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Manpower is Not Obsolete: The Implications of Ecological Scarcity and Energy Frugality

© Davd 2012

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When times change profoundly, habit fails us and reminiscence often misleads. Euro-Industrial nations and scholars laughed [often rudely, sometimes politely behind the hand] at aboriginals who tried to preserve their cultures and their wisdom in context of technological change—Cargo cults, the Ghost Dance, the futility of samurai ferocity in the face of American military firepower. Now it is the turn of the Industrials to experience futility and the traditionals to laugh, politely or not, as cheap fossil energy comes to its ignominious end and the skilled and muscular hand of the tradesman regains its due prominence.

In the year 1980, two men, one a sociology professor at a rural university and one a Washington-DC based lecturer and consultant on activism, diplomacy, and labor-management relations, published books forecasting a future that would require frugality and prudence, and would not reward the go-grow-go style of social, economic, and technological organization that had prospered in the 19th and 20th Centuries. The professor's book was published by a middle-American University Press; the lecturer-consultant's, by New York based Viking Press. Both books featured concepts well known to science and esoteric at best to most non-scientific readers.

The two books agree far more than they disagree, but their focal concepts are from two quite different fields of science. Catton's title Overshoot, refers to the population of any species 1 exceeding the capacity of its range to support it (and yes, he does refer to the lemmings of the Arctic—as well as the humans of “Easter Island.”) He writes mainly of human populations and the resources they use for subsistence, and refers to fossil fuels as taken from the past, when the chemical states they are in when extracted, were set. He argues for an ecological vocabulary for expressing and understanding the human predicament [pp 7-10], and that prudence and even some pessimism must replace optimism as our basic attitude toward the future and especially toward planning for the future.

Rifkin's title Entropy refers to the degradation of energy: Making energy do work, renders it less concentrated, and in physics, the loss of usefulness is called an increase in entropy. While i can dig thousands of square metres of garden, perhaps a square kilometre [or million square metres] if i should live so long, with the same digging fork; i cannot use the same calories to dig on Wednesday, that i “burned” on Monday. Those calories, as my grandfather said when he taught me about entropy, have been degraded into heat at the temperature of the surroundings 2. Rifkin advocates for a physical vocabulary [in the sense of physics the science], a bit less explicitly than Catton does for ecological.

Both authors assert that humankind as of 1980 was using far more resources than the earth [and incoming sunshine] was producing. Both recognize that the Industrial Revolution changed the main resource-basis of human subsistence from “renewable” plant growth (and some wind-power and water-power), to “fossil fuels”, first coal, then petroleum, then “natural gas”; that these fossil fuels (and more recently, nuclear energy) are being consumed many thousands of times faster than they are being produced by nature; and thus, that humankind subsists today [1980, and also 2012 and all intervening years] on resources whose future “production lifetime” is far shorter than the two centuries plus that they have been in substantial use 3.

Both agree that “this can't go on”; that human populations and per-person rates of resource consumption must decrease within the lifetimes of people living (and implicitly, of people who could read their books) in 1980. The energy-wasteful aspects of human social life were doomed, and continuing the Industrial Revolution habits of economic growth would make the decreases worse for the people who finally experienced them.

Rifkin's Entropy was much the better-known book a year or two after publication: My copy is a Bantam paperback edition dated October 1981, and before the text begins two hardcover printings are listed, along with excerpts from eleven favorable reviews (four more excerpts adorn the back cover—this was a mass-market, “Bantam New Age Book” whose imprint-companions included If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!, The Medusa and the Snail, and The I Ching: A New Interpretation for Modern Times.)

This year, i found more references to Catton in Internet discussions, than to Rifkin, which may indicate that the carrying-capacity approach is more easily understood and applied, or perhaps that Catton did a more thorough and cautious job, as one might stereotypically expect of a professor vis-s-vis a “lecturer and consultant.” (I do have more qualifications to assert about what Rifkin wrote; but his main points about entropy and waste are sound, important, and distinct from Catton's.)

