What is a Human Being Worth? Less Per Barrel Than You’d Think

Sharon July 20th, 2008

The Gents over at The Oil Drum are having a discussion of what human labor is worth in energy equivalents.  Luis de Sousa rather unfortunately titled the post “What Is a Human Being Worth?” - obviously, he was being tongue in cheek, but also obviously, he wasn’t fully prepared for the kind of response that question generates. If you want to gently joke about human value, and implicitly raise issues like slavery and Nazism as part of your joke, well, you can pretty much expect what you get.  Some folks will mind, some won’t, but I think any whinging about how it was just a joke and that we don’t really have to talk about moral and ethical stuff, we were trying to be *empirical* about it doesn’t get any of my sympathy. 

Now I adore The Oil Drum, and I owe the guys having this conversation a lot - I’ve learned a lot from them.  But this article does kind of make Crunchy Chicken’s point about gender and the peak oil movement come up to the forefront - this post felt like a circle jerk at the boys club.  It must have been fun while they were doing it - “Hey, can we figure out what a human being is worth?  And express it in kilowatt hours? Cool!” Oy vey.  And I realize I’m a mere humanities scholar, and totally graph free, but if you were comparing something to barrels of oil, a source of energy wouldn’t you want to compare the source of my energy with the machine’s energy, rather than the source of energy with me? 

The most interesting part of the article (I’m tempted to say the only interesting part, but I’m trying to play nice) is the comments.  Like Bart Anderson and Kiashu, I think that the question is being asked badly - hmmm…who can run faster, me or a barrel of oil? Now I’m by no means a serious runner, but I still think that I could outdistance the barrel pretty good.   Well, but if you give the barrel of oil a human manufactured and maintained motorcycle, it can outrun me, you say.  True, but do I get a person to maintain me, maybe a personal trainer?  Without me on it to steer, the oil in the motorbike can presumably go faster, but will fall over pretty quick, won’t it?  I, on the other hand, won’t hit a tree for at least umm…two minutes? 

Then there’s the quality of the work - what about helping Grandma to the bathroom?  Now a robot designed to help a big nursing home full of Grandmas to the potty might well be able to do more assisting than I do - on the other hand, Grandma probably doesn’t like the robot and its probes nearly as much as she likes me (well, for most versions of “Grandma”), and then comes the problem of the occasional beheading caused by robot error - well within the statistical margin, but those that like Grandma get pretty annoyed and start bemoaning the loss of the good old days when Grandma never got beheaded in the nursing home (they probably can’t remember the days when she didn’t even have to go there).

The best computer programs in existence with a lot of human guidance to design parameters could probably produce more words than me on a barrel of oil.  But would they be better, more on-topic, more engaging, more titillating than my words?  I’m not sure I want y’all to answer that ;-), but the old “an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters writing for an infinite amount of time would eventually produce the works of Shakespeare” bit does apply.  And while my works may well be more on the order of 5 monkeys working for 15 minutes, I still will bet that I can mock the TOD Dudes attempting to do the math on human worth better than the best humor generating programs (except for the one now using the cyborg brain of George Carlin, of course).

But there is a reason I’m pointing this out - because underlying a lot of people’s thinking about peak oil is a “OMG…we use X number of terajoules of energy to do Y, and now we’ve got to replace it with backbreaking human labor - and doing even the most essential things - digging ditches or growing food, pays for shit -  we’re all gonna be slaves!” 

Now there are several problems with this analysis, but I want to focus on one important one - the fact that cheap energy has had the function devaluing human labor.  This is fairly obvious - if a gallon of gas can do the equivalent of four men’s work digging outhouses in one day, and the gallon of gas (plus the machine to use it, the man to operate it and the (almost certainly subsidized)  infrastructure to support it) is cheaper, the value of the men’s labor as outhouse diggers drops to…zero.  Because no one in their right mind will hire them, instead of the machine and its dude.  Or maybe not quite zero - perhaps some people with money to spare will see the value of hand-dug outhouses, and tell their friends, and a small niche market will arise - but most people won’t.  And most of the outhouse diggers will have to go do something else to make money.  The best money, obviously, will be in doing things machines don’t do well (yet), like helping Grandma to the potty, writing blogs about the injustices of society and breastfeeding (oh, wait, the money for all of those things sucks… damn, the fact that I’m not an economist kicks me in the ass again.)   

You’d think that doing stuff machines and oil can’t do would pay pretty well, but in fact, the fossil fuels essentially devalue all human labor - the highest paid jobs become not the ones that machines can’t do that benefit society, but the ones that enable more fossil fuel usage, because functionally, cheap energy is (this seems obvious, but I make it explicit because its amazing what people miss) a way of printing money - getting a lot of work done for virtually nothing is a great way to make a profit - that’s why people used to like slavery, and then they liked fossil fuels. In fact, they devalue human work so much you can’t do the work even if you want to - you can’t breastfeed your baby because you have to go back to work at Walmart 3 weeks after the birth (because you are needed to help the growth economy), and you can’t manufacture things things, because the things are too expensive if they pay you a living wage - the only way they can use human labor is to find labor that is literally cheaper than oil - by creating economic structures that ensure that the wealth doesn’t get spread around and that there always are people who are cheaper than oil.  So it isn’t so much work that machines don’t do well that is valued but work that enables the expansion of energy use, and thus, more exchange of cash - for example, being a real estate developer paid (until the energy prices started to rise) really, really well - because they make new markets, and make new uses for fossil fuels - all those houses need faucets and insulation, all those suburbanites need grocery stores and gas stations, all those new toilets need toilet paper. 

Now the economy and culture that rise up don’t just value things that enable things that involve burning stuff more than things that don’t, they explicitly *DEVALUE* things that don’t - that is, it isn’t just that now the guys who used to build outhouses can’t do that work any more, it is that the very fact that they used to do that is now treated as appalling, strange and bad.  People marvel that anyone could ever have done it at all, and describe the work as “drudgery” and “backbreaking” - which may be true - the guys digging the outhouses may well have hated it, and may well have preferred their new jobs, unloading pallets at Walmart to digging outhouses.  Probably on rainy days, the certainly did - although maybe when their boss was timing their bathroom breaks they missed their old job and the convenient woods, and when they were working a 12 hour shift under the flourescent lights on a beautiful, breezy fall day, who knows?  Certainly, their backs probably hurt either way. 

The women who used to nurse their babies aren’t just doing something different, or contributing to a different segment of the economy (ummm…healthy intelligent workers - those aren’t useful, are they?)  what they are doing is arcane and immodest, maybe a little dirty,  showing off their boobs like that.   Certainly, it is anti-intellectual and a waste of what education they had -  staying at home rotting their brains, rather than going to do some useful work where someone else can care for the baby while your boss times you as you attempt to pump breastmilk on the toilet of the Walmart bathroom.  Of course, you give up, but that’s good, because that creates jobs for formula manufacturers and Baby Stalin Video developers.

And not only do they devalue that work, but they devalue the men and women themselves  who weren’t “smart” enough to get in on the ground floor of the fossil fuel pyramid scheme - we make a lot of redneck jokes, and talk about how important our work is and how we’re too important or smart to clean toilets or wipe bums ( And yes, these are actual things I’ve heard expressed quite explicitly)  Doing work that can be done by machines and oil (unless you manage a niche market like the perfect outhouses, coming soon to a Martha Stewart show near you), like weeding, breastfeeding or digging means you must be dumb - because didn’t you know we can do that with fossil fuels now?  Or better yet,  or with a combination of fossil fuels and people whose main characteristic is that they are cheaper than oil.  

 And it isn’t just these folks - anything that can be profitably done with cheap fossil fuels is obviously devalued -  but also, oil produces a lot of energy.  I know, I know…duh.  But bear with me.  This is its virtue, but also its cost.  At first you can take the obviously demanding jobs and replace them with machines and oil, and make slow things go faster.  Now maybe that’s ok and maybe it isn’t - we don’t do a lot of intellectual case by case thinking about this stuff -  but after a while, all the outhouse diggers are out of business.  But we still have all this energy coming in - and now we have to grow into to work that isn’t so well done with fossil fuels - work that doesn’t get done with powered machines, but that can only be replaced either with diminishing quality (ie, Grandma gets probed by a potty-machine instead of having her need for help and kindness met simultaneously), or by convincing people that what isn’t as good really is.  So, for example, despite the manifest case that industrial food production produces food that tastes like shit, has fewer nutrients and is more toxic, we have to be told that this is progress, that Campbell’s Soup is better than homemade and that Grandma is pissed not because she doesn’t like where the probe goes, but also because the frozen lasagna is better than hers ever was. 

