Innumerable as the Starrs of Night,
Or Starrs of Morning,
Dew-drops, which the Sun
on every leaf and every flouer
NGC3132 ©
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,
— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all
ye need to know.

E = M

Energy is eternal delight.
William Blake

Impearls: 2005-10-16 Archive

Earthdate 2005-10-17

Nuclear power is the only green solution   by James Lovelock

James Lovelock is an atmospheric chemist who has made a profound contribution to our understanding of how the atmospheres of living worlds betray their nature, is a Fellow of the British Royal Society of distinguished scientists, and along with American biologist Lynn Margulis originated the “Gaia Hypothesis.”  Climate authority Kenneth Hare, writing in Encyclopædia Britannica, described the theory thusly: 1  “In effect the Earth is, in Lovelock's most recent restatement (1988), a living organism, with self-regulating processes (homeostasis) capable of ensuring the survival of a life-sustaining global climate.”  Partly as a result of this conceptual leap forward, Locklock has attained the status of something of an environmentalist scientist hero in the minds of many people, including yours truly.

Now James Lovelock has written an important piece on nuclear power as a vital component in a campaign and strategy for ameliorating the probable growing impact of global warming during the coming century.  Lovelock's article was originally published in the newspaper The Independent, on earthdate 2004-05-24 (May 24, 2004), but it is apparently no longer available online there.  Now, with Dr. Lovelock's kind permission, Impearls reissues this first-rate essay.  We'll let James Lovelock's own bold title speak for itself: 2  “Nuclear power is the only green solution: We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilisation is in imminent danger”!

Sir David King, the Government's chief scientist, was far-sighted to say that global warming is a more serious threat than terrorism.  He may even have underestimated, because, since he spoke, new evidence of climate change suggests it could be even more serious, and the greatest danger that civilisation has faced so far.

Most of us are aware of some degree of warming; winters are warmer and spring comes earlier.  But in the Arctic, warming is more than twice as great as here in Europe and in summertime, torrents of melt water now plunge from Greenland's kilometre-high glaciers.  The complete dissolution of Greenland's icy mountains will take time, but by then the sea will have risen seven metres, enough to make uninhabitable all of the low lying coastal cities of the world, including London, Venice, Calcutta, New York and Tokyo.  Even a two metre rise is enough to put most of southern Florida under water.

The floating ice of the Arctic Ocean is even more vulnerable to warming; in 30 years, its white reflecting ice, the area of the U.S., may become dark sea that absorbs the warmth of summer sunlight, and further hastens the end of the Greenland ice.  The North Pole, goal of so many explorers, will then be no more than a point on the ocean surface.

Not only the Arctic is changing; climatologists warn a four-degree rise in temperature is enough to eliminate the vast Amazon forests in a catastrophe for their people, their biodiversity, and for the world, which would lose one of its great natural air conditioners.

The scientists who form the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2001 that global temperature would rise between two and six degrees Celsius by 2100.  Their grim forecast was made perceptible by last summer's excessive heat; and according to Swiss meteorologists, the Europe-wide hot spell that killed over 20,000 was wholly different from any previous heat wave.  The odds against it being a mere deviation from the norm were 300,000 to one.  It was a warning of worse to come.

What makes global warming so serious and so urgent is that the great Earth system, Gaia, is trapped in a vicious circle of positive feedback.  Extra heat from any source, whether from greenhouse gases, the disappearance of Arctic ice or the Amazon forest, is amplified, and its effects are more than additive.  It is almost as if we had lit a fire to keep warm, and failed to notice, as we piled on fuel, that the fire was out of control and the furniture had ignited.  When that happens, little time is left to put out the fire before it consumes the house.  Global warming, like a fire, is accelerating and almost no time is left to act.

So what should we do?  We can just continue to enjoy a warmer 21st century while it lasts, and make cosmetic attempts, such as the Kyoto Treaty, to hide the political embarrassment of global warming, and this is what I fear will happen in much of the world.  When, in the 18th century, only one billion people lived on Earth, their impact was small enough for it not to matter what energy source they used.

But with six billion, and growing, few options remain; we can not continue drawing energy from fossil fuels and there is no chance that the renewables, wind, tide and water power can provide enough energy and in time.  If we had 50 years or more we might make these our main sources.  But we do not have 50 years; the Earth is already so disabled by the insidious poison of greenhouse gases that even if we stop all fossil fuel burning immediately, the consequences of what we have already done will last for 1,000 years.  Every year that we continue burning carbon makes it worse for our descendants and for civilisation.

