Mar 032017
 March 3, 2017  Posted by at 1:41 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,

Leonardo da Vinci Head of a Woman 1470s


This is turning into a very rewarding series, it opens up vistas I could never have dreamed of. First, in “Not Nearly Enough Growth To Keep Growing”, I posited that peak wealth for the west, and America in particular, was sometime in the early ’70s or late ’60s of the last century.

That led to longtime Automatic Earth reader Ken Latta, who’s old enough to have been alive to see it all, writing, in “When Was America’s Peak Wealth?”, that in his view peak wealth for America was earlier, more like late ’50s to early ’60s, a carefree period for which Detroit provided the design, and the Beach Boys the soundtrack.

And I know, for those who wrote to me about this, that there’s quite a bit of myopia involved in focusing on the US, or even the western world in general, when discussing these things. But at the same time, we’re all at our best when talking about our own experiences, something this thread has made abundantly clear. That said, I would absolutely love to get a view from other parts of the world, China, Latin America, Africa, Eastern Bloc, on the same topic. I just haven’t received any yet.

What I’ve absolutely adored is how -previously- anonymous Automatic Earth readers and commenters have felt the urge to share their life experiences because of what’s been written. This happened especially after Ken’s follow-up to his initial article, “Peak American Wealth – Revisited”, which saw many of his contemporaries, as well as younger readers after I ‘poked’ them, relate their views.

Then there was distinguished emeritus professor Charles A. Hall, who took offense with neither Ken nor I including energy as an explicit factor in determining wealth. Of course he was right. I have the creeping suspicion he often is. So Charlie wrote “Peak Wealth and Peak Energy”. Which not only set us straight, it also generated a -privately- emailed response from Belgian scientists- also Automatic Earth readers- about work he has earlier published on EROI of for instance Spanish solar PV (2.45:1? That must hurt!). As of this morning, it looks as if this may lead to further cooperation. What’s not to love?

And then all this has fired up Ken Latta to write yet another article, this time on ‘freely available’ energy before the age of oil -and after it!-, in the form of human slavery. In all of its forms and shapes, including wage slavery. Is it a coincidence that at the end of the age of oil, America’s -former- middle class appears to be descending -once more- into wage and debt slavery? Or is something entirely else – and darker- going on, as Ken seems to suggest below: The currently observable rapid decline in demand for wage slaves just happens to coincide with global peak energy.

Here once more is Ken Latta:



Ken Latta: Responses to the recent Charles Hall posting at the Automatic Earth, “Peak Wealth and Peak Energy”, parried with the idea that slaves were the original black gold that allowed society to build great wealth. Not only is that a fair statement, but what the finest historians tell us is that it was always thus. It seems that whenever a cluster of mud huts went up, taking slaves was soon placed on the to-do list.

When uncoerced human power is the highest EROEI source available, usually not much gets done beyond procuring food and making basic necessities. For such societies, peak wealth occurs when a herd of grazing animals happens by. The first rule of civilization building is: find a bunch of people you can force to do things they wouldn’t otherwise be inclined to do.

In antebellum America (USA that is) there were three kinds of coerced laborers. Chattel slaves (held as real property) were the abducted Africans that made the plantation economy of the southern states possible. Something that was not well known was the practice of our colonial masters trading guns, powder and lead to the “Indians” to purchase captive natives for slave labor. They proved to be unwilling workers and frequently escaped back to their tribes.

Indentured servants were not property. Their coerced labor was legally imposed to work off a debt. Many of our ancestors got to the US by contracting to work for someone that would pay their fare. The main difference from chattel was that upon settlement of the debt they were free to leave.


That brings us to the thing known to wags in recent times as wage slavery. Us wrinklies may remember a bumper sticker [I can’t be fired, slaves must be sold]. Wage slaves are free to come and go and quit any time. They may also be fired. When they are trying not to be fired and not ready to quit, they must pretty much do as they are told and thus coerced labor. There could be a fourth class, in that some people refer to entrepreneurial souls as the self-exploited.

Once the infrastructure to fully exploit fossil fuels was in place, the most repugnant forms of forced servitude fell out of favor. The president known as Old Hickory outlawed chattel slavery. Not necessarily because he so loved his African constituents, who were politically considered to be two-thirds of a person, but in hopes they would do what they could to hinder the Confederate war effort.

The newly self-owned citizens often ended up doing much the same work as before except as either indentured or wage slaves. Most wage slaves have progressively gotten less back breaking work to do, though not necessarily less monotonous. Some have gotten to do quite exciting and satisfying work.

They also worked up to the point of having some effective leverage in dealing with their would-be slave masters.