And that’s the other way that fossil fuels devalue human labor - they convince us that the world we get with fossil fuels is  equivalent in every respect to the human powered one, that we can do analyses like the one being done at The Oil Drum, and that there’s no danger, nothing inherently demeaning there in sitting around and discussing how many barrels of oil a human being is worth.  Not only do fossil fuels devalue human labor directly, but because they produce so much energy, they must create uses for that energy - they are the primary agency of growth - a 30-1 EROEI for oil means that even if we only need to use 10 barrels of oil for everyone we extract, we have to create a need for the other 20.  Thus, you start out replacing the outhouse diggers, and replacing hand loomed cloth with machine loomed cloth, making huge differences in productivity - but gradually you start making bread machines and salad shooters and clothes dryers that don’t really do the job any better than human beings with ambient energies.  But we can’t tell anyone that’s not true - so you start selling the idea that you need a bread machine to make bread, and a backhoe to dig a hole and formula to feed a baby and that these things are better, or at a minimum just the same.  

When you have children, you can do enormous harm to them by following them around and telling them “no, don’t try that, it is too hard, too dangerous” - the result is children without self-confidence, without courage, and without competence.  What they are “worth” (and I used that term ironically here) as human beings is shaped by the ways they are valued and supported by the surrounding infrastructure (ie, the people who love and care for them).  The same is true of human beings at large, and of ordinary adults.  In this case, it is fossil fuels that stand in for overprotective parents, telling us, implicitly by the very existence of the machines and explicitly through advertising that we are not competent, that our own energies are insufficient to the job.  The very existence of the rototiller says “The shovel is insufficient” - and most people who purchase one probably do so, not after extensive trials with the shovel and with mulch, but because they “know” that the rototiller is necessary. The formula that comes in the little bag they give you in the hospital when you have a baby says “Your breasts probably won’t work as advertised - we can’t trust in them, or in you.”  In the same sense, we “know” that most of the work we do that doesn’t require fossil fuels isn’t really valuable, because, after all, it could be done much more cheaply with fossil fuels, or with one of the people “liberated” from their old jobs digging ditches or growing foods who can now do the cheap labor of caring for our children or cooking our dinners.   In the net, a whole host of people from anthropologists to Juliet Schor have shown that industrial society needs more of our time and energy than either agrarian or other subsistence societies - that is, the push to burn the oil also means a push to get us pushing the buttons that burn the oil, and making money to buy the salad shooter - it means besides telling us we can’t do things, it embeds us in a system that absorbs the time we might have had to get stuff done.

What happens in a lower energy world, or one where energy isn’t cheap anymore?  Do we have to put all those human beings on treadmills to run the machines that make the wii systems, and then have someone running behind your kid generating power while he’s pretending to run on his wii?  Hmmm… just maybe there’s a simpler way.  Like maybe a large percentage of the activities that seem so necessary when we have all these fossil fuels we have to burn won’t seem so necessary. Maybe the question isn’t “is it more efficient for Steve to fly or walk from Alabama to Michigan for his business meeting” but “will it be necessary for Steve to work for a company that sells B to B software and has business meetings in Michigan?”  Might it be possible, in a world where energy isn’t cheap anymore to shift our valuation of things, to valuing human labor highly enough to support someone doing something more useful, and perhaps closer?

Might it even be possible to ask a different question - how much human time and energy is required to support the infrastructure for a fairly simple, reasonably humane, low energy, mostly human powered society, that gets to keep some of the best elements of the fossil fueled world, while jettisoning the rest?  And then, how much human time and energy is required to support a heavily industrialized, toxic society that devalues human beings?  There’s a very good chance that the answer to the first question is *less human work* than the answer to the second one.  Juliet Schor’s explorations, and Helena Norberg Hodge’s research in Ladakh, as well as investigations into Hunter-Gatherer societies and the work of historians generally all pretty much agree - most people worked rather less than we do in most agrarian socieities - they worked long hours during planting and harvest, and very short ones in the winter or the rainy season.  The averages range from 2-4 hours of daily work to support all the need of a !Kung to a daily average of about 6 hours per day in medieval agrarian societies.

I am grateful for fossil fuels in my life, and I use them, if advisedly and with care.  My point is not “fossil fuels are evil” - they aren’t.  But they have consequences, practical, economic, moral as well as phsyical ones that go unexplored in this kind of very narrow analysis.   To a degree, it is only possible for us to be sitting here asking what human beings are worth in relationship to a barrel of oil because fossil fuels enable us to devalue human labor, and humans themselves so thoroughly.  One Oil Drum commenter suggests that it would be useful to think about how many slaves fossil fuels have replaced - but in fact, as I’ve written about here, and as recent studies have suggested, there are more slaves in the world now than there ever were pre-fossil fuels.  The fact is that slavery is an expression of how we value other human lives - the idea that we can honestly transform people into energy and dollars.  This is not dependent on fossil fuels - but it can be enabled by them (and by other things as pre-modern slave societies show) - it is enabled by any model that represents human beings primarily as a source of energy.  I understand that the people doing this analysis meant to be contributing something useful to the world - but what they succeeded in doing was rather different - their article is as much a defense of this kind of ethics free reductionism as it is an exercise in mathematics.

So what’s a human being worth? Not nearly as much as you’d hope, it seems. 


50 Responses to “What is a Human Being Worth? Less Per Barrel Than You’d Think”

  1. steveon 20 Jul 2023 at 1:31 pm

    Very well said Sharon. I enjoy your blog so much, please keep it up. Your brain is so much better than a barrel of grease any day. Hey, your old buddy Shrubster came to my town the other day. I guess he came to see some relative Manzinita or some other brush burn in our horrible fires here in NorCal. I feel like on Orc in a Tolstoy novel. The sun and the moon are orange the sky is gray. Oh, I put 50 lb.s of 13 bean soup mix, 55 lb.s of white rice, and some sprouting seeds in food grade buckets that I found in dumpsters and washed. Thankyou, once again, Steve.

  2. Aprilon 20 Jul 2023 at 2:04 pm

    Fantastic post! And just think about the excess “things” we could learn to do without that are actually made with the labor of modern-day slaves (um, many imports from SE Asia?)…

  3. Hummingbirdon 20 Jul 2023 at 2:22 pm

    Hi Sharon. I’m speechless. I just read your post and went to the Oil Drum to see what the fuss was about. You are right.
    The post and discussion are like something out of the cotton planting south. “let’s see, If I buy 2 healthy young males will I get more work than if I buy a buxom girl and breed slaves on her.” What world are these guys living in?

    I like the Oil Drum. I have been reading it almost daily since shortly before hurricane Katrina three years ago when I read Jim Kuntsler’s book. I have learned a lot and have been impressed by the level of expertise and the mostly civil discourse that takes place there. A high point was the worldwide collaborative effort that produced a peer reviewed scientific paper about the state of the Ghawar oil field right on line in full view. This was a real revolutionary act for a group of scientists.

    Today is an unfortunate aberration that I hope the editors will not allow to be repeated. It is unspeakable and I can’t understand why it is still up there.

  4. TheNormalMiddleon 20 Jul 2023 at 2:38 pm

    I find it incredibly hard to put a price tag on the human element.

    Yes, we can wax eloquent about jobs and how much energy they create/waste, and so on and so forth.

    But nobody can put a price tag on that sweet little 4-year-old-darling who climbed in bed with me this morning for an extra long snuggle.

    Humanity was never meant to be measured.
    Jobs, maybe. But humanity, priceless.

  5. Ailsa Ekon 20 Jul 2023 at 3:53 pm

    I was commenting to my husband recently that the more important and necessary a task is, the less we pay for it or value it, whereas if a task doesn’t need doing at all, we pay people exorbitant sums to do it.

  6. sealanderon 20 Jul 2023 at 4:25 pm

    Sorry, I got sidetracked on the whole concept of a salad shooter….is that a real appliance? I’m envisioning something that fires lettuces into walls at high speed.

  7. RCon 20 Jul 2023 at 5:29 pm

    Thanks for a massive post. Having reached the point where I would really rather manicure and massage my hillside and my backyard {two different growing locations} into more glorious fruition, but cannot, due to age and catastrophic injury, I often think about employing others or using machines. The employee I do work with uses no machine, petrol based or just mechanical, unless you count machetes, knives and shovels.
    To make a long comment short, your statement that you would use some powered machines judiciously is interesting. In my case, I can barely swing a weed whacker and using a roto- tiller would be suicidal.
    In short, where are the ditch digger guys, and can I afford to hire them? My experience to date is that they cost far more {high input} than can be justified.
    Yet, the glories of petroleum do not translate to subsistence farming either.