Worse still, if we burn crops grown for fuel this could hasten our decline.  Agriculture already uses too much of the land needed by the Earth to regulate its climate and chemistry.  A car consumes 10 to 30 times as much carbon as its driver; imagine the extra farmland required to feed the appetite of cars.

By all means, let us use the small input from renewables sensibly, but only one immediately available source does not cause global warming and that is nuclear energy.  True, burning natural gas instead of coal or oil releases only half as much carbon dioxide, but unburnt gas is 25 times as potent a greenhouse agent as is carbon dioxide.  Even a small leakage would neutralise the advantage of gas.

The prospects are grim, and even if we act successfully in amelioration, there will still be hard times, as in war, that will stretch our grandchildren to the limit.  We are tough and it would take more than the climate catastrophe to eliminate all breeding pairs of humans; what is at risk is civilisation.  As individual animals we are not so special, and in some ways are like a planetary disease, but through civilisation we redeem ourselves and become a precious asset for the Earth; not least because through our eyes the Earth has seen herself in all her glory.

There is a chance we may be saved by an unexpected event such as a series of volcanic eruptions severe enough to block out sunlight and so cool the Earth.  But only losers would bet their lives on such poor odds.  Whatever doubts there are about future climates, there are no doubts that greenhouse gases and temperatures both are rising.

We have stayed in ignorance for many reasons; important among them is the denial of climate change in the U.S. where governments have failed to give their climate scientists the support they needed.  The Green lobbies, which should have given priority to global warming, seem more concerned about threats to people than with threats to the Earth, not noticing that we are part of the Earth and wholly dependent upon its well being.  It may take a disaster worse than last summer's European deaths to wake us up.

Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media.  These fears are unjustified, and nuclear energy from its start in 1952 has proved to be the safest of all energy sources.  We must stop fretting over the minute statistical risks of cancer from chemicals or radiation.  Nearly one third of us will die of cancer anyway, mainly because we breathe air laden with that all pervasive carcinogen, oxygen.  If we fail to concentrate our minds on the real danger, which is global warming, we may die even sooner, as did more than 20,000 unfortunates from overheating in Europe last summer.

I find it sad and ironic that the U.K., which leads the world in the quality of its Earth and climate scientists, rejects their warnings and advice, and prefers to listen to the Greens.  But I am a Green and I entreat my friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy.

Even if they were right about its dangers, and they are not, its worldwide use as our main source of energy would pose an insignificant threat compared with the dangers of intolerable and lethal heat waves and sea levels rising to drown every coastal city of the world.  We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilisation is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear — the one safe, available, energy source — now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet.


1 F. Kenneth Hare (Chancellor, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario; University Professor Emeritus of Geography, University of Toronto; an authority on world climate and its relation to other environmental conditions; author of The Restless Atmosphere), “climate,” Encyclopædia Britannica, 2005, Encyclopædia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD, earthdate 2005-10-17 (17 Oct. 2005).

2 James Lovelock, “Nuclear power is the only green solution: We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilisation is in imminent danger,” The Independent, earthdate 2004-05-24 (24 May 2004).

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Impearls: 2005-10-16 Archive

Earthdate 2005-10-15

Earthquakes III

USGS: earthquake distribution in the U.S. map, 1989

Historical earthquake distribution across the United States
(click on image for larger scale)

The magnitude 7.6 earthquake (on the Richter scale) which occurred a week ago on October 8, 2005 (earthdate 2005-10-08) in north Pakistan has, it now appears, killed some 40,000 people — may they rest in peace — and maimed many more.  Contrariwise, the magnitude 7.0 quake on October 17, 1989 (1989-10-17) in the Santa Cruz Mountains — the “Loma Prieta,” sometimes called the San Francisco “World Series” Earthquake — killed a mere 66 (though their lives of course are mourned as well), 42 of whom died from an elevated highway which collapsed (the “Cypress Structure”).

The magnitude of this discrepancy has led some people to conclude that the United States has something of a special dispensation or protection with regard to earthquake deaths, usually attributed secularly to our wise earthquake-resistant building codes.  However, this is basically false for several reasons.  I've written about this before, here and here, but in the context of an earthquake of this size and scope, it's worth repeating some of these truths.

