1859 Reconsidered

by Kevin S. Baldwin

Anniversaries be they of marriages or births, are generally a time to celebrate (another lap around the sun, yeah!). They can also be a time of darker speculation: “What if I had stayed single, gotten married, married someone else, hadn’t been so career-focused, or hadn’t been born?” These “what if” scenarios are the subject of many novels and films (e.g., A Christmas Carol, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Family Man, and It's a Wonderful Life), because they link regret, acceptance, and possibility. Its-a-wonderful-life-title

Anniversaries also focus our attention on particular dates or years. Two years ago, there was much celebration of the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth (1809) and the sesquicentennial of his publication of his On the Origin of Species (1859). In 1859, John Stuart Mill published On Liberty and Edwin Drake discovered oil in western Pennsylvania. The competitive pursuit of liberty through the consumption of oil has characterized much of the late 19th and all of the 20th Century. With regard to the recent sesquicentennial of 1859, my purpose is not so much to ask “what if?” (as in the stories and films cited earlier) as it is to ask “what now?” The result is that I hope to offer a way to incorporate the full implications of Darwin, Drake, and Mill’s work to get us to the next big anniversary in 2059.

How did we get to 1859? To understand Darwin, we need to recall Malthus whose 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population established the idea that food production increased arithmetically (or linearly) while populations increased geometrically (or exponentially), thus growing populations would rapidly outstrip their food supply. Malthus' insights informed both Darwin's and Alfred Russel Wallace's formulations of natural selection and they acknowledged him explicitly in their writings.

Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859 is most remembered for the principle of natural selection and its popularization into phrases like Herbert Spencer's (1864) “Survival of the fittest” and Alfred Tennyson's (1849) “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” Even today, a reference to The Origin evokes the idea that life is hard and competitive. In a word: Darwinian. CDarwinJohnCollier

The second great contribution of 1859 was Edwin Drake's discovery of oil near Titusville, Pennsylvania, which launched the American petroleum industry. Oil is an astonishingly energy dense material. A single 42 gallon barrel of oil may contain the energy-equivalent of about 25,000 hours of human labor. Oil also provides the chemical feed-stock for many items that we consider to be essential (e.g., chemicals including plastics and pharmaceuticals). Cheap, readily available oil has given us lots of energy to do many things and make lots of stuff. Drake's well 1

The third great contribution of 1859 was John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, which advocated for the moral and economic freedom of individuals from government and other citizens. Mention Mill today and terms like utilitarianism, libertarianism (both upper and lower case), and individual freedom come to mind immediately. On Liberty is perhaps best known for the phrase: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

Combined with the seemingly inexaustible supply of cheap energy in the form of oil, competition and individuality became the defining metaphors for the development of western civilization in the late 19th and 20th centuries. A selective reading of the lessons of 1859 would be that life, including the human condition, is a struggle, energy is cheap and abundant, and the pursuit of individuality and freedom are paramount. Does this not sound like America in the first decade of the 21st Century?

Oil has been called “The Prize” by historian Daniel Yergin who has chronicled its discovery and control for the last 150 years and coined the phrase “Hydrocarbon Man” to describe our present stage of development. As a civilization, we are guilty of conflating our ingenuity with cheap, concentrated energy and all that it allows us to do. The Prize has given us excessive pride: hubris.

What about post-hydrocarbon man? A spate of books, papers and websites have appeared recently that attempt to look ahead to a world without oil (Kunstler, Life after the Oil Crash, Duncan, & others). M. King Hubbert's famous 1956 prediction of peak U.S. Oil by 1970 was eerily prescient. Globally, Peak Oil may have already happened or is looming in the not too distant future. Oil is getting harder to find. Drake found it at less than 70 ft. Average well depth today is about one mile, and the deepest are over 7 miles. Oil is getting riskier to extract. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, blew out in nearly a mile beneath the water's surface. Oil is also getting harder to extract. Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI) dropped by a factor of 10 over the last 80 years. The ERoEI of oil extraction from tar sands may be as low as 2 to 1 and ethanol is either slightly better or worse than 1 to 1, depending on a few assumptions. The implications are not pretty: Peak Oil can only be recognized in retrospect and once it is reached, the decline in production can be rapid, on the order of 7 – 15% per year, especially with newer oil extraction technologies that are tapping out new reserves faster than ever (Kunstler). Duncan paints a particularly dark picture with his Olduvai hypothesis, which posits that with the end of oil, human population will rapidly drop to about 2 billion by the year 2050.

As a side effect of giving us the incredible power to alter our destinies locally in the short term, oil has had global effects in the long term (e.g., global climate change in the form of warmer, more variable earth, and the associated mass extinctions, which could include our own species). In short, we as a civilization and perhaps as a species are being squeezed by two events of our own making: Peak Oil and Global Climate Change. Even if a newly thawed Arctic were found to be full of oil, extracting it would push atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations still higher while merely forestalling the inevitability of Peak Oil just a bit.

We have arrived at this point through a selective reading of both Darwin and Mill. Just at the moment Darwin showed us how we fit into the scheme of things, Drake gave us the energy and material wealth to deny it, and Mill supplied the philosophical justification to use that energy. We have behaved as if there are no consequences to our actions, but there is no free lunch. We need to reconsider the events of 1859 to see where we went wrong and how we can chart a new path.