  8. Paula Hewitton 20 Jul 2023 at 5:31 pm

    I am always amazed by people (extended family members among them) who tell me what a good job we are doing raising our kids, but on the other tell me i should have a ‘real’ job and be earning money, and i am wasing my education and intelligence sitting at home breastfeeding (no longer), reading to kids, cooking, gardening…. making things for us to eat, wear, survive. How is this less worthy than , say, selling tupperware, cosmetics or pushing papers around on a desk? raising kids who (worth more than a barrel of oil or not) have at least some idea how to fend for themselves and doing a good job of raising them seems important to us. another point - every family friendly strategy our new (supposed left wing) gov’t talks about seems to be about increasing childcare availability, reducing costs of such care etc - nothing about the fact that assisting a single income family (whether it is the mother or father) is at least as family friendly.

    and i agree the notion of wasting money and resources to, for example, buy a kid a wii so they can get some exercise is ludicrous - they can run around outside for free. plenty of other examples of this idiocy abound.

    I am constantly amazed at the amount of money and reources spent on things that a simply not requirements for life - both on a personal level (cosmetics, electronic games etc) and on a larger scale (olympic games, Pope visits etc - heresy on both counts i know). If everybody just stopped (or even slowed down) the unneccesary stuff the world would be a better place.

  9. Carolon 20 Jul 2023 at 7:36 pm

    Yes yes yes yes. I was tuning in for “independence days” and caught this one full in the face. Had to turn off the talk radio station 2 paragraphs in and stopped folding the laundry (just off the line in back) altogether just so I could follow. Sharon, as you posted the other day re: Jim Kunstler, “for sheer ferocious, delicious prose, there is no one like you. Shit, this gal can write”.

    The entire time reading and re-reading was spent either hopping up and down and saying “yes!” or wishing to all heck I knew more stats so I could echo your post with lots of great supporting data. Perhaps the fact that there isn’t much is, itself, part of the point. There are things that we haven’t learned that we cannot quantify.

    Here are just a few thoughts
    I am now actively canning. Sometimes, when I’ve been chopping vegetables for, say 4 hours, I think “gosh, I could just go get some things already in cans and it would be cheaper than these local vegetables and my labor.” But I persist in my ridiculous, non-economically informed activity, despite lots of college. In part because my children are watching, and guess what? Those rows of jars give me more delight than a trailer-full of groceries from Martins.

    I also weave. But my loom sits quietly waiting in the basement. needless to say it’s cheaper to buy cloth of any kind, than to buy the thousands of yards of warp and weft needed, and my time, to warp, string, tie-up, and weave the pattern of, say a 150-year-old overshot pattern the illiterate frontier women who inhabited these hills would have made (Ancient Rose, Cat Tracks and Snail Trails, others). Why? I have a 50-hour a week job pushing email around to pay for this house and land that prevents me from doing the things I would otherwise be engaged in. Like warping my loom.

    And what is lost when we lose the human element of creation?
    history, muscle memory, the pain of childbirth and the joy of that first bicycle ride - the one where you knew you controlled the machine, you powered the thing, you had learned that new skill that even time, and responsibility, and mortgages and divorce and downsizing and dementia would resist erasing from brain. It would just be learned, and that learning kept…”Like learning to ride a bike.” Despite our best efforts, the body, and the brain, retain the skills that support self-reliance and enrich us.

    A big part of what’s missing in the “sustainability” conversation is the opportunity to create a world that actually sustains us – ie, in a world where scarcity is a reality, and you’re throwing things out of the boat, how do you realize you have the opportunity to define your life as much by what limits us (peak oil) as by what you can generate that sustains everyone: your family, your community, your world. Fact is, most of that requires honing and learning, or re-learning skills that our great-grandparents knew well. And it’s as simple as breastfeeding. Or making applesauce. Or keeping seed.

    I have heard, and I believe, that people in agrarian societies worked fewer hours than we do. I have no other data to support that knowing, in the muscles of your legs and arms, how to weave a 150-year old pattern that women wrapped their babies, living and dead, in, has value. That digging a ditch, that we literally spent today doing with our 8 and 14 year old children, has value and is a skill worth knowing. That knowing how to tend a garden, care for an animal, darn a sock, knit a sweater, drain a clogged pipe, build a fence, cook a meal, are not only important fundamental skills, but part of the human expression.

    I’ll just close with an excerpt form the song “bread and roses” which originated with a labor strike led in large part by women, and was used thereafter as a suffragette song. Although it clearly came to being in a time when women were fighting for the right to leave the “kitchen” and possess the vote, It has, I think, new pertinence in defying a paradigm where we, and the work of our hands and minds, are devalued by a system that creates need even as it devalues our time, our skill and our lives.

    As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day/A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
    Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses/For the people hear us singing: Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!

    As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days/The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
    No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes/But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses.
    Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes/Hearts starve as well as bodies; bread and roses, bread and roses.

    Damn the torpedos, I’m getting out the loom. Just as soon as I make my 14-year-old read your post.

  10. Joannaon 20 Jul 2023 at 9:08 pm

    Clearly they have entirely too much time on their hands. Time that would be far better spent digging out a privy, or some other honest occupation. Sheesh.

  11. Kiashuon 20 Jul 2023 at 10:25 pm

    CC and Sharon it seems are right about the gender split in these discussions. My fellow males are, unfortunately, really stupid about these things. I apologise on their behalf, I think perhaps they’re just stuck in their parents’ basements a bit too long, and don’t have enough social interaction to understand these things properly.

    “Cheap fossil fuels devalue human life” is a brilliant insight. It’s one of those things you read and slap your forehead saying, “so obvious! so true! why didn’t I think of that?!”

    I like what one bloke said,

    “Frankly the whole discussion of oil vs. human labor is nothing more than a veiled form of pro oil propaganda, with the message being “you will burn lots of oil or you will be a slave.” Heaven forbid that a human attempt to actually think their way out of the problem”

    We’re not all stupid, you know. Honest.

  12. Segwyneon 20 Jul 2023 at 10:31 pm

    I am reminded of the time my husband was unemployed a few years back. I had quit the workforce just one year prior to raise our (then) four children, homeschool them, and make our house a home. My husband lost his landscaping job either through some profound miscommunication (the extent of which makes it rather unlikely) or malice on his boss’ part, and so was collecting unemployment while taking a class through the Red Cross to become an LNA, a job that would offer year-round employment. Our children were then ages 9, 6, 3, and 1. My job before I quit just barely covered the cost of daycare, sometimes not. I had someone scold me (in front of my children, no less) for not rejoining the workforce to support us while my husband went through the class (which was a full-time class, he was gone about 6-8 hours a day). She told me it was better for me to put my children in daycare and go away to work than to stay home and take care of my children, and what is worse, she persisted in this even after I pointed out the economic unfeasability of it, paying more than my paycheck for daycare. She just couldn’t get it through her head that I was saving my family money by staying home. The most disgusting part of the whole situation was that it was my mother doing this, a woman who made the exact same decisions when I was young and my dad lost his job for two years. She didn’t go back to work then, but expected me to.

  13. Brad K.on 20 Jul 2023 at 10:46 pm

    Sharon, good rant. But about half way though, it seemed that you slipped from substance of argument to embellishment.

    I think the argument of ‘oil or human power’ is way too ignorant to worry about.

    We moved ships across oceans several years before we started steaming and using fossil fuels. Some sailing ships are still built today, so we could return to that mode if we had to.

    Water ran over and under water wheels, windmills ground grain and pumped water with no more fossil fuel than maybe some grease (or goose grease if that was available). Dams were built, and bridges, too.

    The scenes from the recent movie of Evan Almighty while building the Ark came to mind. Now, I admit this is Hollywood and not historically accurate - yet circuses used elephants and horses to accomplish construction of facilities.

    Many Amish farmers in the US still use horses to till the field and harvest, many use horses for common transportation. According to what I read in the Small Farmers Journal, some farmers still train oxen. What the publisher of Rural Heritage magazine, from Jackson County, TN, tells me is that oxen are preferred in the Appalachian Mountains for logging - they are more sure-footed.

    I feel the entire ‘world measures it’s downfall in oil’ argument misses the point. The value of oil and coal is portability and agility to apply energy to a problem. The money guys foisting high priced cars and SUV’s and getting richer on oil today, will still make money in the future, most of them. When the commodities are good quality farm ground, farming skills, and non-fossil fuel technologies, the money will be in contracts, transportation, windmill manufacturers - in short, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

    When you dig the outhouse holes for a major league football game, you might be digging by hand in post-oil times, but you might also be deep trenching with other mechanical devices - or taking other approaches.

    And I have thoughts on the value of breastfeeding in particular, and low-paid work in general.

