What If Atlas Shrugged?
by David Deming
by David Deming: Taking
the Second Amendment Seriously
Shrugged is the title of Ayn Rand's 1957 novel in which
the world grinds to a halt after the productive segment of society
goes on strike. Tired of being demonized and exploited, the world's
innovators and entrepreneurs simply walk away.
happen to the US today if the fossil fuel industry went on a strike
of indefinite duration? What would happen if we gave the environmentalists
what they want? Instead of nibbling around the edges, what if we
just went all the way? What would be the consequences if Atlas shrugged?
Within 24 hours
there would be long lines at service stations as people sought to
purchase remaining stocks of gasoline. The same people who denounce
oil companies would be desperately scrounging the last drops of
available fuel for their SUVs. By the third day, all the gasoline
would be gone.
With no diesel
fuel, the trucking industry would grind to a halt. Almost all retail
goods in the US are delivered by trucks. Grocery shelves would begin
to empty. Food production at the most basic levels would also stop.
Without gasoline, no farm machinery would function, nor could pesticides
or fertilizers be produced on an industrial scale. The US cannot
feed 315 million people with an agricultural technology based on
manure and horse-drawn plows. After two weeks mass starvation would
once ran on coal but today are powered by diesel engines. With no
trains or trucks running there would be no way to deliver either
raw materials or finished products. All industrial production and
manufacturing would stop. Mass layoffs would ensue. At this point,
it would hardly matter. With virtually all transportation systems
out, the only people who could work would be those who owned horses
or were capable of walking to their places of employment.
Owners of electric
cars might smirk at first, but would soon be forced to the unpleasant
reality that the vehicle they thought was "emission free" runs on
coal. Forty-two percent of electric
power in the US is produced by burning coal. With natural gas
also out of the picture, we would lose another 25 percent. The environmentalist's
favorite power sources, wind and solar, could not fill the gap.
Wind power currently generates about 3 percent of our electricity
and solar power accounts for a scant 0.04 percent. The only reliable
power sources left would be hydroelectric and nuclear. But together
these two sources could only power the grid at 27 percent of its
normal capacity. With two-thirds of the electric power gone, the
grid would shut down entirely. No electricity also means no running
water and no flush toilets. When the bottled water ran out, people
would drink from streams and ponds and epidemic cholera would inevitably
continue to function for a few days on backup generators. But with
no diesel fuel being produced, the backups would also fail. Emergency
surgeries would have to be conducted by daylight in rooms with windows.
Because kerosene is a petroleum byproduct, lighting by kerosene
lamps would not be an option. Even candles today are made of paraffin,
another petroleum byproduct. It is doubtful if sufficient beeswax
could be found to manufacture enough candles to light the 132 million
homes in the US.
With no electricity,
little to no fuel, and no way to transport either people or commodities,
the US would revert to the eighteenth century within a matter of
days to weeks. The industrial revolution would be reversed. The
gross domestic product would shrink by more than 95 percent. Depending
on the season and location, people would begin to either freeze
or swelter in their homes. My academic colleagues who think human
progress is an illusion would have to face the bitter reality of
reverting to a time when life expectancy was less than half of what
it is today.
But I'm wrong.
Reversion to the eighteenth century is not what would happen. It
would be much worse than that. In eighteenth-century America, about
eighty percent of the population lived on family farms and were
largely self-sufficient. They had horses and blacksmiths. People
knew how to work and relied upon valued networks of family and neighbors.
Today, less than two percent of our population is engaged in farming.
And virtually all modern agriculture depends on machinery powered
by petroleum. People today could not survive in a world that lacks
I paint is grim, but it is nothing less than what environmental
activists want: to put all fossil fuel companies completely out
of business. If you don't understand or accept this, I can only
suggest that you acquaint yourself with the philosophy of biocentrism.
of college students are now demanding that universities divest
stock holdings in fossil fuel companies – as if the production of
fossil fuels was the moral equivalent of apartheid. And every March
environmentalists celebrate "Earth
Hour," an hour in which they literally turn off all the lights.
and technological civilization does not run on rainbows and moonbeams.
Nor is it likely to at any time in the foreseeable future. Renewable
energy sources such as wind and solar are not viable replacements
for fossil fuels. It is not a question of politics, but limitations
imposed by the laws of physics and chemistry. Instead of apologizing
for the use of fossil fuels, we ought to be damn glad we have
Deming [send him mail] is
a geologist, professor of arts and sciences at the University of
Oklahoma, and the author of the series Science
and Technology in World History.
© 2013 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in
part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.
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