Energy and the Industrial Revolution

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The first industrial revolution was founded thanks to the availability of coal, which started an efficient system in which the wide availability of this resource allowed high extraction rates: one of the first large engine applications was the drive of pumps, which allowed coal mines to remain dry. From there onwards the step from primitive mechanization to extraction was brief. Essentially, the bigger the quantity of coal extracted signified greater speed of fuel extraction.

This efficient method was interrupted during the late half of the 20th century, with the exhaustion of most coal mines in Western Europe and the introduction of a much cheaper fuel alternative: oil. Hence, the second industrial revolution was enhanced by the value of petroleum oil, which had a higher calorific potency in comparison to coal.

However petroleum extraction fields, along with natural gas, are much less widespread in comparison to coal, creating a growing dependency on infrastructure: gas, pipe lines, oil tanks and gas carriers. We are referring to more complex infrastructures than that of coal and with bigger geopolitical implications: it is sufficient to think that the Sykes-Picot treaty guaranteed logistical secure lines for the supply petroleum extracted from Syria and Iraq and their importation.

Western colonial rulers desire for geographical territories was originated from the necessity to control one of the most important commodities in the world (oil). Similarly, logistical lines for the energy supplies during the Second World War were extremely important: what would have happened if Hitler’s Germany, instead of launching an attack on the USSR, had launched an attack onto the rich petroleum reserves in Mesopotamia? And what would have happened if the German state, instead of launching an offensive battle in Stalingrad, would have taken control of the Russian Caucasus area? In the Second World War the importance of energy logistic supplies became one of the main focal points of the conflict. The total war imposed extremely long logistical lines, with all the problems that the military entails: the need for fossil fuel energy.

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These strong strategical motivators were the basis for the three wars in the Middle East that took place during and also after the Second World War. England, to secure their primary points of petroleum and to guarantee a supply route to the URSS in the event of collapse on the Caucasian front, repeatedly occupied Syria (formally governed by Vichy), then it invaded Iraq and the newly formed kingdom of Persia, which were governments that openly voiced their opinion to block oil supplies to the UK, along with closing any connections and trade to soviet territories.

The URSS, which was directly adjoined to these territories, actively participated in the military operations that led to the British occupation of Teheran, the abdication of Sha Reza Pahlavi in favour of his son Mohammed and the armouring of energy supply through the constitution of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Similarly, President Roosevelt and the king of Saudi Arabia had signed the first treaty that guaranteed a secure petroleum supply to the USA as part of the Wahhabism reign.

The third industrial revolution, based on technology and the computerization of production processes has further heightened the need for fossil fuel energy. The process of decolonization during the previous decades has undermined the capacity of industrialized states to control the extraction lines of fuel supply of energy: this was, in my opinion, the main reason behind the race towards nuclear energy for civilian use during the 50s and 60s, which was particularly worrying during the oil crisis of 1972 and 1979.

It is enough to remember the famous petroleum shock of the 70s or what has been occurring this last year with the minimum price of crude oil; we must reflect on how the cost of petroleum could be so low, dumping the environmental costs on all of society. Even the current geopolitical American choices are marked by the necessity of breaking free from the Middle East by obtaining self-sufficiency through shale minerals.

The fourth industrial revolution will still remain based on energy-consumption, however it could also contain the seeds for the dissolution of centralized energy. The emergence of the internet has generated an economic scale that has consequences on many fronts: big data. How is this connected to the energy resource debate? telematic networks consume a lot of electrical energy since they are based on the transmission of electrical signals. Secondly: big data, especially connected to social network, is subtly transforming human beings into machines that value their social relations.

Paradoxically, the economy of big data bases a large part of their production processes on energy derived from different sources than the usual fossil fuel ones: we don’t work through electricity. Our smartphones do, however they are only a means to connect the brain to networks. Our brain works through the transmission of chemical energy. In reality the entire paradigm of the Internet, strictly correlated to big data, supposes a complete rethinking of the paradigm of production of energy based on fossil fuels. This is demonstrated through entrepreneurial research from Elon Musk, who is investing a solution through the project of the Powerwall batteries, which would reduce our dependency to energy distribution networks by creating batteries connected to solar panels based on high performance for domestic and vehicular use.

Other aspects of the future industrial revolution predict an increase in energy consumption which fossil fuels would not be able to sustain in the long-term: the automation of not only production processed but also intellectual work, including stock trading based on genetic algorithms towards certain jurisprudence laws for processing contracts, to automatic analysis of images and block chains through Bitcoin transactions. All of these changes will bring about an increase in computational capacities and as a consequence will create a different way of thinking about the development value of energy resources.

Through this another important aspect will be introduces into the industrial revolution: nanotechnology. It is evident that a molecular machine can’t be fed and sustained through normal networks of energy distribution, as the batteries of lithium ions have a precise physical limit in the possibility of miniaturization. Even here we will need to find other ways to exploit chemical energy: from the oxidation of hydrocarbons in large power plants to the oxidation of glucose fuel oi.

Does this mean that in a few years we will see fossil fuels disappear? No, in fact: the petroleum peak is much further away than what we expect and the technology mentioned beforehand is still in development. Additionally, oil shale has profoundly changed energy geopolitics. And let’s now forget one main fact: petroleum also serves as an essential raw material for the production of plastic. Conventional fossil fuel resources are becoming increasingly hard to control due to the unstable system caused by micro-regional conflicts, whilst nuclear energy has already proven its catastrophic possibilities.

If it is true, as some might remember, that nuclear fission has caused less deaths than fossil fuels, it should also be noted that nuclear energy has the unpleasant characteristic of potentially being able to create, as demonstrated in Chernobyl and Fukushima, catastrophic accidents that in a limited amount of time can render a territory completely inhabitable. For that reason it can’t be a valid alternative to fossil fuels.

A society based entirely on telematics, like the one which is being created, has two essential factors: the quantity of frequency band available and the quantity of usable renewable energy. Through this a possible scenario can be drawn on the available nuclear energy of a new generation, based on fusion rather than fission, for big machinery and a myriad of energy sources that rely on solar, wind or chemical sources. I can’t stress enough that there will be a disappearance of manufacturing production in favour of cognitive production, as manufacturing production will be automated.

Attention: the risk of an accelerationist illusion, in which all the current problems are automatically resolved to build a utopia is also right around the corner. If it is true that this new hypothetical paradigm could solve the environmental crisis brought upon us by the profoundly irrational production system we are living in then it is also true that it could create new and more subtle forms of domination.

Inside this new paradigm it will be necessary to increase the capacity to influence and affect the reality of those who put theirselves into a revolutionary perspective of overcoming the current situation. It can’t be any form of rational capitalism, there can be no capitalism associated with humans: capitalism is by nature based on the value of the current situation, exchange values and would remain a state that regulates money. Therefore: the necessity to completely value our entire social existence, the existence of each individual, would signify the pinnacle of our alienation.

Leaving a society based on accumulation of wealth and the domination of men over each other is possible only through a revolutionary sense. There is no escape: it is our duty to approach these technologies and use them to build a suitable society. The potential of the science of complex systems and cybernetics are immense and we can’t leave them in the hands of a mechanism based on the structural alienation of men.

Article from Italian anarchist weekly newspaper Umanità Nova

Translated by Pietro Casati

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