Property & Energy

Property & Energy

By Barry Lord

“Property is theft”, the French 19th century political philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proud’hon famously proclaimed. It is also the basis of much law. It has been with us at least since the beginning of the transition to agriculture. Acquiring, inheriting or selling it remains a major event in the lives of many of us, as has been the case for many generations of our precursors.

Yet property has repeatedly changed, both in its content and in its role for each of us. It is changing right now, as renewable energy’s culture of stewardship and its sharing economy confront the marketplace assumptions of the culture of consumption that oil and gas have made possible. To understand those changes, we need to begin with the energy sources that make the cultural importance of property possible, and necessary.

Private property was not a cultural value of foragers. Hunting and gathering groups would fight if necessary to protect their hunting or gathering grounds, or might strive to extend them. In this sense we may think of their rights to that territory as a collective sense of property allied to their culture of collective identity which was rooted in cooperation as a way to make their use of energy more efficient – most dramatically so in transforming their hunting capability by forming cooperative hunting bands.

Public or private, property becomes vastly more important as soon as fields are being cultivated, especially once they are seeded and await harvesting. Maintaining control of its fields through a harvest cycle has to be a concern for each agricultural society. Inheritance rights immediately become important for each kinship group and every village. If fields are irrigated, property rights to the entire irrigation system must be assured, usually by the governing authority that provides the necessary superstructure that makes possible the distribution of the farmers’ product to its market, however that is construed.

Property rights in agricultural societies extend as well to the animal power that is a major energy source for most – an energy source that requires the herders to become domestic themselves. The culture of domesticity reinforces the value of property. It’s not just about land, it’s about a home on the land, and pastures, fences, sheds and barns.

Ownership of draft animals is akin to ownership of the other energy source that became the dominant energy source of virtually all ancient societies – the energy of slaves. Although paid labour also had a role to play in some, slavery was the constantly renewable energy source that made possible the great cultural achievements of almost all the ancient world. Slaves could be acquired through conquest, purchase, breeding, and especially through debt slavery – the practice of enslaving debtors or their families who were unable to pay the debts that are an inherent economic feature of any society dependent on seeding fields and the uncertain harvests that may or may not follow.

In his magnum opus, Debt: the first 5,000 Years (Melville House, 2011), anthropologist David Graeber underscores my contention in Art & Energy: How Culture Change (The AAM Press, 2014) that the energy of slaves was the default energy mode of the ancient world. The Bronze and Iron Ages depended on mines, especially those that needed coinage to pay their soldiers. Mines everywhere were worked by slaves: Athens’ mines alone are said to have required between ten and twenty thousand slaves annually in the time of Plato, who himself had to be rescued from an auction block by a fellow philosopher during a visit to another city.

Slavery was not just another energy source; it was the go-to source of energy throughout the ancient world east and west – so easily renewable through conquest, breeding and the impoverishment of subject populations that it discouraged any interest in alternate forms of energy, even when they were discovered. Graeber demonstrates the centrality of slavery as an energy source for Rome by drawing on the scholarship of Roman law, which he shows was focused on controlling property in slaves, who were regarded in legal terms as things. Roman law, which became and remains so influential world-wide, was written mostly in the late Republican and early Imperial period.

Europe north of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea was where slaves for Egypt, Greece and Rome were to be found in more or less unlimited supply. Once transported south, Britons, Franks and Goths joined the millions throughout these Empires. Property in them had to be absolute, and was of course reserved by Roman law for Roman citizens. Since slaves were defined as things around which property law was formed, individual slaves might be tutors for slave-owners’ children, dancing girls, household drudges or consigned to the mines for hard labour and short life spans. Manumission was always possible, but depended entirely on the will of the slave owner. Domestic slaves often became part of the household, and could be entrusted with developing shops or other enterprises for their owners; some of them were subsequently freed.

Graeber observes that in the later Empire Goths became more important as mercenaries serving in the Roman Legions, and slavery gradually receded in importance. By the 7th century, just as Islam was rising, the energy of slaves lost its dominance not just in Europe but throughout the ancient world. India reverted to the caste system that stubbornly remains today, despite its being made illegal. In China and Europe north of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea peasants and serfs were increasingly bound by their debts to land-holders.

In Art & Energy I point out that large-scale agricultural slavery is not efficient in cold winters, when slaves have to be kept warm throughout these cold and non-productive months by burning increasingly scarce firewood, a problem that intensified as the crisis of deforestation became the world’s first energy crisis in the late Mediaeval and early Modern period. This energy efficiency issue explains why the European countries that made such high profits from the slave trade did not introduce large-scale slavery in their homelands; even when the British were establishing plantations in Northern Ireland, they did not populate them with slaves, as they did on their Caribbean and Virginian plantations.

Most historians would agree that land was the measure of wealth in mediaeval Europe. Most of the population defined themselves and others in relation to their land ownership or lack thereof – people were land-owning nobles or else they were peasants who worked the land in Western Europe, or serfs tied to land-owning nobles’ estates in Russia. Everyone else was defined relative to these major groups.