    Rather than consider a wife as badly underpaid for the work she accomplishes, for the skills she applies in keeping home and family, consider the organization as feudal. If the family, and community, were truly purely capitalist, then everything would easily be measured in dollars.

    But it isn’t. The historical model of marriage, a man with a household, was feudal. By pledging fealty to the man, a wife gains security and support, not a wage. Only recently in historical terms have households been so exclusively close family. There used to be hired hands, maids, housekeepers, cooks, etc. that were all considered part of the household, with loyalty to the head of house. And wages were usually not *competitive*.

    We can do this again. You point out in other articles the likely need to take in other family members and possibly other individuals, to provide basic support with an assumption of receiving non-financial aid as helpers and companions.

    The Amish express satisfaction with raising their family on a farm. A farm can provide an almost never-ending amount of work for children to do. And the work - real work, work that if shirked means someone goes hungry - is necessary to develop character in children. (Or adults?)

    And this works at the community level. Often small acts comfort or aid others, with no finances in sight. Maybe just a slight pause at a traffic intersection to provide a pedestrian or driver more room and time when they need it. Maybe inviting a lonely neighbor on a shopping trip. Maybe a couple of families trade off watching children.

    Need we place a price tag on breastfeeding an infant? Or toddler? I understand that only recently have we stopped breast feeding before age four (4) years, and that four is still the world average for weaning.

    Where the price tag comes in is in social engineering - reorganizing society to accomplish an artificial goal. When a new mother must work, then she and her family compare the value and costs of breastfeeding with returning to work and feeding the infant artificially. And that is *still* not a price tag on breastfeeding.

    The value of breastfeeding is in satisfaction for the mother, in a healthier baby that develops more normally emotionally. The benefits reach down the years for generations.

    Working outside the home is not an aspect of fossil fuels. Nor is digging outhouse holes, etc. Oil and other fossil fuels are tools, commodities used by those that dabble and direct the flow of wealth in the US. Oil and the transportation of oil doesn’t equate to printing money. It is the transportation and use of commodities *in general* that print money.

    Currently oil and other fossil fuels are the Long Poles in the coming Tent of Storms and Crises. But there are other issues that will raise challenges.

    And worrying that the price of breastfeeding being a function of the price of oil is misleading. You might as well state the price of breastfeeding is set by the cost of enforcing indecent exposure laws, or at least defending against charges. Or maybe the price is indirectly affected by how solvent strip clubs are in the area.

    There are acts of love in the world. You worry about the price of something you want to sell to make money. No one else cares about the money, whether the issue is breastfeeding or digging the family outhouse hole.

  14. Shaneon 20 Jul 2023 at 10:59 pm

    If oil devalues the capacity of a human being to do physical work, then perhaps the potential for computers to devalue the capacity of humans for thought is only part way through its course.

    In the same way the pedals and steering wheel of a car allow human scaled movements to be translated into the machine scaled movements of petroleum fuelled vehicles, perhaps similarly the keyboard, mouse and screen act to leverage finer human thoughts into larger scale heavy data lifting on a computer.
    When the car or the computer crashes a similar result is wrought. Suddenly the underlying living mechanism is revealed. The snail becomes a slug.

    The trick is that the car and the computer both rely on an intensive and seamless infrastructure to maintain their advantage. Take away the fuel and the seamless and endless roads, or the continuous supply of electricity, and both machines quickly lose their advantage over the human driven process.

    This excellent post by Sharon really highlights for me the difficulties in managing parallel lives that are functional on both the petroleum/electricity driven scale and the more resilient human driven scale. Living in both worlds simultaneously is a trickier exercise than living in either one exclusively (and trying to completely live in one while the society around you lives in the other appears to be near enough to impossible).

  15. Sue (coffeepot)on 21 Jul 2023 at 1:49 am

    What I don’t get about it is that if someone does feel that a wii, or a salad shooter, or bread machine enriches their life what is that to others?

    It is sort of like “someone other than Sharon” telling me that instead of being on this box in my kitchen called a computer and reading Sharon’s thoughts about what she reads on her box called a computer, I should be doing whatever else that “someone” considered would enrich my life.

    People are different and different people value different things.

    Everything we do effects others whether it is salad shooting, wii, bread machineing or reading Sharon’s box thoughts.

    We all smoke up each others atmosphere and how we all do it is sort of an individual preference.

  16. Sue (coffeepot)on 21 Jul 2023 at 2:30 am

    Oh I get it…maybe it is the social aspect again.

    The thought box reading could be “richer” while the salad shooting could be “poorer”, thereby making the thought box reading a more worthy enrichment and thereby some people so much better than others.

  17. Sue (coffeepot)on 21 Jul 2023 at 3:40 am

    and as far as grandma being shafted by the robot..

    This grandma would take the robot over being a burden on my grandchildren any day of the week.

  18. Paulaon 21 Jul 2023 at 5:49 am

    This conversation is going back to the Mommy wars, in some aspects. I have two children, 3 and 6. Luckily, I was able to be home with them for most of their first three years, on and off. Since last winter, I have been back at work full-time. My calculations indicate that we were much further ahead when I worked part-time at night and my hubby worked FT days. Our lives are harried and stressful now. I am certain that our fossil fuel expenditures have tripled since I’ve been back FT.

    Anyone who sits and preaches to me about the necessity of me being in the workforce FT gets blasted. I am so tired of the frickin arguments related to “wasting intelligence” by being home with children. I have been at both ends of the workforce while raising kids, home and away from home. I certainly know which makes a more satisfying life for my family. If you haven’t been home with your children yet, you should really try it once.

    Pardon me now. I have to go weed our garden before I head off to the office. Need to go get a couple antacid tabs too.


  19. Rebeccaon 21 Jul 2023 at 6:46 am

    The very idea of calculating the value of a human life, or the value of nature or wild land, or anything else that is inherently sacred and therefore priceless, raises my hackles as very little else will. It’s *wrong* to try and put a value on a human life, plain and simple. The EPA just lowered their estimate, and they’ll plug that number in their cost-benefit analyses to see how many human lives they can trade for more air pollution before the cost of benefit payouts and such becomes “prohibitive”. I’d like to take those models and shove them where the sun don’t shine. Same with the TOD guys who thought this up.

    Sorry…I just get a little hot under the collar where this sort of thing is concerned. Obviously.

    Paula, re buying a WII versus sending the kids outside to play: most of the parents I know don’t want their kids outside, period. They’re too afraid they’ll get hurt or kidnapped. A poll came out last year that basically asked would you rather keep your kids inside all day playing video games even if that made them obese and you knew they would die by the age of 40 or let them go outside to play? The overwhelming majority of respondents would rather keep their kids in. The comments said they’d rather keep their kids “safe” -and shorten their lives -than risk so much as a scraped knee outside. Hello???

  20. Sue (coffeepot)on 21 Jul 2023 at 6:50 am

    I don’t think any of it is mommy wars.

    It reminds me more of wanting to go back in time when it is obvious that we are no longer in Kansas.

    When they wanted to go back to Egypt that is when they began running in circles, and sometimes that is all that I can even get from reading here are circles.

    I get tired of cycles for some reason.

  21. knutty knitteron 21 Jul 2023 at 6:51 am

    It would be all very well if value was equal all over. Then maybe there would be some sense in the market thingy. The trouble is I can’t compete with imports at present just because of oil and monetary values. Transport is cheap and allows other economies to undermine what I can achieve.

    As a potter, I made a good line in terracotta pots. This was all ok and allowed me an income of sorts especially when mugs and other useful items were added. Then one fine day somebody discovered that they could get in large quantities of pots from Asia for a fraction of the cost. The market was flooded and I had to stop potting and be unemployed.

    The problem as I see it is not that the pots were imported but that they were priced unfairly low. This gave me no chance to compete on a level playing field. As to how much is a human worth? Not much when you can get it cheaper somewhere else!

    And yes I too get the crap about being a stay at home mum!

    ps If you want to know where we live try the Baldwin Street thing..ours is the house at the front with the white lace veranda. I run a craft shop in the front room and the roof is now mostly blue instead of rusty :)

    viv in nz

  22. Sharonon 21 Jul 2023 at 7:10 am

    Sue, first of all, are there really no other choices between the robots and being “a burden?” - None at all? I sometimes thought of the care of my husband’s grandparents as work I’d rather not be doing - much as I think of doing the dishes or weeding some days, but I don’t think I ever experienced them as a burden. And they were comfortable coming to live with us in part, precisely because they had cared for Eric’s grandmother’s parents - and they understood that it was never unmixed, but that it was a pleasure and a gift as well as work. That’s part of what I mean about oil devaluing human beings and their work - the oil society tells us that the relationship between parents and children or grandchildren can only be burdensome. First you are burdened with this inconvenient babies that require all that butt wiping, then with this unpleasant teenagers that constantly question you, and then they get burdened with you. But what if we thought of it, and chose to experience it as reciprocal? Not all societies have viewed their relationship to the elderly as burdensome, or every elderly person too physically frail to participate as a non-contributor?

