Quick: what are the most important factors driving wealth inequality? If you said tax policy, corporate pillaging, corruption, and neoliberal globalization, you’re right! But also missing a big one:
As Stanford professor Ian Morris argues in Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels, the way in which a society captures energy from the environment has a huge impact on both attitudes toward inequality and inequality rates over time. Whether an economy gets most of its energy from foraged food like game, farmed food like corn, carbon energy like oil, or renewables like solar may be the most important factor determining whether a small group of elites is able to hoard all the wealth and power in a society. Equality activists should take this fact into account if we hope to succeed in building a more equitable world.
But wait, how can energy capture impact levels of political and wealth equality? These seem like completely distinct processes. Let’s take a deeper look at Morris’s argument and the connection between energy and equality by comparing equality levels in hunter-gatherer, agrarian, and fossil fuel economies.
Hunter-gatherer – or “foraging” – societies capture energy from the environment by hunting wild game and gathering wild plants. Most modern and historical foraging societies tend to have high equality. They share resources and everybody has a say in decision-making. This is because
- wild food cannot easily be stored, so no one can hoard it all,
- energy (food) is available freely, no tyrant can prevent others from obtaining it,
- if a tyrant does take over, people can just leave and start new groups,
- wild food is scarce, human groups must stay small to avoid depleting resources, and small groups are generally more conducive to egalitarian decision-making: it’s easy to hold meetings with everybody in the group present to make a decision.
When society is getting energy from wild food, high equality is just more efficient.
But when people started farming about 10,000 years ago, this all changed. Capturing energy from the environment in the form of planted crops and domestic animals created very low equality because
- planted grains and domestic animals can be hoarded, so a few people can accumulate and control most of the resources,
- as Marvin Harris describes in Cannibals and Kings, farming developed in arid areas dependent on complex irrigation that required central planning to access the water necessary to maximize food (energy) production. This gave a few elites a lot of power to both organize public works projects and control access to water (food), thereby retaining immense political power. Ruling regimes used irrigation as a tool for maintaining tight control of society and the economy,
- these hierarchical farming societies developed very organized militaries that were able to spread and replace foraging societies that were less well-organized, making it difficult for people to leave an oppressive society and join a more egalitarian one.
Over time, these conditions made most agrarian societies extremely unequal, with a small group of elites ruling over a massive population of slaves and serfs forced to toil in harsh conditions and fight in foreign wars. This was the most efficient way of capturing energy through farming, so people, though terribly oppressed, generally accepted it. As both rulers and ruled found that this was the necessary, efficient amount of inequality in an agrarian society, people developed complex religious and moral beliefs to justify it, like the divine rule of a monarch.
Over the last 200 years, the global economy has undergone a shift from agrarian energy to capturing energy from fossilized carbon sources, like oil, coal, and gas. This shift has changed both attitudes toward equality and actual rates of equality.
Slavery in the US provides a concrete example of how this shift in energy capture has impacted equality. For the past 10,000 years, slavery has been ubiquitous in farming societies. It is just part of how efficient farming functions in an agrarian economy (without the assistance of fossil fuels). Forced and extremely low-wage labor has historically been necessary for agrarian economies to function most efficiently. Chattel slavery in the US was another example of this.
Slavery probably would not have ended in the US without industrialization that came from carbon energy capture. Carbon energy industrialization made slavery inefficient. As the economic justification for slavery waned, attitudes toward it shifted. This led to the industrial North forcing the agrarian South to adapt to the evolving carbon energy economy. Slavery’s decline throughout the world coincided closely with the spread of carbon energy industrialization. With carbon energy, forced-labor made less economic sense.
Abolition activism was noble and absolutely necessary to end slavery, but it was insufficient. No amount of abolition activism – in the midst of a fully agrarian economy – would have ended slavery alone, without a shift in energy capture. Activism could only work if an energy shift opened the door for it. This remains true today.
There is higher political and wealth equality at present than there was in the agrarian world, but less than in the foraging world. Equality has swung up and down at different periods over the last 200 years, mostly due to policy shifts. The global economy is still finding the optimal level of equality as a carbon energy-based society.
Today, things are better for most people than they were under agrarian governments. There is much less forced labor and generally people have some say in the policy-making process. There are still small groups of elites that rule with impunity, but they usually have somewhat less impunity than they did in agrarian societies and somewhat less proportional control over resources. Although things are better, they are not where they should be. Today’s brutal, violent levels of wealth and political inequality are grossly unjust.
If the economy remains tied to carbon energy, then as carbon energy grows scarcer, inequality will undoubtedly increase. Carbon energy is hoardable. A few people can control the flow of carbon energy throughout the world. If a small monopoly develops to control fossil fuels, whomever controls it will control everything. Everything is based on fossil fuels: our food, water, textiles, medical care, transportation, heat, shelter, every single thing we depend on to live is intimately tied to carbon energy. Carbon energy can be used as a tool of oppression in the way irrigation water was in agrarian societies.
Petrostates – like Russia, UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia – in which carbon energy dominates the economy or is controlled by a monopoly tend to be extremely unequal. Growing carbon scarcity only exacerbates this inequality. Diminishing oil, coal, and gas reserves opens the possibility for an extremely unequal world to flourish, rivaling the slave states of the agrarian world. If the economy remains tied to carbon energy, we can expect the rise of extreme tyranny perhaps beyond anything we’ve seen, especially as climate change and major ecological emergencies create a need for centralized organization, as irrigation did in the farming era.
We are setting up the perfect conditions for extreme oppression.
Activists can and should be fighting for progressive taxation, for financial regulation, for campaign finance reform, for more equal political representation, and for regulating the unaccountable power of elites and multinational corporations. Winning those fights can positively impact people’s lives. Scaling inequality down just small amounts can have major cascading positive impacts.
But we need to think bigger. As long as the economy remains tied to carbon energy, we will never bring equality above the highs we saw in the mid-20th Century. Equality goes down from here. The only way to ensure long-term wealth and political equality is to decouple the economy from carbon energy.
People generally find energy boring. There’s little drama in it. Most equality activists are as guilty as the general population of ignoring energy. That must change. If we do not replace carbon energy, all our toil for equality will be for nothing.
Right now, the best answer we have is to develop an economy based on distributed renewable energy. Not only will this be necessary in averting climate change, it will be necessary in achieving greater global equality. Renewable energy cannot be hoarded; it is more akin to energy capture through foraging, which was highly egalitarian. If no tyrants can control the flow and access of energy capture, egalitarian policies can flourish.
A model in which individuals and communities control energy production through distributed renewables would promote egalitarian attitudes and open the possibility for far more equal distribution of resources. An egalitarian form of energy capture like renewables would, more than anything else, ensure greater wealth and political equality far into the future.