We are now at a crossroads in history, and no path forward looks pleasant. The war in Ukraine is killing innocent civilians, disrupting lives, and shaking the markets in energy, food and other commodities, making us wonder how we let ourselves become so complacent in trading with Russia, whose government has shown such little respect for the rights of its neighbors and its own citizens.
The obvious path seems to be to boost oil, gas, coal, food and metals production from friendly countries. Cut ourselves off from Russian oil, Russian gas, Russian grains, metals and other commodities as much as possible by getting them from elsewhere, and fast.
Unfortunately, this is no easy task. Russia is one of the world’s largest exporters of oil and gas, as well as a bewildering array of other materials: wheat (of which they are the world’s largest exporter), ammonia fertilizers (made from natural gas), iron and nickel (used in making steel), gold and titanium, platinum and palladium (used by the oil industry), neon (for lasers used by the electronics industry), cobalt and rhenium. Do you have any spare rhenium lying around?
The harder answer is to reduce our dependence on oil, gas, coal, wheat, precious metals, rare elements and other such things as much as possible, by getting energy from solar power, wind power, and batteries (SWB), producing agricultural products from precision fermentation and cellular agriculture (PFCA), and radically reducing our materials use through dramatic increases in the efficiency of transportation and production through electric vehicles (EVs), autonomous electric vehicles (A-EVs) and Transport-as-a-Service (TaaS).
A rapid reshaping of the world economy will be painful in the short term. Prices of many products we take for granted will go way up. There will be job losses. This ‘worse-before-better’ dynamic is often seen in complex systems. To build a business, you might have to invest and go deeply into debt first – things get worse financially before they turn the corner and get better.
The same will happen with getting out of fossil fuels and industrial agriculture. But in the long run, the build-out in SWB energy and PFCA food and agriculture will mean lower prices, a decentralization of production, and greater political stability.
The steam engine enslaved before it liberated
We have been through similar situations before, where disruptions have had major geopolitical consequences – sometimes negative, sometimes positive. Understanding this complex relationship can help us to navigate the risks and opportunities today.
One of the most geopolitically consequential disruptions took place a couple centuries ago. It illustrates how a disruption can have immediate negative implications but longer term positive impacts that can end up driving a total social, economic and cultural transformation.
For centuries shipwrights filled in the gaps between the boards of their vessels with hemp or other materials. They would slather the surface with tar or pitch to protect the wood from being eaten by worms. Ultimately this did not stop the worms, or keep barnacles and weeds from growing below the waterline, weighing the ship down and slowing its travel. So, periodically, ships would need to be hauled out of the water, scraped clean, and re-tarred.
But a Sunday stroll in May 1765 changed that, and much else, forever. Steam engines had been around for decades, but they were not very efficient. They took a lot of energy to power a pump that was both slow and unreliable. But on that walk in Scotland, twenty-nine-year-old James Watt got the idea to separate the engine’s condenser, which would always be kept cold, from the steam cylinder itself, which was always warm, and to use a valve to connect them. This innovative arrangement was about five times more efficient than existing engines. It took only about 20% as much fuel to do the same amount of work.
This is part of the ‘pattern of disruption’ – a new technology is radically better than an incumbent, and therefore quickly displaces the old technology.
Thanks to Watt’s invention, more-powerful, faster, more-efficient and more-reliable steam engines kicked off an industrial revolution. They were first employed in the mines that supplied the metals to make machines. Their steady power enabled mechanized factories to spin thread and weave fabric, turn wood, and drill metals in a way that was uneconomical with earlier engines. (And, ironically, as they got more efficient, they used more fuel, something we have explored in a previous post.)
In northwest Wales, Parys Mountain was one of the largest copper deposits known in the world at the time. It had been exploited since the Bronze Age because the deposits were near the surface, where they were easy to access. But unfortunately, the ore was not very high grade which meant it took a lot of energy, and therefore a lot of coal, to refine it into metal product. So much coal that it was actually easier to bring the ore to the coal than coal to the ore.
