Our use of Fossil fuels is to blame for much of the inequality in the world today. By inequality I mean the huge differences in wealth and income between the rich and the poor expressed by the gini co-efficient. Did you know that the richest 85 individuals alive today together own wealth equal to that owned by the poorest half of the world according to a recent Oxfam study?
Fossil fuels – energy from previous millennia
So, why blame fossil fuels, at least in part for creating an increasing chasm of inequality? My thinking about this was kicked of by the NPR Planet Money episode “the history of light“. The podcast mentions that in about 4000BC, it took about one day’s labour to generate one hour of post sunset light. Today, 22000 hours of light are produced by one day’s labour. We have progressed from animal fat candles, to kerosene lamps (a major breakthrough at the time) to the lightbulb and beyond. This, of course, seems like wonderful progress, and much of the so-called development of certain parts of the world, significantly since the industrial revolution, has been sponsored by the energy of previous millennia, stored in fossil fuels. Basically, fossil fuels are a store of energy. For millennia, the sun has been shining down on planet earth, and plants have been converting that energy into stored chemical energy. Using fuels like coal, oil and gas is kind of like tapping into solar energy that has been stored for millions of years.
I’m blaming our use of fossil fuels for initiating a downward spiral into increasing inequality and not necessarily for continued and increasing inequality as others have argued.
Financing extraction and reliance on fossil fuels
Understanding the development and financing of the infrastructure necessary to support electric light bulbs is important to my argument. Did you know that JP Morgan, the man, was responsible, along with others, for bank-rolling the power generation facility that powered the first light bulbs in Manhattan, and that Thomas Edison worked extensively with him in order to achieve this? And did you know that the light bulb had been invented before Edison came onto the scene, but that it was Edison who was able to capitalise on his invention through the establishment and financing of a power generation and distribution company? Light bulbs alone, would not give any light if there were no provision of electricity, and there would be no electricity without a power station, and there would be no power from the power station if it were not fuelled with coal. And in order for all of this infrastructure to be laid on, what do you need? Yes, you need money, and lots of it, and you need those who have it, to part with it in order for it to “work for them” so that in time, it may be returned to them having grown. Edison was not just an inventor, he was a businessman, and he knew what it would take to leverage off the massive stored supply of energy, fossil fuels. His friends on the inside track, like Morgan, knew this too.
Like me, you probably didn’t think about that. And when you flick the switch in your home, and the lights come on, and even as you read this blog I’ll bet you that you don’t think about the coal mine, probably somewhere in the middle of Mpumalanga, or Limpopo (for South African readers) where the coal was mined, and the funds necessary to extract tons of carbon out of the earth. And then, of course, there is the power station where the tons of coal were burnt, converting centuries upon centuries of the sun’s energy into electricity. I bet you didn’t think of it. Or maybe, as I have just heard the news of impending black-outs due to the collapse of a coal silo at the Majuba Power Station, you did. Blackouts like these just go to show how dependent on stored energy, we and our economies are. We are well and truly addicted to the cheap, transportable, stored energy contained in fossil fuels.
But how does this all lead to inequality
It is one thing to say that fossil fuels have sponsored our so-called development, and given us energy to do so, but its quite another to link that to inequality; huge and growing differences in income between the wealthy and the poor, those on the inside track and those on the outside. I tried to find a good graph on growing inequality over time, but to the best of my googling ability, I could only find graphs that started this century. Think though, for a second, about the citizens of a 4000 BC settlement, all reliant on candles made from animal fat. It’s hard to imagine that the wealthy were that much more wealthy than the poor. I mean, the best they could all do for light at night was to burn animal fat. According to this article by The Economist “(b)efore the industrial revolution, wealth gaps between countries were modest: income per person in the world’s ten richest countries was only six times higher than that in the ten poorest. But within each country the distribution of income was skewed. In most places a small elite lorded it over a mass of peasants.” Extrapolating backwards, inequality was lower the further back in time you go, among countries, and I submit too, among people within countries.” So here we have this point in time event, the industrial revolution, sponsored by fossil fuels and funded by the wealthy, which happened shortly before Edison’s commercial roll-out of an electric generation and power distribution system sponsored too by fossil fuels. What happened is that those who have been able to access millennia of energy in fossil fuels (paying only the cost of extraction and not the actual cost of the energy) where able to facilitate business, growth, mechanization, abilities to work at night, longer and harder and more efficiently (insert all the attributes of industrialization) all the while increasing profits and wealth for those on the inside, JP Morgan and Co. It’s kind of like, those able to get their hands on cheap, easy energy where able to get on the elevator powered by energy stored in past millennia, and have, in a very short space of time, relative to the history of humanity, become dis-proportionately and more and more wealthy compared to those who were on the outside. This is how rapidly increasing inequality was started. This is how the chasm formed.
The power just went off
Ironically, the power here has just gone off and I could not make a cup of tea to drink while I finished this blog off. Thank you Eskom for stuffing up again. I am one of those addicted to fossil fuels. You have left me stranded here in my privileged position as one on the inside track of growing inequality. I am part of a system that depends on the extraction and burning of the energy stored from the past for a cup of tea. Now I’ll have to make a fire to make my tea. How annoying. Tonight I’ll have to burn candles in Constantia.