James Watt is one of the most important names in the history of enslavement, a first vote inductee into the Enslavers Hall of Fame, which is quartered neither in Cooperstown nor Cleveland, but in every city on the planet, and increasingly, in every head.
[He] invented an effective means to enslave the dead. The bodies of the dead are burned in a confined space, heating the air around them and causing it to expand. Because the space is confined, pressure goes up, pushing out a piston which is attached to, and turns, a crankshaft. This enslavement device is called the steam engine, and has evolved now into the internal combustion engine.
At first the burned dead were trees, and later the longer dead, in the form of coal and oil. The energy released in this burning originally struck the earth when these plants and animals were alive, and had been stored in their bodies. Of course using energy stored in the bodies of others is old news: everybody’s been doing that since they learned how to metabolize. And everybody who has ever used fire to keep themselves warm has used energy stored in trees, or coal, for that matter. The big change was in the conversion of these dead into mechanical energy, into what Catton and others call “ghost slaves.”
A ghost slave would be the equivalent to how much energy one human would spend in one day (that 2,000 to 3,000 kilocalories Catton mentioned). Yesterday, for example, I went to a traditional Yurok (Indian) brush dance pit, where they hold their annual brush dances. The pit is perhaps four feet deep, and about ten by ten. A narrow ramp leads into it. The walls are lined with weathered wooden planks, and a pole stands one per side. There is effectively no roof. I was told that the design is similar to that of a traditional Yurok home, except, of course, that the houses have roofs. The point as it relates to ghost slaves is this: this home could be constructed by hand by a few people in a day with materials close by. I pictured how the Yurok traditionally lived, there on the banks of the Klamath River. Fishing for salmon. Hunting for elk and deer. Gathering greens and berries. Performing rituals. Building their homes. Playing. Sustainably. Using their own energy, energy gained from eating, metabolizing.
We have come to base our way of living on these ghost slaves, and our use of them has turned us into slavers on a degree unimaginable to the most megalomaniacal of our forebears. More energy was used in a few minutes to propel a Saturn V rocket toward the moon—and perhaps to an even less life-serving purpose—than was used by two decades of Egyptians stacking 2.3 million blocks of stone (each stone weighing 2.5 tons) to form the Great Pyramid of Cheops. A little closer to the experience of most of us is the truth that, as Catton points out, “Within two eventful centuries of the time when James Watt started us substituting fossil energy for muscle power, per capita energy use in the United States reached a level equivalent to eighty or so ghost slaves for each citizen. The ratio remained much lower than that in many other parts of the world. But, dividing the energy content of total annual world fuel consumption by the annual rate of food-energy consumption in an active adult human body, the world average still worked out to the equivalent of about ten ghost slaves per person….More than nine-tenths of the energy used by Homo sapiens was now derived from sources other than each year’s crop of vegetation.”
Because the amount of energy that struck the earth a very long time ago and ended up stored in coal, oil, natural gas, and so on is merely tremendous, and not infinite, its use is not sustainable. To base one’s way of life on this energy is to live unsustainably. “To become completely free from dependence on prehistoric energy (without reducing population or per capita energy consumption),” wrote Catton, and remember this was more than twenty years ago, meaning that things have become far more extreme, “modern man would require an increase in contemporary carrying capacity equivalent to ten earths—each of whose surfaces was forested, tilled, fished, and harvested to the current extent of our planet. Without ten new earths, it followed that man’s exuberant way of life would be cut back drastically sometime in the future, or else that there would someday be many fewer people.” Or maybe both.