But Watt’s engines changed this equation. They not only made metals easier to obtain and fabric easier to produce, they made it easier to mine for the coal that fuelled those machines and, in later years, to build steam-powered trains and steam-powered ships. They drove a revolution in materials, energy, and transportation all wrapped up in one.
They would also turn out to be the solution to the shipworm problem.
Industrialized mining began at Parys in 1775 and within fifteen years, it was the largest copper mine in the world. Ore was loaded onto ships and brought south to Swansea, where there were coal reserves that could be exploited due to Watt’s steam engines. By 1790 British mines were producing more than 75% of the world’s copper.
Just ten years after Watt’s steam engine patent, the entire British Navy was clad with copper bottoms over a period of just two years from 1779 to 1781. According to Gareth Rees in ‘Copper Sheathing: An Example of Technological Diffusion in the English Merchant Fleet’: “copper sheathing not only solved the problems of worm and hull fouling [like barnacles and weeds], but actually improved sailing speed as an unexpected and welcome by-product.”
This is another part of the ‘pattern of disruption’ – the unintended consequence of a seemingly unrelated problem in shipping being solved by a better water pump.
Amidst all these wonderful unintended consequences was one horrific side-effect. Copper-clad ships travelled about 15% faster, meaning that an 80-day Atlantic crossing could be cut by about 12 days. All ships that went to tropical waters and that needed to move quickly benefited from copper bottoms. Yet there was one kind of merchant ship that benefited financially from greater speed more than any other: slave traders.
Slave trading ships, too, went from less than 10% having copper bottoms to more than 70% having copper bottoms over a period of just two or three years, at the same time as the Navy fleet. This allowed slavery to become more efficient, because fewer enslaved people ended up dying on the ships during transport.
The database at SlaveVoyages.org, a project funded by the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities, suggests that the death rate was about half on a copper-bottom ship, compared to one without sheathing. Prior to 1780, the proportion of enslaved people lost during a trans-Atlantic voyage was approximately 20%. After the early 1780s, this decreased to about 10%.
The unexpectedly rapid demise of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery
Speaking before the UK Parliament in 2019, environmentalist and TV presenter David Attenborough said:
“There was a time in the 19th century when it was perfectly acceptable for civilised human beings to think that it was morally acceptable to actually own another human being for a slave. And somehow or other, in the space of 20 or 30 years, the public perception of that totally transformed.”
Many historians argue that the key driver of the end of slavery was economics: its decline in profitability. Others argue that it was the rise of abolitionist humanitarian campaigns. The heroic resistance of enslaved people is another important factor. But one of the most critical developments that provided the enabling context for all of these factors is usually overlooked. An overarching factor that enabled and amplified many of the other factors bringing about the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and of the institution of slavery itself, was a technology disruption: the steam engine.
This, first of all, was the key disruption that transformed the economics, making slave labour ultimately uneconomical. The same device that greatly improved the productivity of mining, and that enabled the entire factory system of industrial production, also made muscle labor, for the most part no longer cost-competitive against machine labor – and increasingly so. No wonder, then, that the collapse of the slave trade happened so rapidly within the same time-frame as disruptions take to scale.
Number of People Transported per Year in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Data from SlaveVoyages.org
The total history of the slave trade shows a ‘hump-shaped’ curve – with a sharp increase from about 1650 to 1750 and a peak era that lasted roughly from 1750 to 1850. But then, over only a few years, the entire trade came to a halt. In 1849, 76,654 people were brought from Africa across the Atlantic, a number substantially higher than the average of 63,853 people brought per year in the 1750-1850 period. But in 1850, the number of people transported was half of 1849, and 1851 was half of 1850. Fifteen years later, the trade had ended completely.
The technology disruption that had, at first, helped make the slave trade more efficient – contributing to an increase in its profits – ultimately facilitated its complete collapse as the machine labor turned out to be an order of magnitude cheaper and more efficient than slavery.
Of course, this doesn’t mean technology disruption was the only factor – but it’s hard to see how this rapid, sudden collapse of slavery would have been possible without it.