    As for the other issue - if it is just as matter of how does each of us allocate our small personal allotment of energy, then no, you are right, it makes little difference whether we prefer blogs or salad shooters (although the salad shooters are less environmentally destructive than computers, and at least you get salad - I’m in no way implying that reading this is the best use of anyone’s time ;-) - like I said, 5 monkeys, 15 minutes ;-)). But I think it isn’t quite neutral - the person with the computer is also more likely to have the bread machine and the wii (I don’t know if anyone actually owns a salad shooter - and yes it is real thing, it was a “as seen on tv” thingie in the 80s, but I’ve never actually seen one, it just seemed like a mathom ;-)) - it isn’t a matter of just how you choose to use your carbon footprint or share of the remaining fossil fuels. And it is also the case that the need for these things isn’t a pure choice - it is heavily manipulated. We are told over and over again that the choices we make are simply free market choices and morally neutral, but in fact they are manipulated at every level (I’ve got an interview with Alan Greenspan saying the words “No, we don’t have a free market.” btw). So it would be neutral if everyone were, in a neutral space, simply making unmanipulated choices, but as I try to show above, some of the choices aren’t really options at all, while others come with enormous cultural pressure.


  23. mangomomon 21 Jul 2023 at 8:09 am

    Thank you for this. As a smart woman, stay-at-home breastfeeding mama, and feminist, living in a world where those three identities seem to be mutually exclusive, I thank you.

    Just, wow.

  24. Sue (coffeepot)on 21 Jul 2023 at 9:00 am


    Like the cultural pressure to “not feel” that taking care of your sick elderly is a burden too much for you?

    Sort of a sin isn’t it? Perhaps one that some will never admit to.

    I have been there too Sharon and I will never give in to the cultural pressure of saying that it was not too much for me.

    The only way I feel someone can devalue me, is if I devalue myself.

    Certainly a barrel of oil won’t do the trick.

  25. Rosaon 21 Jul 2023 at 9:27 am

    As the mother of a little boy I can’t let him be otuside unwatched because cars go by our house on 3 sides at crazily fast speeds. They *probably* wouldn’t run him over - the toddler next door kept running into the street when he was 2, and people stopped before they hit him - but I don’t trust every driver to see a little guy as they go by at 35-45 mph. We also have a fair number of unsafe wandering dogs, but it’s the cars I actually worry about.

    Because I have things I need to get done, a few nights a week we stay indoors. There may be parents who are choosing to avoid skinned knees, but I think most parents are responding to real fears (even if they say they’re responding to imaginary ones, like the abduction fears). Car-centered worlds are not safe for pedestrians or bikers, and kids are pedestrians or bikers.

  26. Squrrlon 21 Jul 2023 at 10:32 am

    Rosa, though you may realize this too, you’re _making_ Sharon’s point, not contradicting it. The cars may be solving some problems, but for you, they’re obviously also causing them. Me, too, as we also live on a busy road w/ a small child. Other top time-sucks around here include keeping her away from power cords, outlets, and appliances. Hmmmmmm.

    Unsurprisingly, there seems to be some confusion in the comments between “value” and “price”. As a stay at home mom, I don’t feel underpaid…who the heck would pay me? My husband? Yeah, THAT’S a relationship I want. But is what I do undervalued? Certainly, although fortunately for me, not by anyone I care about. A quick run through most stores should highlight the difference between value and price. Because of COURSE this purse (http://girlsgoneglamorous.com/pro1224775.html) is totally worth $1,500 (on sale).

    Loved the post. I’d never thought of how the highest-paid jobs are those that create more markets for oil, but *quick check*-yup, my husband’s well-paid engineering job _directly_ creates more demand for oil by replacing human effort. Sigh…

  27. Sharonon 21 Jul 2023 at 10:50 am

    Sue, I think a quick look around the number of people putting their parents in nursing homes and assisted living, the universality of caregiver support groups, the huge number of books on the shelf and the automatic assumption that is a burden suggests to me that in fact, there’s very little pressure anymore not to admit that this is hard work. Certainly, I didn’t come under any - if anything, I came under enormous pressure *not to do it* - everyone told us it would be too hard. And sometimes it was hard - I don’t have any problem admitting that. The end of life stuff sucked - big time. But that’s not quite the same thing as a burden we should avoid at any cost. And the truth is, as far as I know, there are no potty robots out there. So either when we get old we’ll be a burden on a poor person, being paid badly (almost always) and struggling to make ends meet doing a physically hard job (I’ve worked in nursing homes before - lifting one person onto the potty is one thing, lifting dozens of them is a repetetive strain disaster waiting to happen), and often not liking it very much, or we’ll be a burden on a person we’ve loved and helped through life and who now has the chance to reciprocate - and they probably won’t like it all that much every time. But it is wrong to set this up as “burden” vs. “no burden” - the only question is this - who do you burden. If you think that $7 hour for a nursing aid is enough to make helping you to the toilet no burden, you are totally kidding yourself.

    As for the rest, I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree that the world isn’t a perfectly neutral place into which we all proceed in absolute equity and without any structural pressures that are hard to resist.


  28. Rosaon 21 Jul 2023 at 10:57 am

    Sqrrl, I wasn’t responding to Sharon there - I think she’s right on. I also don’t drive a car except to go out of town or haul something too heavy for my bike trailer.

    i was responding to the now-typical “parents are so stupid and lazy they buy their kids video games because they’re afraid of the outdoors” comments.

    We’ve built up a whole society that is inimical to most humans (kids, parents, old people, poor people, people of color). It takes supervision to keep kids safe(r) in it, and our families and communities are exploded so parents don’t have enough help to supervise their kids all the time, so we resort to containment. It’s not that weird - people keep their kids closer physically when the environemtn is not safe for wandering kids, whether the threat is jaguars or cars.

  29. Sharonon 21 Jul 2023 at 10:58 am

    I agree with Rosa - and like Sqrrl, I think it supports my point. But I do think it is easier to be afraid of bad people than it is to admit that what we are mostly afraid of are things that are structurally required by the kind of society we have - because then we’d have to ask if the society is good or not. So I think that a real fear of cars (legitimate) gets displaced onto a not-very real fear of strangers.


  30. Brian M.on 21 Jul 2023 at 11:41 am

    Sharon I agree with you on a lot of this, but let’s see if we can give the other side a run for it’s money.

    How is this for a theory, cheap oil does not devalue human labor directly, rather cheap oil allows (temporarily) high population densities, and high population density devalues human labor and human life. You are right that pre-industrial societies work less, and hunter-gatherer even less still. So why aren’t they more popular? Because they exist at lower population densities and routinely lose militarily to societies with greater population densities, and hence greater disposable populations. Greater population density often seems to allow greater specialization, and thus tech too, so some male military history folks think the effect comes from military tech edges. But either way, there is simply a huge military edge to having high population densities even though or perhaps precisely because it devalues human life and human labor. Similarly humans have overall had a lot of struggles trying to control their own population growth. There are success stories, but the temptation is huge and subtle to shift to a society that has lower value of life but more of them.

    Or to put it callously, the cheaper human life is the more human lives we can afford. Surely population is part of the picture here however callous or noble or idealist, or feminist, or male-stereotypical we want to be. I mean if we really wanted to revalue human life or human labor we could simply have a lot less of it. Look at what happens to labor in shrinking societies. Even the subtle points you are making about various kinds of labor. The comparative values start shifting around when it seems like there isn’t enough labor to do what is customary. There are more slaves now in large part because there are simply vastly more people now than ever before. There are more slaves per capita (and folk living in slave-like situations) in many places, and globally, than in many other time periods, but perhaps this is because the economy is so far past “scarcity” capitalism and into “surplus” capitalism. In Galbraith’s picture, which you seem to be invoking, Capitalism first seeks to fulfill all the genuine wants it can. Genuine wants don’t need to be advertised because people know what they want, your ditchdiggers and power looms. But then if there is surplus labor/capital/energy etc. after this capitalism starts working on creating artifical needs, so that it can then fulfill them, the salad shooters and bread machines. And if the surplus section of the economy becomes a big chunk of it it distorts many aspects. So the industrial food-system creates lots of food, with fairly little human labor, (or in many places traditional food systems create lots of food with lots of labor) but there are still more people surviving, so they move to the cities and start working to fulfill more and more trivial desires of those with money. And they get paid less and less, because they keep surviving and growing in population, and so those who pay can afford to pay them less and less, until they can’t survive on it anymore.