Catton did not introduce me to ecology, but he probably was the single teacher who presented me with the greatest amount of it. If he did not introduce me to the carrying-capacity concept, he expounded it to me more than any other person.4 Carrying capacity has thus been part of my conceptual tool-kit for about 45 years; and i am perhaps disposed to read Catton sympathetically since he was one of my best teachers. (..which does not imply that he will or will not concur with my comments here, if he should read them.)

Rifkin did not teach me about entropy—my grandfather did, nearly thirty years before Catton and Rifkin published their books, likely when i was about ten years old. Entropy has been part of my conceptual tool-kit for about six decades, and while i respect most of Rifkin's main points, i read him to over-generalize from them, to “make too much of them”. More generally, he seems to me to be the less cautious writer; and Catton was but one influence in a formation as a researcher and scholar which emphasized prudence.

For instance, on p. 79, Rifkin writes, “Every technology ever conceived by the genius of humankind is nothing more than a transformer of energy from nature's storehouse.” If he be a good quibbler, Rifkin can probably argue for that statement denotatively 5, but its connotation misleads 6. Technologies vary in efficiency and they vary in energy intensivity; and some are far better even in total energy efficiency than their pre-Industrial precursors. I may be obliged to waste fossil energy because Canadian society presumes that people own automobiles individually and the road designs give priority to cars and trucks rather than bicycles and skiers; but the basic bicycle design i also ride comes from the industrial 20th Century, as does the tensioned-blade bow saw i use to selectively cut small trees. I enjoy walking like a 16th Century peasant (and 16th Century scholars like Philip Melancthon and Martin Luther) did; but when i have some distance to go on firm fairly uniform ground, i can get there more efficiently using my own muscle power than anyone could in the 16th Century using his, by riding a bicycle 7.

(There are many more examples of technologies which have increased human energy efficiency, and “obviously” more than their own energy cost of manufacture. Many of them are hand tools, which is very germane to my main point. Others use machine power, but also require more skilled human muscle to operate well, than those which are their efficiency inferiors.)

Rifkin (pp. 149-157) makes one very important point with which i concur “fully”, that Catton does not make so well and compactly: Huge cities depend on non-renewable fuels [including nuclear generated electricity in many cases] and in Rifkin's own words, “The sober truth is that we can no longer afford to maintain these incredibly entropic urban environments.” [157] To what extent huge cities will be depopulated, and to what extent they will be reorganized into larger households of people who walk, bicycle, or ride public transit rather than drive motor vehicles, probably deserves at least one essay for itself; and that essay should have at least one author more urban than i.8 Since Catton and Schumacher (1973) concur with Rifkin that urbanization was already excessive a generation ago, it does seem prudent to forecast that cities in a [more nearly] renewable-resource-based society, will be much smaller in population than those today and in 1980.

The fundamental point, in which Rifkin and Catton concur, is that supplementing or replacing human muscle power with mechanical energy, and especially with electrical, internal-combustion, and steam engines, increases work done, but by rather less than it increases energy consumed. Rifkin would go on to emphasize the disorder, the “entropy”, engendered by that choice of mechanical energy consumption. Catton would emphasize that the supplemental energy comes from “fossil fuels” that constitute the residuum of long-past sunshine and photosynthesis; and thus, that what that energy adds to the natural “carrying capacity” of the earth, is not further carrying capacity, but plunder. They would [imho] concur that “this can't go on for much longer”.

Both men conclude that economic growth is a transitory phenomenon of the “Industrial Revolution”. It became possible for an economy to grow longer than a decade or so, when “discovery of the New World” was followed by the engineering uses of coal and then petroleum; and as Catton's title states explicitly, “overshot” sustainable rates of both resource consumption and economic activity some time during—if not before—the 20th Century.

Reading these 32-year-old books again, i was reminded that in a 21st Century where energy efficiency matters more and more rather than less and less, the [frankly, awesome] efficiency of the "guided human muscle" will regain its pre-Industrial prominence. Or as i say in reference to my own personal work, "I'm a hand-tool guy, and i can often more than make up in precision what i lack in power, compared to a machine."