First, and simplest to remedy, many states don't yet have adequate building codes, and the map above makes clear that earthquakes, even large ones (the red dots on the map above are earthquakes of a magnitude equal to or greater than than the Loma Prieta quake), occur all over the United States.  As I wrote before, when as a Californian I see all those beautiful brick buildings covering large portions of the eastern half of this country, I think: deathtrap!

Secondly, and more importantly, the basic reason why California and the rest of the nation are seemingly immune to high fatalities and destruction in severe earthquakes isn't because the state's (and country's) cities are (yet) able to survive such shocks more or less intact, but rather this record is an artifact of the fact that California, for example — for all it's being the most populous state in the Union, with a population of more than 35 million — is a very large state which is still for the most part largely empty of human beings.  More than three quarters of the population lives within the three largest conurbations — San Diego; Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim; and San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose.  When earthquakes occur at something like random locations along the various faults which reach through the long state, usually there are relatively few people living nearby — as the Loma Prieta quake illustrates, occurring more than 60 miles from San Francisco, though somewhat closer to San Jose.  Most quakes ordinarily happen even further from populated areas.

However, “ordinarily” ain't necessarily is, as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake disastrously revealed, exhibiting a magnitude of 8.3, more than an order of magnitude greater than Loma Prieta (a magnitude change of +1 on the Richter scale involves 10 times as much earth shaking and some 30 times greater energy release).  It's these magnitude 8.x monsters that California fears — the looming “Big One.”

Not only are the California building codes inadequate to deflect earthquakes of this 8.x magnitude (we don't even have the experience of how various structures respond to earthquakes of this size to design an adequate response at this point), but even for lesser quakes like Loma Prieta (7.x), where the building codes, when they apply, are arguably passable, for political reasons these codes are never made retroactive.  It isn't so much new buildings that are at risk.  Individual wood frame dwellings generally do quite well in earthquakes; and when they fail, they generally do so in a way which doesn't massacre the inhabitants.  Nor was a pane of glass lost out of all the skyscrapers in San Franciso.  No, it's generally older structures that are the problem.

While I sympathize with the plight of property-owners who would have a tremendous burden upgrading those structures without some significant help, the fact remains that there still exist some tens of thousands of unreinforced masonry or concrete structures in California — more or less the same kind of fragile dwellings and buildings which shattered into ruin last week in Pakistan, and similar to the “Cypress Structure” elevated freeway which collapsed, killing the bulk of those who died in the Loma Prieta quake — except that unlike that freeway, these structures extend in three dimensions rather than one, and are full of people.

Thus an earthquake of roughly the same magnitude as the one which hit last week in Pakistan — still small compared with the “Big One” — but were such a quake to occur beneath the center of one of California's cities (for instance, downtown Hayward on the Hayward fault in the San Francisco Bay Area), it would kill far more people and do much greater damage than Loma Prieta.  Here's what the U.S. Geological Survey has predicted in this regard: 1

An earthquake of magnitude 7.5 on the eastern Bay Area's Hayward fault […], for example, is likely to be far more destructive than the Loma Prieta event.  An “Earthquake Planning Scenario” developed by the California Division of Mines and Geology […] and “An Assessment of the Consequences and Preparations for a Catastrophic California Earthquake” by the Federal Emergency Management Agency […] anticipate the following effects:

  • Deaths: 1,500 - 4,500
  • Injuries: 45,000 - 135,000
  • Damage: More than $40 billion
  • One or more hospitals will be destroyed
  • All four bridges to the East Bay will probably be closed for hours to days
  • Access to and travel within the East Bay will be difficult and limited to emergency traffic.
  • Only San Jose International Airport may be available for large aircraft.
  • The damage in San Francisco is likely to be severe — the Embarcadero area is as close to the Hayward fault as it is to the San Andreas fault.

In the aftermath of such a disaster, it's clear that many people will scream and shout that “we weren't told!”  Well, as I've pointed out before and reiterate now, we have been informed and warned.  Sixteen years have passed since Loma Prieta, and the above forecast.

Moreover, no doubt at that moment we'll hear “suggestions” like were heard after Loma Prieta — that California simply be evacuated.  Well, California wasn't and isn't going to be evacuated; any more than New Orleans (the most recent target of such proposals) — the nexus where all the river traffic moving up and down the center of America meets the ocean-going freighters traveling out to sea — is going to be razed to the ground and forgotten.  Among its other virtues, as I've written before, with regard to earthquakes California is the country's great earthquake laboratory, where we all gain the experience needed to cope and live with these great spasms in the earth.