    So you could say that “surplus” energy in the form of oil is “devaluing” human life, and causing humans to spend too much effort on fulfilling the trivial desires of the rich, and that is partly true. But it is also equally true that “surplus” population in the form of high global populations, population densities, and urbanization is “devaluing” human life, and causing humans to spend too much effort on fulfilling the trivial desires of the rich, and that is also equally true. Or you can put the same point in a pro-population way. Human life is SO valuable, each child is SO valuable, that even very poor people find it to be worth sacrificing their quality of life, living in terrible conditions, laboring to fulfill the trivial desires of the rich, laboring in ways far worse than their ancestors did, to allow them selves or their children to live, to allow this many humans to survive on the planet, if only for a little while. How terrible do living conditions have to get before suicide or refusal to bear children seriously limit the population? That is the real measure of the value of human life is how bad things have to get before one decides that on reflection a human life isn’t worth living in this terrible state. And that point is pretty severe. Certainly humans like most other animals are probably willing to try to support far more population than we can actually succeed at supporting, but that just means that we really do value human life quite a lot. Usually we desire more humans than we can afford. But of course when things get tight, we tend not to value the lives of folk quite different from us as much as we value the lives of our near and dear, and so the military stuff and the survivalist stuff, and Pournelle’s fear, and all of those male-stereotypical issues come back into play. Do I sound like Pournelle, or the folks at the Oil Drum yet?

    You say “So what is a human being worth? Not nearly as much as you’d hope it seems.” And you might hope the worth is high if you were selling lives, or perhaps selling your own life as dear as possible. But if you are trying to buy lives, what then? Human beings are worth a lot, a terrible lot, and the cost of trying to keep as many of them as possible alive will break us in many ways, but we will keep trying to pay, again and again. The rich will keep a few around, but will be happy to let many die. But the poor will keep trying to pay for the lives of their near and dear, until they are broke, and broke, and broke again. Ah, this kind of rhetoric can twist in so many different ways and still show forth some kind of truth we would rather not see. You are showing something true Sharon, but I think that discussions of the value of human life get tricky fast. Hell, I’ve got a whole paper on the value of human life (oh and look its already on the web at http://jedimomma.livejournal.com/4305.html if anyone wants to see it)
    -Brian M.

  31. deweyon 21 Jul 2023 at 12:56 pm

    Brian is right. Human beings are apes, and resemble chimpanzees in that one of their adaptive strategies is to outbreed their carrying capacity then go on a campaign of genocide to seize the resources of weaker troops/tribes nearby. There’s a reason the !Kung and similar tribes live in the most barren and miserable parts of Africa; they were pushed there by Bantu agricultural groups who were able to generate far larger (even if badly nourished) hordes.

    Like Sharon, I think the people stockpiling ammo to hold off the cannibal hordes in a short-term crisis are needlessly fearful. In the long run, though, any sustainable society that manages to limit its fertility and preserve its resources to give its descendants a decent life had better make sure they are well prepared to defend against aggressive neighbors who haven’t been so wise. Peoples who live sustainably are found only in remote and undesirable habitats - or they are extinct.

  32. Sharonon 21 Jul 2023 at 1:28 pm

    Brian, I would never, ever say anyone I thought was smart sounded like Pournelle - that’s too mean ;-).

    More seriously, I don’t have time for a full reply and to properly read your paper - hopefully tomorrow - but I think yours is the more common way of running the analysis. It is precisely the “Tragedy of the Bathroom” argument made by Asimov and quoted by Heinberg and Albert Bartlett - large populations are fundamentally devaluing of individuals, and energy just makes it possible.

    I genuinely think that may not be right - that it actually does work, as I say, the other way around. For example, Vandana Shiva observes that the population of India was relatively stable up until the advent of colonialism - that is, until there were strong economic incentives to increase the Indian labor force - and she’s at least right to the extent that the statistics do follow the colonialism curve. What oil does is enable, and I think, make necessary, a universal colonialism - now we call it globalization, of course, but it operates as much the same thing, and I’m hardly the only person to observe that.

    Often, when we talk about it in these terms, we’re left with a big circle - oil grew more food which gave us a big population which devalued human life which meant that we needed more oil….. Now circles are real, and some of them are vicious, but I admit, I’m suspicious of that one, and not just because it is vicious, but because there’s no actors, all the power relationships are concealed, things just happen. You could make that accusation of my construction here, of course, but I was doing it on the fly and making fun of people - if I were writing this up seriously, and I just might one of these days - I’d definitely make the power relationships central.

    Anyway, as I say, I’d need to read your paper and your stuff over to get a proper reply in and can’t do it today. But it is interesting.


  33. Sharonon 21 Jul 2023 at 1:30 pm

    Dewey, the reason I don’t think we’ll ever achieve a sustainable society (although I also believe that shooting for such a society is probably a good idea, so I keep working on it) is precisely that - it would require a universal, world-scale regulation. I don’t think that’s out of the realm of possibility, but like Thomas Homer-Dixon, I’m not sure it would be desirable either. It is a tough nut to crack, of course.


  34. Brian M.on 21 Jul 2023 at 3:29 pm

    Fair enough more later. Think later, you have a lot on your plate, I’m dodging essays again. I guess I think that the colonialization dodge is just missing the point of the issue here. Once Sumer makes the jump from city-state to colonial-empire, their neighbors have to do it to, or get colonized, or flee far enough from Sumer and the Sumer clones. Crappy standard of living, high density colonizing powers are just so damn militarily effective against any culture that doesn’t race them or flee to an inhospitible margin. And when a new imperial technique comes down, well the other empires had better learn it or adapt to it or fall. If even old Mughal and Maratha style empires simply aren’t cruel, population dense and militarily powerful enough to be competitive anymore, perhaps because they aren’t playing the global economic market, only the local ones, well then Britian can conquer India and bring it into the global trade and make it denser, and crueler still! India was population stable until it got colonized by outsiders, but it got colonized largely because it tried to remain population stable! Get big, or have a good strategy for coping with the big boys! The threat of being conquered (or one’s children being killed or enslaved) is the foot on the gas, and the Powers That Be, are simply good at holding the driver’s wheel and channeling that fear into getting people to do things they don’t really want to. The whole point is that the imperial/colonial cycle tends to ratchet up over time, because the risk of backing down is being conquered. But all this already applied long before oil came onto the scene.

    Also I wasn’t quite trying to make the classic “tragedy of the bathroom” version of population density resource conflict. Think instead of the marginalist economics argument. Why is water cheap while diamonds are expensive, even though water is necessary and diamonds are largely superfluous? The Marginalists say because of differences of marginal utility. When you have plenty of water a little more doesn’t add much value, so you aren’t willing to pay much for a little more water. But diamonds are rare enough for most people that a few carats more of diamond is a huge difference. Contrariwise if you are so short on water that a little bit more water will make a difference you are willing to trade a lot for it. So the question is how much will society be helped or hindered by a few more people or a few less? If it feels to you like their just aren’t enough workers to go around, your society is going to value laborers, and isn’t going to spend lives freely to get other goals, and thus human life will be fairly dear. If it feels like you’d be fine with a few less people, and in fact many of the folk are basically doing make-work and a few less people might make it a little easier for your own kids to get by, well now you’ve got an incentive to send a bunch of people off to fight in a war. If they win, great more wealth to go around for “us”, and maybe the victors can have some land from the conquered. If they lose, well less competition for the decent jobs back home, unless it is your kid that dies. The only real disadvantage from the rulers’ point of view, is if you get tangled up enough in adventurism that some other nation decides to pull the same stunt on you, but even then if you are careful you can call your soldiers back, and negotiate if necessary. Surplus populations create a huge incentive to warfare, as well as a large military advantage. Now to feel safe you need to have enough “surplus” population hanging around that others think twice about trying to colonize you. So you need to develop a hefty class of people that can be induced to fight when you need them too, and that you can also afford to lose. So the trick isn’t just to have a lot of people, but to have plenty more than you really need. A high population density but also highly labor intensive agrarian area, might have lots of people, but have few that it could send to the cities or to war. If the farmers stop farming and fight instead, if it is more than very brief, their will be insufficient food, the military will suffer and you’ll get conquered anyway. But if you can spend lots of lives without diminishing your societies basic functioning much, well those are “expendable” lives, and drive the value of a life down a lot (at least until you run out of expendables). Similarly if the society can just afford to let people starve if they get poor enough, because it doesn’t really need the labor unless war breaks out, then again the lives are very expendable. Maybe call it the “Tragedy of the Expendable.” Once there are potential colonizers around with large expendable populations, you’d better be able to fend them off with an expendable population of your own unless you want to be colonized. The marginalism point also explains why human lives seem both very dear, and very cheap at the same time. What is the marginal difference between one child more or less in your family? Huge! Nearly unimaginable! What wouldn’t you sacrifice for the sake of one of your own kids? But what is the marginal utility of one random child more or less in your society from the point of view of a ruler in a society with a hefty surplus? Low, maybe even negative. They are a mild drain, and a mild buffer against conquest, but someone else could probably do anything important that that kid could, and if worse came to worse your society would have to start giving up some of its more trivial preferences because of labor lacks. Of course, if your society has too many expendable folk, they may decide to expend themselves against the system that makes them so expendable, but careful rulers can diffuse that by watching ringleaders, keeping up fear and hatred of external enemies and making sure to control the expendable population via periodic warfare. A ruler living in a world with potentially colonizing neighbors, needs to have an expendable population and needs to periodically expend parts of it to keep it from getting too big, and to keep their military in practice. But none of this requires oil, and it is all a very old story. All the oil really does is allow some tricks to ratchet up your population, and your surplus population, while also making industry more militarily competitive. Our service economy has by far the largest percentage of a population as surplus population that I can think of in the examples of history, and that is the scary addition of oil.

