Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Oil and Humans, Part 2

Little spinner in Globe Cotton Mill, Augusta, Georgia. Overseer said she was regularly employed. (Photograph by Lewis Wickes Hine, January 1909, U.S. Library of Congress)

Janis Petzel, M.D.

How did we go from tens of thousands of years of simply collecting pitch from naturally occurring tar pits, to the mass extraction and production of petroleum products in the past 150 years? It may have been responses to a pandemic—The Black Death in the 1300s– that set forces in motion.

Historically, the aftermath of wars and pandemics are times of major social change. The poor and downtrodden have a moment of opportunity when the need for labor is great, to take back some control for themselves before the rich and powerful clamp down again.

In Part 1 of this series, we learned that people have been using pitch, tar or bitumen from oil seeps since at least Paleolithic times 40,000 years ago. The oil was used for hand-made objects, medications, or waterproofing, without industrial modification.

Water-powered mills provided power for mechanization from the time of the ancient Greeks (250 BC) and for the next 2000-plus years. By the seventh century A.D. in Ireland and all over Europe by 1300, water-powered mills were used for tool sharpening, grinding grain or malt, making lumber, or “fulling” fabric (pounding wet fabric to compact it). Most of these small industries were in rural areas on streams and were owned by independent trades people. Think of the bawdy miller in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1400).

Because of the loss of life during the bubonic plague in Europe starting in 1347, existing power structures weakened. The Church’s interventions were useless against a bacterium. There weren’t enough people to do manual labor or to farm. Wages rose. Land prices fell. Laws intended to keep the poor under the thumb of the landowners led to revolt. Power and authority shifted. In western Europe, serfdom disappeared by the 1500s.

But the rich have ways of staying rich. Wind-powered ships allowed a new wave of exploration and exploitation. European powers took violent control of the lands of independent people all over the globe. The slave trade started in the 1560s, expanding rapidly in sugar plantations in Caribbean colonies in the 1640s. The oppressive plantation system for growing cotton came next in the southern American colonies. The British textile industry boomed, with textile exports increasing by 800% from 1739-1759. Slavery in the Americas kept pace.

From the mid-1600s onward in Britain, changes in the way common lands were distributed, animal breeding advancements, and the development of four-year crop rotations including nitrogen-fixing legumes, lead to food surpluses. (We’re still making use of these ideas today in the organic farming movement).

But even good progress can have unintended consequences. The food supply fed a population increase in Britain and Wales (1700: 5 million; 1801: 9 million; 1901:32 million). Population growth started to outstrip food supply by 1770. Sugar became a major source of calories as people moved from rural areas into cities for work. Thus, one evil (slavery) fed another (overpopulation and increasing poverty) and increased a third (wealth increasingly in the hands of the few.). Finance and banking institutions started in this period.

In 1760, James Watts made improvements to the coal-burning steam engine, which changed everything. Coal drove the Industrial Revolution and also became the dominant fuel for heat, rather than wood.

So, it was coal, not oil, that powered the shift from rural, agrarian manufacturing to an urban phenomenon, all on the backs of slave labor and the poor. Think of Charles Dickens’s novels, and you can visualize the filthy air, cramped, disease-ridden poverty that ensued.

Then coal-powered steam engine begat the Petroleum Age in America.

Based on these observations, this writer has developed a hypothesis. It is that healthy public policies create a healthy human ecosystem, while diseased decisions and actions lead to ever-increasing dis-ease in society. Our dependence on fossil fuels is a symptom of the greater disease of greed and inequality.

In the next issue in August, we’ll talk about the birth of Big Oil.

Janis Petzel, MD is a physician, grandmother and climate activist whose writing focusses on resilience, climate, and health. She lives in Islesboro, Maine where she advocates and acts for a fossil-fuel-free future. She serves on the Islesboro Energy Committee and is a Climate Ambassador for Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Sources: “coal used since the caveman.”

A Distant Mirror The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1979.

How Slavery Fueled the Industrial Revolution Adrian Lordshaughn Sept 6, 2022 accessed 2-22-2022

Slavery, coerced labour, and the development of industrial capitalism in Britain by Mark Harvey, October 4, 2019. accessed 2/22/2022.

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