1 Peter L. Ward and Robert A. Page, “The Loma Prieta Earthquake of October 17, 1989,” U.S. Geological Survey publication, November 1989; pp. 7 and 16 (map).

Impearls: 2005-10-16 Archive

Earthdate 2005-10-02

The Industrial Revolution and the origin of the Modern Age

It's been obvious and has disturbed me for some time the way in which supposed “liberals” demonize private enterprise and those institutional vehicles which comprise it — companies and corporations — as the veritable Princes of Darkness.  A liberal friend appraised me recently of the extent to which departments and classes at a local university are continually boiling in contempt for corporations as institutions, derogating them as hives of villainy and greed.

This long-time liberal mantra is woefully off the mark.  With regard to the pharmaceutical industry — one of the most vilified of modern corporate endeavors — Andrew Sullivan recently put it well (hat tip, Instapundit), in expressing his gratitude for the innovations which have created the medicines that are currently saving his life:

Thank God for the evil pharmaceutical companies.  One day, when the history of this period is written, I have a feeling we will look back with astonishment as we recognize that advances in medical science, particularly pharmaceuticals, were arguably one of the most significant developments of this era.  And yet the people who pioneered these breakthroughs were… demonized and attacked.  Baffling and bizarre.  I'm merely grateful the attacks haven't stopped the research progress.  They've merely slowed it.

Of course, it isn't just pharmaceutical firms that have progressed technologically with blazing speed in recent years.  Companies and corporations have had tremendous impact on technological advances across the board, from the computers we internet upon, to the Internet itself (after the initial impetus provided by Federally-funded academic R&D), to the DVD, CD and before that videotape and audiotape technologies that have transformed our home musical and film experience; aircraft technologies which have brought the world so much closer together — the list goes on and on.

The fact is that the modern industrial age, in combination with the scientific revolution, and organized along the lines of the modern American model of society (which has now been transferred, more or less, to many another country around the world) has created the only instance in history where the bulk of the population of affected areas can enjoy a life of ordinary (what we think of as “common” nowadays), healthy, leisured, literate, decency.

Nor does the liberal chorus just target modern-day entrepreneurship, but also directs its ire back to the beginnings of the industrial revolution which occurred at this point a couple of centuries ago.  As a liberal commenter on a political mailing list recently put it:

The industrial revolution, not just here but in Europe, ushered in an era of greed, tenements, poverty, alcoholism, disease, and many other adverse side effects.  Read your history.

Well, I've read quite a bit of history, and looking back at the origins of the industrial age in the 18th and 19th centuries, it's clear that in pre-industrial rural areas the poverty and disease were even greater — that's why the rural poor poured into the cities during the industrial revolution in the first place.  As Jacob Bronowski put it, in his fine book (and PBS television series) The Ascent of Man: 1

We dream that the country was idyllic in the eighteenth century, a lost paradise […].  This is a fable, and George Crabbe, who was a country parson and knew the villager's life at first hand, was so enraged by it that he wrote an acid, realistic poem in reply.

Yes, thus the Muses sing of happy Swains,
Because the Muses never knew their pains.

O'ercome by labour and bow'd down by time,
Feel you the barren flattery of a rhyme?

The country was a place where men worked from dawn to dark, and the labourer lived not in the sun, but in poverty and darkness.

As Bronowski points out, the tenements of the industrial age were a great step up for vast numbers of people.  Then again, the industrial revolution was founded to a very considerable degree by visionary folk who had the interests of the people in mind.  Read about the Lunar Society in Britain (Bronowski talks about it), and individuals like Josiah Wedgwood who provided high-grade pottery ware for common people on the cheap.  There were many like him.  Bronowski continues: 2

The men who made the Industrial Revolution are usually pictured as hardfaced businessmen with no other motive than self-interest.  That is certainly wrong.  For one thing, many of them were inventors who had come into business that way.  And for another, a majority of them were not members of the Church of England but belonged to a puritan tradition in the Unitarian and similar movements.  John Wilkinson was much under the influence of his brother-in-law Joseph Priestley, later famous as a chemist, but who was a Unitarian minister and was probably the pioneer of the principle, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”

He goes on: 3

It took a hundred years before the ideals of the Lunar Society became a reality in Victorian England.  When it did come, the reality seemed commonplace, even comic, like a Victorian picture postcard.  It is comic to think that cotton underwear and soap could work a transformation in the lives of the poor.  Yet these simple things — coal in an iron range, glass in the windows, a choice of food — were a wonderful rise in the standard of life and health.  By our standards, the industrial towns were slums, but to people who had come from a cottage, a house in a terrace was a liberation from hunger, from dirt, and from disease; it offered a new wealth of choice.  The bedroom with the text on the wall seems funny and pathetic to us, but for the working class wife it was the first experience of private decency.  Probably the iron bedstead saved more women from childbed fever than the doctor's black bag, which was itself a medical innovation.