Back in the late 1700s, the UK’s Slave Trade Act 1788 had tried to make the appalling conditions of the trans-Atlantic slave trade more ‘humane’. Sadly, this was all by small, incremental steps, none of which ultimately challenged the institution of slavery itself – rather like the small half-measures and tiny behavioural changes we talk about today in relation to climate change.
The Act, for instance, mandated more space per enslaved person being transported on British slaver vessels – “1.67 slaves per ton up to a maximum of 207 tons burthen, after which only 1 slave per ton could be carried”.
The earliest impact of the steam-engine disruption alleviated the conditions of slavery further. Applying copper-sheathing to the undersides of slave ships made the trade even more humane, by allowing ships to travel faster, thus cutting the death rate per voyage.
But ultimately, while purporting to make slavery more ‘humane’ these measures really only contributed to entrenching its existence. What made the trade most humane was simply ending it, which became not just feasible, but economically desirable thanks to the total transformation of the economics of the industrial landscape following the steam-engine disruption. Those new economics helped lay the foundations for seismic political and cultural shifts as people recognised entirely new possibilities in how to organise labor and run societies.
It was not just the trans-Atlantic slave trade that collapsed quickly. So did the entire institution of slavery. In the UK, the ‘Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions’, was founded in 1823. By 1833, just ten years later, they had succeeded in their goal. In the US, the institution of slavery also collapsed over just a few years, going from being legal in about half of the states in 1860, to illegal everywhere just five years later. The ultimate collapse of slavery did not, of course, happen peacefully. While the transformation of economic forces ushered in by the steam-engine changed incentives, risks and opportunities, the eruption of the American Civil War illustrates how the unravelling of slavery as an institution was often a violent process.
Ukraine war as precursor to the Age of Freedom?
The steam-engine, of course, ended up doing a lot more than just disrupting slavery. By ushering in the industrial mechanisms of production and manufacturing, it also led us into the age of fossil fuels – and with it, of course, climate change.
It laid the foundation for the geopolitical order that emerged through the twentieth century premised on centralized domination of scarce oil, gas and coal resources. Now we are dependent on what economist Nathan Hagens calls ‘energy slaves’ – fossil fuels that do more work per hour by being burned in combustion engines than a person could ever hope to do. A motor vehicle that only turns a small portion of its fuel into motion is bearable when these fuels are cheap and easy to get. These same products also serve as the feedstocks to make fertilizers that grow the grains we feed to cattle, who turn a small percent of their inputs into milk or meat.
In this system of fossil fuel ‘energy slaves’, Russia is a formidable if not pre-eminent power – given its monopoly over so much of the world’s oil, gas and grain. The war in Ukraine has highlighted the geopolitical dangers of this system. But the unfolding of the ‘pattern of disruption’ in relation to slavery highlights how quickly this system could be replaced with something far better. Rather than simply focusing on the minutia of the fossil fuel system and Russia’s domination of it, this pattern suggests that the most effective path ahead is to disrupt the energy sources that are so crucial to Russian power. As RethinkX’s work has shown, that disruption has already begun. Over the next two decades, the disruption of the energy, transport and food systems by SWB, PFCA and TaaS will make the industries that underpin Russia’s geopolitical clout completely obsolete. European net-zero strategies and commitments illustrate the direction in which the global economy is now inexorably moving.
Yet the war in Ukraine also illustrates that freeing ourselves from fossil fuel ‘energy slaves’ might be as difficult as ending the millennia-old institutions of human slavery was in the past, maybe even involving wars as deadly and devastating over the next decade or two of accelerating disruptions.
But when the task is complete and we live in an ‘Age of Freedom’ where we no longer need fossil energy to power our lives, to move ourselves and our goods, or animals to supply our food, we will look back on how we live today and its attendant geopolitical horrors with the same sense of disgusted fascination that we now feel about keeping other people in bondage.
This is Part 4 in our series ‘The Pattern of Disruption’. Part 1 is available here. Part 5, “The Coming Global Fertilizer Crisis – and How to Solve it” is here.