Book Summaries History

Chapter 17: The Wheels of Industry (Sapiens)

We used to rely on animals for energy. Muscle power was key to everything we did. Human muscles built carts and houses, ox muscles ploughed fields, while horse muscled moved things around. The energy that fueled this came from plants, and plants got their energy from the sun through photosynthesis.

For thousands of years, people stared the most important invention in the history of energy production in the face every day, and never noticed it. Every time a housewife or servant boiled water for tea, she encountered it. When the water boiled, the lid of the kettle jumped – heat was being converted to movement.

This was no more than an inconvenience to them, no one saw the potential. But one day, this inspired the invention of the steam engine, and since that moment, people have been obsessed with converting one type of energy into another.

Six hundred years passed between the moment Chinese alchemists discovered gunpowder and the moment Turkish cannon pulverised the walls of Constantinople. Only forty years passed between the moment Einstein determined that any kind of mass could be converted into energy – that’s what E = mc2 means – and the moment atom bombs obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki and nuclear power stations mushroomed all over the globe.

The internal combustion engine was another crucial discovery, and it took a little more than a generation for this invention to revolutionize transportation and turn petroleum into liquid political power. For thousands of years, petroleum was used to lubricate axles and waterproof roofs – it was only a century ago that people saw its potential. The idea of waging war over oil would have been ridiculous to even contemplate.

And then came the invention of electricity. Two hundred years ago, electricity was used for cheap magic tricks and arcane science experiments, but a few experiments later, and it has transformed into a staple in our daily lives.

We flick our fingers and it prints books and sews clothes, keeps our vegetables fresh and our ice cream frozen, cooks our dinners and executes our criminals, registers our thoughts and records our smiles, lights up our nights and entertains us with countless television shows. Few of us understand how electricity does all these things, but even fewer can imagine life without it.

The world today does not lack energy, what we lack is the knowledge required to harness and convert it more efficiently. Every day, the sun dispenses more energy than the amount contained in all the fossil fuel on earth. But only a small amount of solar energy reaches us.

Another major discovery was ammonia. In World War One, Germany faced severe shortages, there was a blockade, and they needed essential ingredients to produce gunpowder and explosives. One such substance was saltpetre and this was found in Chile and India, but not in Germany. Ammonia could replace it but was very expensive to make. That is, until a Jewish chemist named Fritz Haber, discovered in 1908, a process of producing ammonia out of thin air.

When war broke out, the Germans used Haber’s discovery to commence industrial production of explosives using air as a raw material. Some scholars believe that if it hadn’t been for Haber’s discovery, Germany would have been forced to surrender long before November 1918. The discovery won Haber (who during the war also pioneered the use of poison gas in battle) a Nobel Prize in 1918. In chemistry, not in peace.

Science has not only revolutionized transportation, war, and the way we store information, but even how we eat. When modern people eat eggs, milk, and meat, they don’t think about the fate of the animals that were used to produce the food, they just eat. In the same way the Atlantic slave trade did not come from hatred towards Africans, people who consume meat do not hate the animals they eat, they are just indifferent. But these animals feel pain. Evolution implanted a play circuit in calves – that is, if the calve does not bond with its mother, it will suffer emotionally. There is an assumption that if this calf was separated from its mother at birth, it would not suffer, but experiments with monkeys have shown us that this is false.

The tragedy of industrial agriculture is that it takes great care of the objective needs of animals, while neglecting their subjective needs.

There are tens of billions of farm animals that live as part of a mechanized assembly line, and 50 billion of them are slaughtered every year. There was a time when 90 percent of the population were peasants, and worked in farms, but now only 2 percent of the modern economy is in agriculture, and this has freed up a lot of hands to do other things. Humans now produce more steel, make more clothes, and build more structures than ever before, and create a massive selection of previously unthinkable goods, like smartphones and light bulbs.

For the first time in human history, supply began to outstrip demand. And an entirely new problem was born: who is going to buy all this stuff?

The modern capitalist economy must continue producing to survive, like a shark that must swim or die. But producing isn’t enough, someone needs to buy what is being produced, or else industrialists and investors will go broke. To prevent this catastrophe from happening, a new ethic was developed: consumerism.

Most people throughout history lived under conditions of scarcity.

Frugality was thus their watchword. The austere ethics of the Puritans and Spartans are but two famous examples. A good person avoided luxuries, never threw food away, and patched up torn trousers instead of buying a new pair. Only kings and nobles allowed themselves to renounce such values publicly and conspicuously flaunt their riches.

But consumerism sees the unending consumption of products as a blessing. It encourages people to spoil themselves, and even to slowly kill themselves by overconsumption. Frugality, under this ethic, is a disease that must be remedied.

Consumerism has worked very hard, with the help of popular psychology (‘Just do it!’) to convince people that indulgence is good for you, whereas frugality is self-oppression.

It has succeeded, since we are all good consumers. We buy a lot of things we don’t need, and until yesterday, didn’t even know about. Shopping has become a favorite pastime and buying things has become an important part of maintaining relationships between family, friends, and spouses. Religious holidays like Christmas have become shopping festivals. The growth of this ethic can be seen most clearly in the food market.

People used to die from starvation in agricultural societies. No more, the big epidemic today is obesity, which strikes the poor the worst (they stuff themselves with pizzas and burgers), and they eat more than the rich (who survive on organic salads and fruit smoothies). Every year, the U.S population spends more on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world.

Obesity is a double victory for consumerism. Instead of eating little, which will lead to economic contraction, people eat too much and then buy diet products – contributing to economic growth twice over.

In medieval Europe, aristocrats spent money on luxuries they didn’t need, whereas peasants lived frugally, carefully minding every penny. But today the tables have turned. The rich take great care in managing their investments, while the poor go into debt buying cars and TV’s they don’t need.

The capitalist and consumerist ethics are two sides of the same coin, a merger of two commandments. The supreme commandment of the rich is ‘Invest!’ The supreme commandment of the rest of us is ‘Buy!’

The capitalist-consumerist ethic is revolutionary in another way. The ethical systems of the past gave people a tough deal. They promised people paradise in return for tolerance, compassion, and overcoming anger, craving, and selfishness. But this was too tough for most people.

The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum.

But today, most people successfully live up to the capitalist-consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise if the rich stay greedy and make more money, while the masses ceaselessly indulge their passions and cravings. This is the first religion in history whose followers do what they’re asked.

How, though, do we know that we’ll really get paradise in return? We’ve seen it on television.

Read Sapiens

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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