  35. deweyon 21 Jul 2023 at 4:31 pm

    I’m not sure stable population and self-defense are entirely contradictory goals. Given equal minimal weaponry, limited training and simple-minded tactics, the bigger horde will win, whether it’s chimps with pointy sticks or farmers with pointy metal sticks. But many colonial conquests, including the British in India as well as the Spaniards in North America, were NOT a huge horde overrunning a small group, but a relatively small army defeating a much larger group that was seriously outmatched in weapons, training, and sometimes ferocity. The group that stays within its own habitat and carrying capacity might be able to hang onto that habitat if it makes sure that its people as a whole have superior weapons, superior training, and a willingness to massacre outgroup members without qualms, at least when it can be called self-defense. That is recognizable as the Israeli philosophy (the military-superiority bit; no implication is made that grabbing other people’s aquifers to grow lettuce in the desert is sustainable), but other groups historically and in fiction have done something similar. Of course, if you keep ahead of the neighbors through constant weapons development and combat training, you take away a lot of resources from civilian pursuits, thereby lowering your standard of living (which, in a low-energy society, is not very high to begin with). If you don’t want to go to that effort, you have to keep your boot constantly on the neighbors’ necks to keep them from catching up with you, and that too will have costs and risks. Still, whatever form a sustainable society or lifeboat community takes, it had probably better encourage the preservation and practice of firearms expertise and martial arts.

  36. Sharonon 21 Jul 2023 at 5:51 pm

    Gack, more to read, more to think about, still no time. But more seriously, Brian, it is sort of fascinating - I think the colonialism thing isn’t quite the red herring you imply, and one of the reasons I think that is that the transition between child as economic drag and child as economically productive is a much blurrier line, both in practical terms and in economic and aesthetic ones. For example, in Nigeria, a child produces more than they eat at 6, and does enough work to support another family member by 12. In India, I’ve cited this figure before, but a woman who wants not to have to beg in her old age has to have 5 children to ensure that one lives until she is 60. I think the problem with this analysis - which admittedly, I haven’t given enough attention, so maybe it is just a problem with me, is the larger problem of population, or rather of counting - how we count ourselves and each other, and that’s never fixed in any sense - psychologically, materially, economically. That is, we are always simultaneously too many and too few, always experiencing others (and ourselves and our families) as many, few, enough, not enough. That very shifting quality is, I think the thing most left out of population discourse.

    Anyway, more soon, but not tonight.


  37. Sue (coffeepot)on 21 Jul 2023 at 6:19 pm

    Sharon, you can feel that oil devalues human work all you wish.

    I suppose then that computers also devalue your books since it meets an end of making your writing easier.

    I personally can not see how you using a computer devalues anything you do, but I can see how it may be devalued if you write your book with a computer only to devalue some other persons salad spinner created salad.

    We are not in Kansas, Dorothy.

    People are not all made from molds and certain things can make one cookie crack that would only make another stronger.

    Your theory is a bit cracked in my eyes.

  38. Henry Warwickon 21 Jul 2023 at 11:42 pm

    Hi Sharon.

    Interesting post. Some additional info for you:

    You said:

    At first you can take the obviously demanding jobs and replace them with machines and oil, and make slow things go faster. Now maybe that’s ok and maybe it isn’t - we don’t do a lot of intellectual case by case thinking about this stuff - but after a while, all the outhouse diggers are out of business.

    Actually, there has been a good bit of intellectual effort expended, just not on a case by case basis. For the elementary approach, there’s Alvin Toffler and his techno-speed society vision. On the flip side there is Paul Virilio and his critical theories of dromological society and how it and the technology that propels it is directly tied to militarism. I think Virilio’s hypermodernist dystopianism is vastly more interesting and oddly more accurate than the thumb-twiddling relativism of postmodernity, especially as it is (oddly) bolstered by Habermas’s attacks on postmodernism and Norris’s analysis of postmodernism and anti-foundationalism in general… but I digress.

    you also wrote:

    “Cheap fossil fuels devalue human life”

    which Kiashu noted as insightful. I agree. However, I would also add to that as it also directly related to what is normally a very “male” and “exclusivist” argument - the hoary debates around EROEI.

    I have written on energyResourcesList how I feel the EROEI debate is completely misguided and needs to be grounded in human labour, not in platonic notions of energy equivalence.

    We can argue how efficient a society is, or what the EROEI is on a given energy system, but it all comes down to labour. Example: pre-fossil fuel societies had about a 4 or 5 to 1 ratio of farmer to non-farm labour. It is now about (IIRC) 2 percent or 50 : 1. That is the value of fossil fuel: 48:1.

    From there we can measure the effectiveness of technologies by how much labour is spent making energy (as that is what farming is). If we bring the energy sector into play, then the value of fossil fuel goes down (IIRC) to 46:1, as I believe 2% of the population is involved in energy/utlities/etc. in some form. If that is not true, and it is more or less, that is not specifically important. what is important is keeping track of this.

    If the amount of human labour required for energy/food production goes up, then clearly, the energy/food is either not being used properly, or the energy/food is not being produced efficiently. The useful aspect of my analysis is that it is testable. If more people get involved with food production and energy production, then it is clear that the EROEI of a given society’s energetics is going down. As I noted, this could be a problem of efficiency, but after a while, there is only so much “efficiency” one can wring out of a system or food source, as efficiency requires energy as well, and frequently, a society doesn’t get to choose its energy infrastructure, but must make due with or modify what obtains presently.

    Hence, I would suggest that the EROEI debate be scuttled, and that we more closely monitor labour statisitics as part of a rubric to determine how well we are maintaining our high energy state.

    Brian M mentioned:

    How is this for a theory, cheap oil does not devalue human labor directly, rather cheap oil allows (temporarily) high population densities, and high population density devalues human labor and human life.

    Which I believe fits the evidence rather well, however, It’s not a chicken/egg thing - it more of a “whole unit” problem. It’s altogether and they all re-inforce each other. The bottom line is energy, of course, but the exploitation of petroleum is a social process that comes out of a specific extractive worldview.

    It’s late. good night.


  39. Sue (coffeepot)on 22 Jul 2023 at 1:53 am

    Oh ..and I meant to mention that there is no way I would ever work in a home for 7.00 per hour.

    If I did that I would really be devalued by myself.

    Maybe I am being too hard on you Sharon. We are just different mindsets.

  40. Rebeccaon 22 Jul 2023 at 5:54 am

    I’ve been reading the debate about whether cheap oil or high population density contributes to the devalue of human life. After much thinking about it, I don’t think either does in and of itself: I think it is the mindset of the culture that does it, and both these things are only contributing factors.

    If a culture *really* valued human life, then neither cheap oil or high population densities would lead to the sort of problems we have with this. I think very few cultures have really valued humanity and that is the root cause of all of this.

    Sorry if I’m rambling, its early.

    Sue: I’m glad you have the choice. A lot of people don’t.

  41. Sue (coffeepot)on 22 Jul 2023 at 7:36 am


    I feel all people in a free state have a choice.

    The only ones that don’t are in slavery or forced work or an unbalanced mental or physical state.

    Free states care for their unbalanced.

    If someone settles for less then that is what they get. It also contributes to lower wages so they are not only messing self up, but others to boot.

    Fear of the unknown is the big factor but that is a personal problem and not due to any outside oil.

    I have worked waitress jobs for under 7.00, but I knew I could supplement it with tips and that it was not where I would stay.