The poster of the anti-industrial screed, however, continues:

There are both pros and cons to the Industrial Revolution, but undeniably, it ushered in an era of selfishness and greed, along with personification of big business as having the same rights as individuals, that has only escalated through the years.  Eventually the bubble will pop.

The industrial age has been going on now for some 200 years, but “eventually the bubble will pop”?  If the commenter keeps on wishing, maybe someday he'll get his fondest dream — or maybe it'll turn into a nightmare.  Be careful what one wishes for!

Notice too that he lists greed at the top of the supposed evils ushered in by the industrial age.  This is a tragically misguided charge.  Let's see what Alexis de Tocqueville, profound French observer of the early United States, had to say on this subject in his classic study Democracy in America while observing where the two eras, ancient and modern, lay in close juxtaposition — separated only by a river — in pre-Civil War America.  We've had occasion to quote this passage before, but let's review it one more time: 4

So the traveller who lets the current carry him down the Ohio till it joins the Mississippi sails, so to say, between freedom and slavery; and he has only to glance around him to see instantly which is best for mankind.

On the left bank of the river the population is sparse; from time to time one sees a troop of slaves loitering through half-deserted fields; the primeval forest is constantly reappearing; one might say that society had gone to sleep; it is nature that seems active and alive, whereas man is idle.

But on the right bank a confused hum proclaims from afar that men are busily at work; fine crops cover the fields; elegant dwellings testify to the taste and industry of the workers; on all sides there is evidence of comfort; man appears rich and contented; he works.  […]

These contrasting effects of slavery and of freedom are easy to understand; they are enough to explain the differences between ancient civilization and modern.

On the left bank of the Ohio work is connected with the idea of slavery, but on the right with well-being and progress; on the one side it is degrading, but on the other honorable; on the left bank no white laborers are to be found, for they would be afraid of being like the slaves; for work people must rely on the Negroes; but one will never see a man of leisure on the right bank: the white man's intelligent activity is used for work of every sort.  […]

The white man on the right bank, forced to live by his own endeavors, has made material well-being the main object of his existence; as he lives in a country offering inexhaustible resources to his industry and continual inducements to activity, his eagerness to possess things goes beyond the ordinary limits of human cupidity; tormented by a longing for wealth, he boldly follows every path to fortune that is open to him; he is equally prepared to turn into a sailor, pioneer, artisan, or cultivator, facing the labors or dangers of these various ways of life with even constancy; there is something wonderful in his resourcefulness and a sort of heroism in his greed for gain.  [emphasis added –Imp.]

The American on the left bank scorns not only work itself but also enterprises in which work is necessary to success; living in idle ease, he has the tastes of idle men; money has lost some of its value in his eyes; he is less interested in wealth than in excitement and pleasure and expends in that direction the energy which his neighbor puts to other use; he is passionately fond of hunting and war; he enjoys all the most strenuous forms of bodily exercise; he is accustomed to the use of weapons and from childhood has been ready to risk his life in single combat.  Slavery therefore not only prevents the white men from making their fortunes but even diverts them from wishing to do so.

The constant operation of these opposite influences throughout two centuries in the English North American colonies has in the end brought about a vast difference in the commercial capabilities of southerners and northerners.  Today the North alone has ships, manufactures, railways, and canals.

Thus, we see what “greed” together with industriousness and science brings us as a society — the origin of the modern age and the good life for all.  As stated before, this is the only instance in history where the majority of the people are able to enjoy a life of what we think of as “common,” healthy, leisured, literate, decency.  Despite the existence of some aesthetic drawbacks to the modern “rat race,” the idea that we should just throw up our hands and eliminate (or at a minimum throw verbal manure on) this goose that has laid a very golden egg, and age — while essentially consigning the bulk of the world's population back into wretched poverty — is frankly ridiculous. 

UPDATE:  2005-09-04 07:00 UT:  Brian Dunbar's Space For Commerce has linked to Impearls' piece, commenting:  “Impearls has a fascinating post on (among other things) free enterprise, the industrial revolution and some other topics.  Nothing seems to lend itself to excerpts — doing so drains the context.  Worth a few minutes of your time to read.”

