Sunday, January 3, 2016

On the Key Role of Energy in the Industrial Revolution

Reading from Peter Stearns' "The Industrial Revolution in World History," I'm intrigued with the twin elements of fossil fuels to power the machinery and organizational management to organize the production process, including the continued use of human energy/labor. I suppose Descartes' "mind-body" dualism is getting in the way of my understanding of the industrial revolution from the standpoint of the leap of energy and the related increase in complexity. 

Stearns contends that "the industrial revolution constituted one of those rare occasions in world history when the human species altered its framework of existence." This is a huge statement! Stearns suggests that "the only previous development comparable in terms of sheer magnitude was the Neolithic revolution--the conversion of hunting and gathering to agriculture as the basic form of production for survival." As a result of the industrial revolution, human beings use 100 times the energy necessary for survival. Such energy is necessary to maintain and establish increasingly complex technological devices and organizational/communications systems or networks. 

I get how the energy harnessed from coal represents a leap in the industrial revolution, but the boost in energy from "industrial-style organization [,which] involved more conscious management of workers toward a faster as well as a more fully coordinated work pace" does not seem to me to be the same kind of energy as is unleashed in a chemical reaction (e.g., burning coal).

Sterns emphasizes the "contrast with the more relaxed work styles characteristic of much preindustrial labor, including a good bit of slave labor." I can understand that workers working more means more energy (as I understand that term in physics), but the managerial coordination of work does not seem like "real energy" to me. I realize I'm wrong about this, but that energy just seems different to me--less real. Likewise, stuff like "redefined work discipline and specialization," [which] along with growth in the size of the work unit, defined the organizational core of the industrial revolution," seems to me like concentrating mental energy rather than more energy. Of course, increasing the size of a factory means more energy in a factory. But mental energy, as is involved in managerial coordination and increased self-discipline, seems different to me--more like the "energy" that is involved in thinking. 

I do realize that the brain's activity is indeed a draw on the body's total energy (including holding the brain up), but I suppose I have a bit of the Cartesian mind/body dualism going on here. My reading here of the industrial revolution is that it rivals the Neolithic revolution (hunter/gatherer to agriculture) in that the source of the energy changed from animals and humans to fossil fuels, which have a lot of stored energy from the sun. It is the tapping of that stored energy--being able to use much more of the sun's energy--that I believe is the key change in the industrial revolution; so when I look at the energy used in thinking, including managerial coordination and the self-discipline of labor, I don't see the especially great energy required since it is largely mental. In other words, I lean on coal (and then oil) as the energy-signature of the industrial revolution.