In addition to natural selection, Darwin made many other important contributions. His sketch of the diversification of species from a single stock in his 1837 notebook is, in my mind, one of the most profound drawings in the history of humanity . He realized that there is one tree of life in which all living organisms are related to one another. Some contemporaries outside of science appreciated this fully. Writer Thomas Hardy grokked Darwin to a surprising degree. In a letter from 1910, Hardy wrote: “Few people seem to perceive that the most far-reaching consequence of the establishment of the common origin of species is ethical; that it logically involved a readjustment of altruistic morals, by enlarging, as a necessity of rightness, the application of what has been called “the Golden Rule” from the area of mere mankind to that of the whole of the animal kingdom.” Thus we are obligated by relatedness to be better stewards of the Earth and its inhabitants.

Darwin also clearly articulated the concept of what we now know as Deep Time, which he derived from James Hutton who had described the age of the earth as has having “no vestige of a beginning-no prospect of an end.” Three hundred years before Darwin, Bishop Ussher estimated of the earth's age at 6,000 years based on Biblical interpretation. Darwin thought that the earth was on the order of 100,000,000 years old. Notice that his estimate has three more zeroes, or is three orders of magnitude, or 1,000 times greater. Modern estimates put the earth at 4,500,000,000 years or two powers of ten even greater than Darwin thought. The earliest organisms appear in the fossil record 3,800,000,000 years ago. We now know from several lines of evidence that humans and chimpanzees last shared a common ancestor 5,000,000 years ago, and that anatomically modern humans appeared about 100,000 years ago. So, over the last 150 years we have moved from believing the earth and all living beings were created 6,000 years ago, to the idea that all preceding life has led up to us (Mark Twain famously quipped something to the effect that no one would argue that the Eiffel tower was built for the sole purpose of supporting the paint at its top). Today, science recognizes that we are only the most recent, in a very long line of species stretching back nearly 4 billion years.

Darwin repeatedly used the phrase “economy of nature” in The Origin and other works. Though the etymology of this phrase goes back at least to Burnet (1692), Darwin was among the first to explicitly connect natural and political economies. The word economy is thought to have originated in the late 15th Century either from the French économie, or via Latin from the Greek oikonomia, or 'household management' (from oikos 'house' + nemein 'manage'). Today we refer to natural economy as ecology, which originated as oecology in the late 19th Century, from the Greek oikos + -logy (a subject or study of interest), (New Oxford American Dictionary, 2005). Though I consider myself to be an ecologist, I prefer the terms natural and political economies because they share the same root of 'house' and they in fact share the same house. Ecological economics as a field is an attempt to bridge the two houses. Too many economists ignore the natural world and ecologists tend to forget about economics as they attempt to arrive at solutions for ecological problems. Political economies are embedded within natural economies, not separate from them. Darwin knew this and we need to relearn it. Tea Partiers and GOP politicians are attempting to undermine environmental protections because they perceive ecology and economy to be diametrically opposed. The recent global financial bubble and subsequent meltdown provide another example of what can happen when the two are viewed separately. It took record high oil prices in the summer of 2008 to prick the bubble and remind us of how truly dependent we are on natural resources and why they should be renewable.

Another contribution of Darwin's was his recognition of coevolution. Organisms not only compete with each other, but can cooperate to achieve new capabilities. The coevolution of flowering plants and pollinators is well known. The endosymbiotic theory of eukaryote origins is a classic case of cooperation. Lichens are a symbiosis (living together) of an alga and a fungus, which by working together can live in harsh environments. Reef building corals are another example of an alga teaming up with another organism to do something remarkable. By following these examples, we may be able to do a better job of coevolving and cooperating with the earth rather than regarding it as a source of endless wealth to be extracted and a sink in which to dump wastes.

One of the things that is frequently overlooked in On Liberty is Mill's emphasis on the “harm principle” and the importance of thinking about the consequences of decisions”[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” In short, Mill is big on both freedom and responsibility.

Humans have acquired great power through our numbers (now approaching 7 billion) and our ecological footprints (now approaching 2.1 global hectares per capita globally and 9.4 global hectares per capita in the U.S.; Global Footprint Network). We have been using land intensive resources unsustainably since the the 1980's (Wackernagel et al.). Concerns about deficit spending have preoccupied the Tea Party members of the U.S. Congress recently, yet they are incurious about the much more serious deficits we are running with our planet. We need to begin acting responsibly soon. Using Hardy's interpretation of Darwin we can define our responsibilities to include other species and even ecosystem processes. If we can grant rights to corporations, why not grant them to other living creatures and the emergent systems that really matter? (We can't eat derivatives, especially now that transactions are handled electronically. Back in the days before computers we could have at least fed worthless paper to cows to convert it into meat!). By folding political economies into natural economies perhaps we can begin to do things like index interest rates to rates of soil creation (which are very low; on the order of a centimeter per century), rather than externalize the costs of soil erosion while making up the nutrient deficit with fossil fuel-derived fertilizers.

As we transition from Peak Oil to post oil, humans will once again be subjected to the realities of Malthus and Darwin. Peak oil and global warming will demand our best efforts to create workable political, economic, spiritual, and technical solutions. Unparalleled cooperation amongst ourselves and with rest of the natural world will be essential. The recent 150th anniversary of 1859 offers much to celebrate and even more to think about. More complete consideration of the discoveries and implications of 1859 may offer us the outlines of a workable future.

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