UPDATE:  2005-09-05 18:00 UT:  Glenn Reynolds the Instapundit has linked to this piece, writing:  “Politics and the industrial revolution:  Some interesting thoughts at Impearls.”

And a hearty welcome, Instapunditers!  There are other articles you might find interesting here, too.

UPDATE:  2005-09-08 15:40 UT:  Joel at the terrific Far Outliers (just my kind of blog!) has linked to this piece, with an article entitled “Impearls on Entrepreneurism and Its Enemies,” writing:  “Impearls is back to blogging more regularly in his trademark long and thoughtful essays with footnotes.  His latest post bemoans the derision of all corporate entrepreneurism by too many on the political left.  […]  The whole essay is worth reading, but I'll cite just a couple of his supporting quotes.”  […]

Beyond quoting from quotes that I mention, Joel makes the connection with a recent Virginia Postrel piece in Forbes on “Criminalizing Science,” which I'd seen but hadn't made the connection with this subject.  Thanks, Joel!

Joel goes on to ask:  “Where do these truly evangelical beliefs of the secular left come from?  Medieval agrarian repulsion at urban corruption (like the Moravian Brethren)?  High-born disdain for the commoners who produced the surplus wealth that funded noble endeavors?  A combination of both?”  I wonder about that too.

UPDATE:  2005-09-08 15:45 UT:  Jim Bennett at his splendid Albion's Seedling (, which I should have linked to long since except it fell through the cracks in my brain, linked to this piece in the context of an article on “What's This ‘Exit’ Stuff All About?,” described as “the transition point in human history where production becomes in general a more effective means of survival and prosperity than predation.”  After discussing this, Jim notes that:  “Our society has navigated the Exit so successfully that many people have entirely forgotten what life before the Exit was like.  Some of these idiots are described here.”  [pointing at Impearls' piece]  “Read the whole thing.”

UPDATE:  2005-09-08 16:00 UT:  Ken Talton in his intriguing Brickmuppet Blog linked to Impearls, writing:

Via Dr. Reynolds I found a link to this excellent piece over at Impearls on the industrial revolution and its real legacy.  A very thoughtfull bit and personally timely since I just had a conversation on this subject with someone on campus who was convinced that the industrial revolution was a terrible thing and that we should stop it from happening in the third world.  I've heard this before and the impression that some people have is that industrialization is increasing poverty in the developing world.

Poppycock!  Those shanty towns on the outskirts of 3rd world cities… they, like the tenaments of our 19th century are filled with people who (usually) came there of their own free will because it is a STEP UP from their previous condition.  To us this seems unreal as we are living … well … in conditions that are better still precisely because that the industrial revolution happened.  Living at a subsistance level is not cool when its not a vacation, but rather the only thing you'll ever know… it SUCKS!

Ken also points to a fine article by Baron Bodissey in Gates of Vienna called “Visualize Industrial Collapse,” which I might have seen myself had I not violated my own edict by not reading the Belmont Club every day!

UPDATE:  2005-09-09 21:50 UT:  Richard A. Heddleson wrote in an e-mail:

Events from industrial revolution through to the pharmaceuticals today are seen as evil because they are agents of change, which all people find threatening, and because they utilize mysterious knowledge unavailable to the common person, again something people find threatening.

UPDATE:  2005-09-09 22:05 UT:  Another reader yclept Michael wrote in:

thoughts about rural areas….

Many of my grandfather's generation are still alive today and their childhood's were on a depression era farm.

Me too — my mother and her siblings and parents actually, and other relatives too.

At a recent visit, one of the comments that stuck in my mind was this……

“We didn't realize it was the Great Depression until a man showed up offering a free government mule.”

Life was so hard scrabble, so busy, before dawn to after sunset they didn't have a chance to notice the Great Depression.

That, in turn, was a bit of a return, for rural folk, to conditions as they had predominated — for the poor, anyway; for peasants — throughout history prior to the previous century.

That put a lot of stuff in perspective for me.

Just so.

ps, great blog (pointed your way by the insta-man)

UPDATE:  2005-09-09 22:20 UT:  Jerry Brennan e-mailed:

The book “Capitalism and the Historians”, edited by F A Hayek, sheds much light on attitudes regarding the “industrial revolution” in England.

