel do the work — enough to transform society, in fact — and for that to happen, it was going to take a lot of trees.

As it did happen, a certain combustible mineral was also available, in use already among certain specialists like ironmongers. It was messy, smelly, a hassle to dig up and godawful unhealthy, but it was available. Moreover, it was available in quantity, which by now was a key factor.

To those with a stake in the crank-turning business, this must have been quite a relief, like a debtor coming into a trust fund. But there was a catch. Whereas an oak forest in Scotland is like a steady income, coal is more like an inheritance. With the one, you’re fine long-term if you stay within your means; with the other, you dip into it again and again until soon the dipping is done. Petroleum is the same way. That’s the trouble with fossil fuels — they’re a one-time deal.

For today and the near future, this could be awkward. If “modern” essentially means machinery in abundance, it also has to mean fuel in abundance. This raises an interesting question: how modern can we expect to be when fuel is scarce?

The abundance of fossil fuel that enabled modern life is starting to be less so, and indeed is heading for scarcity. We are not yet post-modern in that sense, but we soon will be — soon enough that most people alive today are going to be dealing with it. Oil has already peaked and coal is about to, with the added complication that coal’s availability depends on oil for mining and transport.

Whatever fuel comes after fossil fuel, we can only be as modern as the amount of it available. We can invent new machines, but not new sources of energy. Energy sources come to us on their own terms — unfortunately, none of the replacement candidates offer terms as generous as fossil fuels did. Not by a long shot.

We will still have fuel of some kind, just much less of it. We’ll still have a civilization of some kind, perhaps even one that’s advanced in other ways. And we’ll have that celebrated know-how, as well. With a little more of it, we can probably make the transition to a post-modern civilization without too much calamity, but we shouldn’t count on bringing a whole lot of the machinery along with us.

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