My current favourite hand tool is the tempered steel “digging fork” which i use more in my gardening than any one other tool hand or machine-driven. I could also name air-seal canning of foods, food steamers, pasteurization, pruning “clippers”, pruning saws, and the tensioned “bow saw”; but when it comes to tremendous energy saving—or capture—without burning fossil fuels nor splitting atoms, a more elaborate hand tool, the sailboat, probably tops all the rest. Men, and a small minority of women, travelled the world with not a single electrical or motor-driven gadget—not one—beginning well over a thousand years ago. (Whether the Vikings or even earlier Celts first reached North America from Europe, they plainly did so with sails and wind: Rowing was for unfortunate circumstances, not normal motive power.)

What all these technologies share, is the enhancement of the efficiency and effectiveness of human muscle power. When weeding a garden with a digging-fork, for instance, i take out the "creeping perennials" that tillers and tractor-plows turn under and chop up. My weeding-pass takes more time, but lasts more time as well. It took me longer to sail the inland waters of the Pacific 9 than it would have taken me to cross them with an outboard-motor at 80% of full power; but there was no work needed to earn the cost of fuel and far less needed to build and maintain the equipment.

There are, we should recognize, machine-powered tools [“machine-driven”, if you prefer to say it that way] that are ecologically and “entropically” beneficial. As examples, i suggest the bandsaw lumber mill, the much-maligned chainsaw, the electric fan, the refrigerator, and the water pump 10.

When the work is heavier than needlepoint-and-such, men's guided muscles are much more powerful--and accurate--than women's. Marvin Harris [1989: 328-330] points out that it is where subsistence depends on the hard, accurate work of plowing with an animal, and inferentially other large-muscle, precision labour, such as hunting big game, that men have great honour in pre-industrial societies. (It occurs to me that the fishermen Jesus recruited as disciples, did work women could not have done in that time.) I have parallel personal experience from "these days", doing ecoforestry and some kinds of gardening 11.

Feminists have been known to argue that with modern technology, men's muscular strength is no asset; and some might call it a liability. Overshoot and Entropy tell a different story: As true energy efficiency comes back into prominence, as ecological health becomes a serious and not merely a dilettante concern, which it has since 1980; men working hard and accurately with our muscles will be, for a greater and greater part of the work of subsistence and of well-being, the best way to do the job.

Humankind evolved with a sex-division-of-labour for good reason: To grow our big brains, humans needed to be born less fully developed than smaller-headed animals, and then spend several years dependent on our parents 12 (Morgan, 1973; Morris, 1967). Human babies depend on milk and on food specially prepared for babies, much longer than do the newborns of other species: A wolf or dog pup can eat meat from a fresh kill, and a colt or calf or lamb can eat grass and grain, at a few months' age. Human babies typically take a substantial amount of their food as milk for one to two years. Mothers were thus tied to babies for most of their best young-adult years, during human evolution. Women evolved to have higher proportions of body fat, more delicate hands, wide pelves, for good reproductive reasons.

The work of hunting, fishing, horticulture, and agriculture, all demanded men's heavy-muscle strength and cardiovascular endurance; and all contributed vitally to human nutrition. Pre-Industrial civilization depended on the heavy-muscle work of great numbers of men, in additional ways. “Modern civilization” seemed to have re-assigned most of the heavy-muscle work of the pre-Industrial past to machinery. Both Catton and Rifkin told us, more than a generation ago, that the fossil-energy basis for this reassignment is failing.

The future belongs to the peoples whose men are skilled with their strength.


Catton, William R., Jr. 1980 Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Urbana, London, and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Paperback 1982
Rifkin, Jeremy, with Ted Howard, 1980. Entropy: A New World View. NY: Viking. Bantam paperback 1981.
- and in a more ordinary way -
Harris, Marvin, 1989. Our Kind. NY: Harper and Row.
Lenski, Gerhard, Jean Lenski, and Patrick Nolan, 1991. Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Morgan, Elaine 1973 The Descent of Woman. NY: Bantam.
Morris, Desmond, 1967. The Naked Ape London: Jonathan Cape Ltd. Bantam Paperback, Toronto, 1969
Schumacher, Ernest Fritz 1973. Small is Beautiful:Economics as if People Mattered. London: Blond and Briggs. (1974, New York: Harper and Row. Cited in a 1974 Abacus edition, London; several other editions exist.)