In a different vein, in a speech in January 2003 Michael Crichton, in a very different context, had some comments which might be add to your point:

Let's think back to people in 1900 in, say, New York.  If they worried about people in 2000, what would they worry about?  Probably:  Where would people get enough horses?  And what would they do about all the horseshit?  Horse pollution was bad in 1900, think how much worse it would be a century later, with so many more people riding horses?

But of course, within a few years, nobody rode horses except for sport.  And in 2000, France was getting 80% its power from an energy source that was unknown in 1900.  Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Japan were getting more than 30% from this source, unknown in 1900.  Remember, people in 1900 didn't know what an atom was.  They didn't know its structure.  They also didn't know what a radio was, or an airport, or a movie, or a television, or a computer, or a cell phone, or a jet, an antibiotic, a rocket, a satellite, an MRI, ICU, IUD, IBM, IRA, ERA, EEG, EPA, IRS, DOD, PCP, HTML, internet. interferon, instant replay, remote sensing, remote control, speed dialing, gene therapy, gene splicing, genes, spot welding, heat-seeking, bipolar, prozac, leotards, lap dancing, email, tape recorder, CDs, airbags, plastic explosive, plastic, robots, cars, liposuction, transduction, superconduction, dish antennas, step aerobics, smoothies, twelve-step, ultrasound, nylon, rayon, teflon, fiber optics, carpal tunnel, laser surgery, laparoscopy, corneal transplant, kidney transplant, AIDS  None of this would have meant anything to a person in the year 1900.  They wouldn't know what you are talking about.

As Crichton implies, it's just this kind of multiplicative effect which modern industrial techniques enable.  It's obvious when you think about it: the only way that the average Joe person can feed, clothe and house himself and his or her family, transport them, holiday, and play, all like a king of yore, is if he himself as a typical worker produces enough of whatever it is he makes for a small army of other people.  Thus, when everybody's products of a myriad of different types are economically distributed across the broad population, then just about everyone will be able to afford a spectrum of the items out there that he or she desires. To date that's only been possible by means of industrial methods, though as technology continues to rocket ahead, that may change and more and more become almost (and perhaps actually) biological in its approach to reproduction and growth.  See visionary physicist Freeman Dyson's remarkable essay The World, the Flesh, and the Devil for insights on how this could proceed, as well as via techniques of nanotechnology now in their initial stages of development.  As Dyson says:

Used wisely, [this technology] offers a rapid alleviation of all the purely economic difficulties of mankind.  It offers to rich and poor nations alike a rate of growth of economic resources so rapid that economic constraints will no longer be dominant in determining how people are to live.  In some sense this technology will constitute a permanent solution of man's economic problems.

UPDATE:  2005-09-11 21:30 UT:  Craig Newmark of Newmark's Door has linked to Impearls' piece, under the title “Did the Industrial Revolution destroy Nirvana? No!,” commenting:  “Michael McNeil sharply replies to those who think the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions destroyed a wonderful way of life.”

A commenter in Newmark's Door named Jake (apparently from my own home state of Montana) made this point:

I learned in my Victorian England class these items:

A technological discovery in agricultural threw a huge number of people off the farms and this excess of labor allowed the Industrial Revolution to begin.  That discovery was animal breeding and the need for fences to keep the livestock of each farm separate.  Most of the farm labor then were herders that tended to the livestock in common village fields.  Herders were no longer needed after fences were constructed.

The men who built the first factories did not know anything about running factories.  How could they?  They had just been invented.  The terrible working conditions were a result of the owner's ignorance.  However, the owners learned by experience and within 20 years working conditions improved dramatically.  As a result, productivity improved dramatically.

Actually, as Jacob Bronowski pointed out in his book:

Mines and workshops had been dank, crowded and tyrannical long before the Industrial Revolution.  The factories simply carried on as village industry had always done, with a heartless contempt for those who worked in them.

Pollution from the factories was not new either.  Again, it was the tradition of the mine and the workshop, which had always fouled their environment.  We think of pollution as a modern blight, but it is not.  It is another expression of the squalid indifference to health and decency that in past centuries had made the Plague a yearly visitation.

What the industrial revolution did was bring these abuses into the spotlight, which led to their mitigation.

Another commenter, Kyle N., responding to the same posting, made the point:

The article is spot on, furthermore, I would add that many of the socialistic Ideas which people on the left enjoy, came first from the early millionaire industrialists.  I would recommend the text book, “The Age of Aristocracy, 1688-1830,” by William Willcox.

UPDATE:  2005-09-11 21:35 UT:  The Economics Roundtable restated and linked to (scroll down) Craig Newmark's posting above.