James Gibson Group of contrabands [runaway slaves] at Foller’s house, Cumberland Landing, Virginia 1862


Wage slavery is categorically different in that its prevalence correlates with non animate sources of energy. Wage slaves have served as overseers of the energy slave economy according to the instructions of the bosses. Sadly, what this implies is that as fossil energy production declines, the demand for wage slaves also declines. We are observing it happening. The stagnation of wage earnings began at the time US oil production peaked. The currently observable rapid decline in demand for wage slaves just happens to coincide with global peak energy.

The actual rate of energy decline is accelerated by the associated trend of impoverishment of wage slaves and the growing pool of would-be wage slaves. And thus we will get to see the effect of Ugo Bardi’s Seneca Cliff. Named for 1st century Roman citizen Lucius Annaeus Seneca and based on this quotation:

“It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.”
– Lucius Anneaus Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, n. 91

Demand for energy is falling faster than production, causing even the mightiest producers to teeter on the edge of insolvency. The prediction a few years ago by petroleum geologist Jean Laherrere that the Bakken fields would be played out around 2020 appears to be on target.

The great NY Yankees catcher Yogi Berra is said to have quipped that “predictions are hard, especially about the future.” I agree, but sometimes you just have to throw caution to the wind.

Ugo Bardi, an estimable professor, and a whole pack of fellow academics joined by the usual crowd of entrepreneurial hustlers are pushing a pipe filled to the brim with Hopium that ruination can be avoided or mitigated by works worthy of a sorcerers apprentice.

We just have to assemble a vast armada of solar panels and wind turbines, plus a few billion tons of rechargeable batteries and turn every suitable topographic feature of the landscape into pumped storage, et voila!, energy slaves forever.

An admirable dream, but I’m gonna let that bandwagon go on down the street without me. I share the opinion that boat sailed for NeverneverLand quite a long time ago. What already exists and whatever still gets built will keep some lights on for awhile, but preservation of industrial civilization seems to me unattainable.


There must be a consequence right? Yes, I think there is and nobody is gonna like what I think it will be. At some threshold level of wage slave unwagedness the perfumed princes of the shrunken “protected class” (pace Peggy Noonan) will regretfully determine that a return to indentured servitude is necessary for the maintenance of moral fabric (and the preservation of their class). Rumor has it, this is already emerging as a feature of the injustice system. The next obvious step would be press gangs grabbing people off the streets and in their homes (hovels?) to sell at auction or gift to a powerful enemy, etc.

Sounds too far fetched? It is approximately what happened in Nazi Germany. The unemployed were rounded up and forced to work on public works projects. Jews weren’t just sent to camps to be gassed, they also went to camps next to industrial facilities to work as slaves to sustain the German economy and war effort. Even Auschwitz was a slave labor camp. Famous sign over the main gate says “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes free). If it isn’t already happening, something similar seems likely to emerge in the Nazi glorifying madhouse called Ukraine.

This was difficult to write. It can’t have been easy to read. But, to paraphrase one of recent history’s real shitheads, we must live the dark ages with the human species we have, not the one we might wish we had.

There is an ageless quip about not shooting the messenger, but who else ya gonna shoot when he’s the only one standing there.

Let the 10 minutes hate begin.



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    Leonardo da Vinci Head of a Woman 1470s   This is turning into a very rewarding series, it opens up vistas I could never have dreamed of. First,
    [See the full post at: Go Long Chain Makers]


    Another one pounded out of the ball park Ken!

    The Predator Class will do whatever it takes to maintain their position at the top. However, it may not come to physical slavery. If it is still financially possible, robots will replace enough workers so that there will be a massive surplus of labor and thus continued strife for the working classes. Population control by war anyone?

    If you look at the situation from a distance, we are not much different from the animal kingdom, where the most powerful always rule the clan and Mother Nature determines the population carrying capacity. In my weaker moments I sometimes wonder if religion wasn’t invented to smooth this fact over.

    Ken Barrows

    “The president known as Old Hickory outlawed chattel slavery. Not necessarily because he so loved his African constituents, who were politically considered to be two-thirds of a person, but in hopes they would do what they could to hinder the Confederate war effort.”

    Maybe I am missing something, but I thought Andrew Jackson was Old Hickory. He died around 1845. Also, the Constitution found slaves to be 3/5 of a person in determining U.S. House representation.

    With my nitpicking done, I have to say it was a thought-provoking article. It’s all about net energy. Slaves gave antebellum “civilization” some of that. The cornucopians think electricity will give modern society a whole lot more of it. I am skeptical.

    Doc Robinson

    Not mentioned is military service, a form of indentured servitude that survives today. Add a draft (for both genders?) and presto, coerced servitude. In the name of Homeland Security, to prevent and quell uprisings? To keep the “have nots” in their designated places (once they become too numerous to ignore)?

