Sunday, May 3, 2015

Men and Energy: When Energy was Expensive, But Lives were Cheap

From Robert Hargraves book
Thorium, Energy Cheaper Than Coal

Women and Energy

On Thursday, April 30, Howard Shaffer and I were guests of Bill Sayre on the Common Sense Radio program of WDEV. Near the end of the program, Bill asked me to comment on the role of energy in improving women's lives.

 Image from
Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves
This is one of my favorite subjects, and I was happy to answer.  I referred to Robert Hargraves' chart on prosperity versus birthrate, for many different countries.  As prosperity goes up, birthrate goes down.  In poor countries, women's lives are limited by gathering fuel, cooking over smoky biomass stoves, drawing water, having multiple pregnancies, and losing young children to death.

In a poor country, there's not much room for education (or even time to rest quietly) in women's lives.  When a country becomes richer, energy use goes up and women's lives improve.

(The chart above comes from Hargraves book: Thorium, Energy Cheaper Than Coal.  I wrote more about that chart in my post that reviewed the book.)

Men and Energy, Starting with Ice

As I mentioned, I was on the program with Howard Shaffer.  After I talked about women's lives, Shaffer spoke about men and energy.  Before the use of fossil and nuclear energy, the world relied only upon renewables. In those days, a high percentage of men had very dangerous jobs.

Shaffer spoke specifically about an industry that grew in New England, until electricity became common: Ice Harvesting.  Men would go out on the New England lakes in winter, cut ice and cart it into large ice houses, where it would be protected from the summer heat with straw.  Later the ice was  shipped to cities, where dairies, hospitals and restaurants used great quantities of ice to keep food and drugs cool. "Ice boxes" at home prevented food from rotting during the hot days of summer. Shipping lake ice from New England was big industry, though it had some competition from manufactured ice, usually made with ammonia.  Needless to say, you didn't put lake ice in your drink, unless you wanted to get sick. Ice was only used for keeping things cold. You didn't eat it.

That industry ended as energy became more common and less expensive. The first home electric refrigerator was sold in 1913. This marked the beginning of the end of the lake ice trade of the 1800s.

Harvesting ice was dangerous work.  It was probably not more dangerous than other occupations of the time (my husband's family were miners), but it was definitely hazardous.   Men died harvesting ice.

But let's talk about something really dangerous.  Log Drives.

Log Drives

Rumble rumble rumble….oh…that's just the log train going by….

Log Drive near Sharon, VT
I live in Wilder, Vermont, close to the Connecticut River, and close to a small railroad track that runs near the river.  On weekdays, two trains a day run along that track. The morning train mostly carries logs to a plywood factory, and the evening train mostly carries plywood from the factory.  I find the sound of the two trains quite comforting. There's the morning train, and then there's the evening train: their noise adds a rhythm to my life at home. Yes, if these trains ran as often as the New York Subway, the noise would be annoying.  But they don't run all the time.  They are just the log trains.  The morning train.  The evening train.

Before logs were shipped by train, there were log drives on the river itself: the Connecticut River Log Drives. Logs were harvested, rolled down to the river, tied up into rafts, and poled and shoved down the river by "shantymen."  The log drives on the Connecticut River started in about 1865, and only ended in 1918.  Men guided the rafts. Men fended off log rafts that threatened the bridges. They frequently died at this work.

Railroads, whatever their problems, are much safer than log drives.

I first heard the song "The Jam at Jerry's Rock" when I was in high school. The version I heard was set in Canada.  The version I have on this post is set in Michigan.  Log drives were dangerous…all over.

It's a short song, and worth listening, in my opinion.  If you go to YouTube, you can see comments on its history.

Men and Energy

As Shaffer pointed out, you can get ice from the local lakes and store it all summer. That's what men used to do, before electricity. The ice was limited in both usefulness and availability, and it cost men's lives.

Similarly, you can float logs down a river, or you can ship them by rail. Before abundant energy, the cost of shipping logs by water was considered cheap. It was paid in men's lives.

Abundant energy enables women to live healthier lives with less drudgery and more education. Abundant energy enables men to have jobs that allow them a better chance at living to an old age.

All hail to abundant energy!  (And of course, nuclear is my favorite kind!)


John said...

You have basically given the reasons for my lack of support for the Greens. To me, global warming, ecological disasters etc, no matter whether they are real, or, more to the point, worthy of concern, are all merely excuses to allow the Greens to achieve their real aim, to solve the servant problem. The fact is that people do not like being servants, and require very high wages indeed to make them put up with it. As prosperity rises and people have other choices, the supply of servants for the upper middle class diminishes. (The very rich can still afford anything they want, of course.) The Green ideal is something like Saudi Arabia or Hong Kong, where live-in servants are hired from places like Indonesia or Thailand. To achieve this, living standards for the lower classes must be drastically lowered. This also has the additional advantages of saving resources that would otherwise be wasted on the lower orders, and avoiding the plebs overcrowding pleasant resorts which Greens might otherwise enjoy undisturbed. Thus the Greens dislike of geo-engineering. This might offer a simple technical fix for any inconvenient problems without requiring the lower orders to stop their gross over-indulgence. Nuclear energy is a similar problem. It can provide abundant energy for millions of years without any necessity to economise at all. Thus the Greens real problem with nukes is not that they might fail, it's that they will succeed. As your blog makes clear, even if the worst fantasies of the anti-nukes come true, they won't kill anywhere near the numbers that a renewables powered world will. The fact is that poverty, not global warming or nuclear meltdown or whatever, is by far the gravest danger to human health.

Charles Barton said...

Railroads are very energy efficient. Trains can be powered by electricity, which if it is produced by reactors would be environmentally sound, leading to an elimination of the link between transportation and CO2 generation. Railroads can largely replace trucks for long distance movement of goods, and high speed passanger trains can largely repland passanger aircraft.