  1. The usage seems to imply an animal species; e.g. pp. 4-7.

  2. The entropy concept, as Rifkin repeatedly emphasizes, comes from thermodynamics; and in common language it requires us to state things “backwards”. Increased entropy means decreased energy value.

  3. The rate of consumption of “fossil [including 'nuclear'] energy” has grown to be many times faster today than it was in the first or even the second century of the Industrial Revolution; it is less clear if the coal, for instance, is more than half consumed; more clear that at today's rate of consumption, there are fewer years supply remaining than the number it has been a significant source of energy.

  4. Many concepts and even more facts, of course, came to me outside the classroom, especially through reading-on-my-own. By the time i received my Ph.D at the University of Washington, where Prof. Catton then taught, i was learning more “on my own initiative” than i was being taught in classes (as is normal.)

  5. My argument is that “... nothing more than ...” excludes, or at least harmfully ignores, the very important question of efficiency. Both a Hyundai Accent and a Hummer are motor vehicles, but the “Accent” costs many times less in fuel [and in production cost] per distance travelled. Even a bicycle can be labelled “... nothing more than a transformer of energy from nature's storehouse” in Rifkin's usage; but for distances where its slower speed is acceptable, its efficiency puts even the Hyundai to shame. Both a tempered steel digging fork and a scavenged forked tree branch, are means to turn the soil, but the digging fork transforms energy from nature's storehouse [via my stomach and muscles] into tilled garden, much more efficiently—so much more efficiently that its cost of manufacture is amply justified.

  6. On p. 63, Rifkin writes, “Put these two sayings together (Les gens heureux n'ont pas d'histoire, and “necessity is the mother of invention”) and all of history becomes understandable.” Such sweeping language does seem to fit with the “Bantam New Age” imprint; and many sweeping changes in technology, Rifkin's main subject here, can be argued to result from stress rather than surplus. But neither saying explains [nor do the two together] the specifics of the Reformation, why the Chinese invented rockets but not the printing press, nor why the electric guitar became the dominant instrument in modern Blues and Rock music—and those too are parts of history. Further, “necessity is the mother of invention” is not 100% true. Consider beer, a pleasant beverage known in some form or other to most cultures that grow grain. When if ever was beer a necessity? The same can be said of many fine sauces, and for that matter, it can be argued to Rifkin's standard or better, that the Wright Brothers et al had no need for flying machines.

  7. In Helsinki in 1984-85, i commuted to work, some 5 km each way, on a “one speed” borrowed bicycle. The ride took 15-20 minutes each way; while it would have taken over an hour one-way to walk and longer to drive than to bicycle (there were stoplights, waits for traffic, and some hills—and the main bicycle trails, by using the railroad rights-of-way and city parks, often avoided these delays. Most had parallel walking trails, but walking 6 km takes almost an hour at the best of times, and walking entailed at least as many stops for traffic as bicycling.)

  8. It should be no surprise that Rifkin rather than Catton made the urban-collapse point: He lived in Washington DC and published with a New York house; Catton had moved from Seattle to Christchurch, NZ, to Pullman, WA (at the time Overshoot was published), and his publisher is the University of Illinois Press (not even the University of Chicago).

  9. ... in a small sailboat which could be rowed by one man when necessary.

  10. I am aware of the existence of the “hydraulic ram pump”, and have drunk water and coffee-from-water that such a “ram” pumped some ten metres uphill from a West Coast stream. It is a desirable technology where there is moving water from which to pump; but it's less useful at the bottom of a well, than the proverbial “teats on a bull”.

  11. When weeding a garden with a digging-fork, i take out the "creeping perennial weeds" that tillers and tractor-plows turn under and chop up. One weeding-pass takes more time, but lasts more time as well. It is heavy, large-muscle work.

  12. The human brain reaches full size at or after age 7, depending what source you read.


See also:




Peter Douglas Zohrab

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18 November 2019