UPDATE:  2005-09-11 21:45 UT:  John B. Chilton's The Emirates Economist has linked to this article, under the title “The good old days? :: Impearls,” noting:  ”This piece by Michael McNeil is receiving a lot of buzz in the blogosphere.”

UPDATE:  2005-09-11 22:45 UT:  A couple of comments made to the Far Outliers piece noted above deserve a response.  “SOTS” (of South of the Suwannee) writes:

You may be impressed with Impearls' footnotes, but the fact that he cites only one obscure source for his (and apparently your) contention that “‘liberals’ demonize private enterprise and those institutional vehicles which comprise it” is a bit underwhelming.

So Alexis de Tocqueville is an “obscure source”?  Oh, you must mean Jacob Bronowski!  Well, he may be obscure to you, but for me Bronowski (Science and Human Values, The Western Intellectual Tradition, and especially The Common Sense of Science) is one of my most respected sources.  Moreover, all he's writing about in the sections of the indicated piece (in The Ascent of Man) is providing the background for the Industrial Revolution; he never meant, nor was my referencing it intended, to specify a reference to “liberals” demonizing private enterprise — that I'm providing myself from my own experiences.

“SOTS” continues:

Moreover, Impearls ends his post with the following:  “… the idea that we should just throw up our hands and eliminate (or at a minimum throw verbal manure on) this goose that has laid a very golden egg, and age — while essentially consigning the bulk of the world's population back into wretched poverty — is frankly ridiculous.”  What is truely ridiculous is the suggestion that “liberals” are intent on throwing civilization back into some pre-industrial agrarian hell.  Perhaps there is the possibility that the downside of modern (corporate) society can be civilized without destroying the benefits it brings.  I enjoy Impearls, but come on, this is a bit sophomoric.

Of course, most liberals don't mean to throw civilization “back into some pre-industrial hell,” but since many of them don't even recognize that there was a “pre-industrial hell” to be thrown back into, that doesn't inspire much confidence.   The historical ignorance among many such people is profound, and frightening.

Beyond that, the above writer illustrates part of the problem, exhibiting the tendency and desire to tinker with the mechanism which has created the modern age so that, as he put it, the “downside […] can be civilized.”  While I would be first to admit that there are downsides to modern industrial society and also that improvement is likely possible, I don't have much confidence in the tinkering liberals would institute in this regard.  Wasn't cutting into the original goose that laid the golden eggs in an attempt to improve it what killed that golden goose in the first place?  As the liberal poster I was responding to in my original piece expressed it, from their point of view greed is the major problem — and as the quote from “obscure” Alexis de Tocqueville ought to have made clear, greed is a feature of the modern system, not a bug.  To usurp Churchill's famous adage with regard to democracy:  Capitalism is surely the worst system in the world — except for all the rest.

Next, Joel, founder and inspiration behind Far Outliers (and one of my favorite people as a result), responded to SOTS's posting as follows:

Yes, SOTS, it is a bit sophomoric, perhaps understandably so in reaction to the incessant, sophomoric demonization of anything “corporate” on the academic (or alternative-weekly) left.

I wouldn't use “liberal” the way Impearls did.  It is not at all a pejorative term in my usage, but “left” is starting to trend that way.  I regard the pejorative use of either “liberal” or “corporate” as a pair of shibboleths emblematic of ideological “conservatives” on the one hand, and “progressives” on the other.

I tend to agree with Joel in this characterization, and normally in my political writing, e.g. here in Impearls, I don't speak of “liberals” per se (who I often have little dispute with), but rather of leftists pure and simple.  Now, leftists of course oppose capitalism; they want to overthrow it in lieu of socialistic “solutions.”  However, that doesn't seem to be what's happening in our society today, nor is that what I'm talking about.  Rather it appears to be the liberals, or “leftists lite” in this regard, who have taken up the mantra of habitually derogating corporate life and culture in our civilization, and it is with regard to them (and I'm not using the term “liberals” here in a particularly pejorative sense) that I'm speaking.


1 Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man, 1973, Little Brown & Company, Boston (ISBN 0-316-10930-4); p. 260.

2 Ibid., p. 274.

3 Ibid., p. 279.

4 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 12th Edition, 1848, edited by J. P. Mayer, translated by George Lawrence, Anchor Books, Doubleday and Co., Inc., New York, 1969; pp. 344-348.  See also the previously published Tocqueville acknowledgments and links.


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