    Conditions in “Third World” countries could provide glimpses of the rest of the world’s future. Shantytowns, household servants galore (for the privileged class), and people willing to work for a pittance to scrape by.

    I recall a stunt by “The Yes Men” where the speaker impersonated an official from the WTO. He gave a talk about slavery being economically inefficient, with the present day practices of paying low wages, and letting the workers feed and house themselves, being less costly for the employers.

    Found it:


    I think (I tell myself) it was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said something like, “A man’s mind, once expanded, never returns to its original dimensions”. Apart from a great societal amnesia it will be difficult to go back to a situation very like the past when we think of slavery. Our societies do and should know enough to reject this form of living.

    Given there is more than enough weaponry and know-how I personally expect something more violent all across the globe unfortunately.

    V. Arnold

    Great read Ken, once again very much on the same page. I didn’t self identify as a wage slave until after I left the U.S. and reflected back on my working life.
    One reason I have no pension is because I was a very bad wage slave and refused to take shit off of management. I told my boss on my very first job (18yo) to go to hell and walked out.
    I had many careers over my 40 years of working and generally excelled at what I did. However, that didn’t count in the wageslavery world of the U.S.. Politics uber alas; ability be damned. It’s the hubris of wealth and power.
    I live in Thailand under a military junta: Very few can understand why I prefer it to living in the U.S.; in fact I’ve been roundly attacked and criticised for criticising the U.S.’s increasingly fascist policies and militarized police and corrupt to the core government. I’ve been here for 14 years and been through 2 coups with no effect on our lives what-so-ever.
    I have health insurance for $12/mos. and through my civil servant wife, I have access (for free) to the same hospital in which Thailand’s beloved King Bumipol was cared for.
    Thai’s have huge amounts of freedom. And I get the benefit daily.
    Usian’s are ill with poor education, no critical thinking skills, thereby very susceptible to the lies and propaganda blasted at them 24/7. Usian’s quality of life is incrementally stolen from them and they are so beaten down they have lost the will and wherewithal to fight back.
    I found it interesting you ended with, ok, bring it on.
    I fully understand why. None so blind eh?
    Cheers and keep writing.

    so called east

    This is on wealth – from the eastern bloc (at least one representative), as requested. The first 20 yrs of my life were spent in two socialist countries, incl. USSR (later, Canada and US). I used to think that socialism was very good for children and the old people. Maybe less so for ambitious young folk… Looking back at the life in socialism, I have to say that – compared to many people in the US – we were VERY rich – even the poor among us. It is, of course, all about how one defines wealth. If it is the amount of material possessions – then capitalism likely wins. But everything else… well, there’s no comparison. What we had – and today that seems to me like a giant luxury – is a lack of concern about money. That is, the constant worry about how much money one has, is it enough to afford the latest “in” thing (or keeping up with the Joneses), can I pay all the bills… etc. (And yes, not all socialist countries were the same (Romania, part. in the 80s, was a different matter)). But generally, we had a place to live (the village folk lived the best), more than enough to eat (and the food was fresh and of high quality – no high fructose corn syrup for the commies – we could not afford it), energy that was subsidized (yes, all that Soviet gas and oil were provided to the socialist countries at a deep discount), education was good and free (this is what got the socialists – most people were too well educated), health care was free – but not fancy by any means, there was mostly free child care, transportation was free or subsidized, retirement at 55 for women with kids, 60 for the others.
    And yes – we lacked in the material goods department … but we had TIME. We had lots of time to forge friendships, travel, read books, go to theater (subsidized) and cinema, garden, cook, visit with family, learn languages, study music, do sports, develop hobbies, talk with neighbours and friends met in the street, organise field trips, sing, and – of course – think about the things we were missing that the Westerners had. Like fancy cars, nice clothes, … and all else. As someone said – people like stuff. Socialism was not about a lot of stuff – it tried to do something else, but few of us understood it. We were, to be fair – also under a tremendous pro-western and anti-socialism propaganda – day in and day out. I know, I was there. The struggle to destroy socialism in the socialist countries was real, persistent, and vicious. I fell for it then – and only today I finally see it for what it was. The wealth that was accumulated by the people was stolen (Yeltsin, anyone?) – in that sense, the West won. Today, I remember fondly – the luxurious feel of a life in which money (and worry about money) did not predominate. It is not a luxury I can afford now…


    Since the discussion is about slavery in the USA, let’s make one thing quite clear. Black Africans (yes, there are many non-black Africans) were chosen to be slaves in the USA, the Caribbean and Brazil only after it was found that Whites and the “Indian” natives were suscepbtible to malaria and did not last long in the sugar fields.