This feudal structure is usually related to mediaeval agriculture, which made great improvements in efficiency during the Middle Ages, facilitating rapid population growth even before but especially after the Black Plague. However, when we examine the mediaeval period from the viewpoint of the energy that made its culture possible, land ownership and control was much more focused on the forests where firewood, the dominant energy source, was to be found. Magna Charta was actually two charters, the second of which was the Forest Charter. Medieval history is all about peasants suffering terrible punishments for daring to cut down trees on the property of their own lords or others. Firewood was burned directly for heat or used as the raw material for charcoaling, the beginnings of industry.

Hence the culture of property is identified in Art & Energy as the dominant mediaeval cultural value that came to us with dependence on firewood. Of course firewood was important long before the Middle Ages. The difference is that in the ancient world it wasn’t the dominant energy source – slavery was.

In the absence of slavery, firewood became the dominant energy source, reinforcing the cultural value of property, focused on ownership or control of the forests where this energy source was to be found. Graeber shows that this was equally true of feudal China as of Europe. From the 7th century C.E. forward the energy of slaves was no longer dominant; whereas India supplanted it with the caste system, feudal Europe and China replaced it with the fealty relationships of peasants to overlords.

The culture of property, with all of its associations with inheritance for land-owners and fealty relationships for peasants, became as dominant as the oil and gas values of consumerism are today. In both eastern and western Europe the Church, Catholic and Orthodox, became obsessed with its own property ownership, as Martin Luther and others decried. The mediaeval jurists who revived Roman law in the mediaeval period did so by transferring the focus of property law from slaves to land ownership. For them property in land was assumed to be at the centre of Roman jurisprudence.

As Marx and Engels so tellingly observed, all this changed utterly as pit coal replaced the depleted stocks of firewood, making possible the Industrial Revolution and the culture of production. People were now perceived not in relation to the land but to the ownership of the means of production and/or their place in the mass production process. Capitalists who could establish the infrastructure needed for mines, mills, railways and factories replaced land-holding aristocrats, while a class-conscious disciplined work force of proletarians replaced the peasantry; of course these changes were not immediate and were never universal, but in fact it is surprising how pervasive and swift they were. Property law became focused on the ownership of the means of production, particularly the shared ownership among capitalists that created the stock market; as I show in Art & Energy, the joint stock company and the stock exchange arose because of the need to spread the risk of the long voyages of the age of sail, powered by wind as the energy source, and provided a legal structure in which mutual investments by enterprising individuals in coal, coke and steam could profitably be made. This was the infrastructure of capitalism that was needed to organize the investment in mines, mills, factories and railroad track that were the sinews of the age of coal.

From the last two decades of the 19th century forward electrification encouraged us to believe in the culture of transformation – the belief that it was possible to change the world as electricity had done and is still doing — including challenges to the value of property itself. But the major change to our understanding of property was fostered by the culture of consumption that became ubiquitous thanks to oil and gas as our energy sources, especially after they replaced coal as the dominant energy source in most industrialized countries in the 1960s and early ‘70s. Gas stations initiated brand loyalty cards, which were quickly copied by other retailers and then taken over by the banks as credit cards, enabling us all to become and to see each other as consumers. The acquisition of things and experiences became values in and for themselves. Property extended into many aspects of our lives – consider concepts such as “intellectual property,” or the “pre-nuptial agreement,” addressing property and inheritance rights even before the marriage vows are signed.

In our own time renewable energy is bringing with it a culture of stewardship of the land and of our own bodies. We see the potential of regarding ourselves and others as stewards, rather than consumers or owners of property. The “sharing economy” suggests that access for sustainable use may be seen as more important than ownership in future. Air’b’n’b has shown that many people are willing to share their homes with strangers. Uber is a somewhat more dubious example, as it discards all traditional employment relationships between the company and its drivers, whose cars are earning remarkable profits for Uber’s owners from their drivers’ willingness to share; Uber’s conflict with the taxi industry is just one of many confrontations that we can expect as the renewable energy culture of stewardship contradicts the assumptions of the oil-and-gas-based culture of consumption. With Pope Francis himself condemning consumerism, the field is open for a wide range of new stewardship economic relationships, including new inflections of the cultural value of property.

Still another dimension of the culture of stewardship is the importance of storage as a value in and for itself. Energy storage and data storage are primary cultural values in our age. Hackers may violate either, and authorities prescribe harsh penalties for them, just as peasants were so viciously punished for chopping down trees in their overlord’s forests. A vibrant “Anonymous” organization is dedicated to trying to keep access to data bases in the public domain, as opposed to denying access for us in the name of ‘security’. The culture of anxiety that is so closely associated with nuclear energy adds urgency to the revelations of data bases that result. The legal issue may be seen as the question of who can hold property in a data base compiled by inputs from a public who are then denied access to it.

Renewable energy is in the early stages of energy transition. What its culture of stewardship can mean as the 21st century continues is an important subject for future postings on this blog and many others. Readers are invited to contribute their own perceptions as renewable energy and its culture of stewardship gradually take more substantial form.


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