    Some people are always victims.

  42. knutty knitteron 22 Jul 2023 at 8:00 am

    Sue, if it’s a choice between $7 an hour or starve guess which wins!

    Interesting comments. I think on a more local scale I’m afraid. To my mind one of the most underestimated factors is the existence of the good old grape vine. That is what will keep a community together and alive. I doubt even an army could really overcome a strong community. For a good example take a look at the Vietnam war. On paper that war should have been over in about a week. The reality was somewhat different. Not only that but one community influenced the other to the point that the war became unpopular on both sides and eventually just fizzled. Same thing with the cold war. It couldn’t be sustained at any cost after just a matter of years. Communities won’t live at extremes and will always return to some sort of middle ground and they look after their own at almost any cost.

    The value of an individual life might be low but the value of a community will always be high. That’s what heroes are about.

    viv in nz

  43. Sharonon 22 Jul 2023 at 8:14 am

    Sue, I really think here we’re going to have to agree to disagree - something like 18% of US jobs pay less than $8 an hour (I don’t have time to dig for the exact statistics at the moment, later maybe, but that’s the ballpark) - so functionally, a lot of people have no choice but to take those jobs - because there aren’t enough other jobs. I think honestly, the “everyone can do what I did” mentality is pretty intellectually limiting - I’m glad you’ve been so fortunate, but that doesn’t mean everyone has your experience, and honestly, I think derogating people who have different experiences by saying they are self-victimizing is not very kind - or very accurate.

    Besides, maybe you won’t take those jobs, but I promise you that most nursing homes pay very badly, so even if you won’t have to work for that, there’s an excellent chance that unless we change the system, the person who is supposed to kindly and humanely take you to the bathroom will be making $7 hour or the rough equivalent.


  44. Rebeccaon 22 Jul 2023 at 8:26 am

    Sue wrote: I feel all people in a free state have a choice.

    Too bad we don’t live in a free state. And I think we’d better leave it at that.

  45. deweyon 22 Jul 2023 at 9:09 am

    Sue, maybe you have heard that the Black Death, in Europe, was directly responsible for the breakdown of serfdom and a great increase in laborers’ wages and status. When labor is available in excess, it is cheap; when workers are scarce, they have more leverage. When employers get dozens or hundreds of applications for a single position, many from unemployed people, that’s excess. If YOU are so dedicated to principle that you would rather let your kids go hungry than wipe butts at $7 an hour, the employer does not have to negotiate with you for a higher salary. He can kick you out of the office and know that behind you come a line of applicants who are either less principled or more desperate and will take whatever he tells them to.

    Now, the fact is that a lot of people are going to be doing those jobs. Even if every person in the world were born with special talent and driving ambition, not everyone could obtain one of the highfalutin’ jobs that you seem to think make life worth living. You can’t have a society where everyone is a professor, engineer, doctor, or businessman; by necessity, many will not make it and will get shoved downhill towards the janitor and nurse’s aide slots. You sneer at low-paid workers for “messing up” others by contributing to the problem of low wages, but if hordes of people are striving to get any job perceived as elite, all that does is drive down wages and working conditions for those jobs too (ask any adjunct professor if you doubt this). Rather than having more and more workers begging to be employed at lower and lower wages to crank out more and more salad spinners, the working class would be better off if fewer people entered the labor force and employers had to compete for them.

  46. Sue (coffeepot)on 22 Jul 2023 at 9:46 am

    ask any adjunct professor if you doubt this

    never went to college

    he working class would be better off if fewer people entered the labor force and employers had to compete for them

    amen..exactly my point

  47. Rosaon 22 Jul 2023 at 10:38 am

    …or if more of those who did, organized together.

    The boss may choose not to dicker with you over what’s a fair wage. But if you band together with every other worker like you, then they have to. It’s more work than just busting your ass for minimum wage, and more risk, but it’s more rewards, too.

    Though, truthfully, the nursing home workers are undercut by free family care *and* religious orders that run nursing homes, so it’s a different kind of “market”.

  48. Brian M.on 22 Jul 2023 at 2:17 pm

    Dewey - I don’t think the issue is exactly population growth, as much as surplus population, and even there I admit that the tech issue clouds things. Spain and Britian had enough population density back home to support a lot of tech they could use for military, and thus had small but well equipped colonial militaries. But they also had plenty of people to send to the military and colonial efforts, and continuously over long periods of time. And a lot of the success of the Spanish and British was the natives learning that even if you beat this wave of invaders, they will just keep coming and coming like the tide (diseases were part of it too.) The military was only one prong of the vaster colonial process which included also settlers, religions, bureacrats and trade, in each case, largely adventurous expendable folk hoping to make some kind of niche for themselves abroad rather than back home where the niches were all taken and better defended. Even if you look at Israel, it clear that the high-tech quality army is part of their strategy. But so is putting lots of settlers on the ground. But you are right that small armies beat big ones sometimes, I’m not trying to disagree there, just that lots of surplus population creates an incentive for colonizing, while also aiding it. Look at the new Chinese policies on Africa.

    Sharon - The point about the dividing line between child as burden and child as economically productive being blurry is right, and the same point is true of adults and the blurriness varies from society to society, and has cultural and economic roots too. There is a lot of stuff here. But this misses the point that land ownership is usually the limiting factor, it is only recently that money or oil is. You see even in Nigeria a 6 year old is only economically productive rather than a burden if they have access to land to farm that can productively use one more set of hands. If the family owns a little land and can use the extra help, great! If their little parcel of land is already being farmed as productively as it can be and another 6 year old comes a long, well … Maybe they can be loaned to another nearby family which isn’t full, or maybe they can work on the big planation down the road for money. But this can slip quickly into slavery, or near slavery conditions. Your own analysis on modern slavery which you re-cited in this article, agreed with UNICEF that child laborers are “almost always forced laborers.” Quickly an area will reach the population density that can be usefully farmed by traditional techniques and then need either more land, or different farm laboring set ups, or usually to export expendable people elsewhere to cities or warfare or overseas or something, or start killing people off or letting them starve. This was one of the major dynamics of the Hutu-Tutsi problems, all the land was farmed and there were still too many people. Perhaps Nigeria is still recovering from its civil wars in the 70s, certainly ethnic and religious strife are not yet gone from Nigeria. The same is true of India, a woman who wants not to beg at 60 needs 5 children, and enough land or access to jobs to support them between child-birth and 60, which is why Indian culture has encouraged old men and women to become renunciate beggers for so long! Sooner or later there isn’t enough land, for every woman to have access to enough land for her family to farm to support themselves and 5 kids until old age. Better to try to re-value begging, than prevent beggers. I’m not really saying colonialism is a red herring, more that it is a story as old a Sumer. What oil changes is that you can use non-traditional farming techniques (if you have access to equipment and capital and transport to market) to keep comparatively few people on the farm, send lots to the cities for other tasks, and still have plenty left over for expending. Oh nice one on hording too, can’t think of anything productive to add over there yet.

    Rebecca - Can you imagine a culture that “really” valued human life? Can you point to examples? What would it look like for a culture to really value human life? Jared Diamond discusses the example of Tikopia a small isolated pacific island which maintained a stable population for centuries, by careful reproductive limitations and other management choices. Without an incentive to treat people as expendable, they developed a kind of real valuing of human life. They have been described as communal, idyllic, and even utopian. Of course they also routinely practiced infanticide to keep the population stable and prevent people from becoming expendable and shaking up their society, and they remained a small population. Unlike their Melanesian neighbors they have also deeply resisted the changes of the 20th century, and refused to grow beyond what they can support themselves. Is that valuing human life? Or does a society that spreads and spreads value human life, because they want more of it even if each life becomes less idyllic? Do the slums of Mexico City represent the ultimate valuing of human life, because the people choose that even a life like this is valuable and worth living and bring more people into being while refraining from suicide? Or is that where life is cheap and thus not valued highly? I’m not really disagreeing with you about culture here, it is just that the more I think about what a culture that deeply valued human life would look like the less certain I am what that would look like.

    -Brian M

  49. Sharonon 22 Jul 2023 at 2:38 pm

    Ack, Brian, I still haven’t finished the first stuff. Slow down!!! ;-)


  50. Brian M.on 23 Jul 2023 at 11:48 am

    Yeah you just haven’t finished the first stuff because you’ve written several great posts on other topics since! Again the “Everything You Need to Know in Order,” useful, thoughtful and funny. Although the other commenter is right that a good point 6 would be something about entertainment/art/worship - a long term psychological balance issue to parallel the don’t panic shorter term psychological balance issue, maybe “Learn not to give up on leading a meaningful and enjoyable life.”
    -Brian M.

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