    Africans from West Africa are largely protected against malaria – because of their sickle-cell trait.

    Protective Effect of Sickle Cell Trait Against Malaria-Associated Mortality And Morbidity

    The whole idea that it was racism is nonsense – it was good business.

    Here is a good explanation:

    <i>The first slaves were conquered new world natives, but the “Indians” had no immunity to European diseases. The second wave of slaves were European whites, but the Europeans had no immunity to malaria and yellow fever. By default slavery fell to blacks, many of whom had immunity to malaria and yellow fever. Thus, a black workforce could survive the infected environments and newly created wetlands in which to raise sugarcane, wetlands that were ideal homes for malaria and yellow fever bearing mosquitoes. Mann, of course, is merely reporting, not justifying black or any slavery.</i>

    Silent Spring for Us?

    V. Arnold

    so called east

    Excellent; yes to all of it…


    so called east,

    Several years ago I attended a church conference that my wife was invited to. Just by accident we were seated across the dinner table from a Lutheran minister from the former East Germany. When he mentioned where he was from I said, “My God, how terrible for you!” He looked at me like I had lobsters coming out of my ears. He proceeded to educate me on both the benefits and disadvantages of living in East Germany. Among the advantages were freedom from economic worry-as you so eloquently described. Of course, we all know about the lack of personal and economic freedom there, but do we really have freedom here?


    As you may know, we are working 10 acres in a generally sustainable design with an aim for self reliance and an ability to shut the gate for 12 months if necessary as a transitional stage.

    Several people with whom I have talked about this have been surprised to hear that I give us less than a 20% chance of coming out the other side in one piece and that, further more, if we get it right, our grandchildren MIGHT have a half chance of living a reasonable life. The downside of that will be that they will be slave owners.

    If we get it wrong, they will be the slaves. Its not a popular perspective, but I can’t see how it can be any different.


    Peak energy=peak waste=peak economics=peak belief.

    We don’t see this because we don’t see our belief system (the real one, not the supposed one we talk about ‘for show’). I would reverse the order of that in causality, but we’re so far from understanding that it’s probably more helpful to ‘walk it back’.

    Just a brief note on this relative to the recent series of articles (and followup comments): The focus on “wealth” is misplaced. Our culture is simply confused. Energy facilitates waste. Economics tells us how to go about it (via profit seeking). We rationalize it in “wealth” terms. If humans don’t wrap their heads around this, they’ll likely waste their way to extinction. So, rather than chase wealth, the sane approach is to end waste, starting with economics. The most direct, simplest, least suffering way to do that is to end the cultural belief in the concept of exchange, which is the root cause of our societal dysfunction (including slavery past and present).

    John Day

    This is all appreciated. There are many forms of slavery, and both the native American captive slaves and the European indentured servants had high death rates.
    Most Europeans did not survive their terms of indenture. Sometimes, over half died on the boat over, just for starters.
    I have seen the hypothesis supported that racism was a construct to enlist the class of former white slaves to control the class of hereditary black slaves. It makes sense…
    Here is How Debt Conquered America, excellent historical perspective and analysis:

    How Debt Conquered America


    Michael Hudson, Economic Historian, says debt slavery is where we are headed. David Graeber in “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” said this is the first time in history that debtors have virtually no advocates from the religions. They’ve been co-opted. The “Profit Motive” religion says the spreadsheet made me do it, its just business. In this respect, it is not a failure of capitalism, because power and domination can become the currency in any economic system. The Soviet socialism proved that, as well as a variety of undemocratic states.

    As for slavery, What is modern slavery? Information about the 20.9 million in slavery from Anti-slavery International in the UK

    YouTube – The Counter Revolution of 1776 and the Construction of Whiteness – Gerald Horne in episode 3 of 6 from The Real News. Most will not be able to believe on the first hearing, the history he is giving. Paul Jay, the interviewer, a Canadian, attempts to defend the traditional view.

    For a far out perspective consider the Urantia Book history of Earth where slavery was an improvement over the initial practice of killing all members of the conquered enemy.

    Aggressive war and slavery are gross methods of “stealing the fire of others”. Fire is energy. Since it became possible to put the energy of coal to work via steam engines and later petroleum, that energy has enabled more mechanical and electronic slaves so more of the population can be kings and queens, princes and princesses. The dungeons aren’t completely empty as more wants arise out of addiction to products of the built environment, toys that become necessities.


    Graeber in Debt, argues that weve seen ties between slavery and the economic demands of our systems. I wish I could say that it won’t happen, but history proves that it’s possible to fall from grace in such a way to land feet up, on someone else’s neck.

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