The electric grid: the greatest equalizing force in human history

Of the four fundamental physical forces that drive the universe—gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces—gravity is the one that has caused humans the most grief. Yes, it binds us to our planetary mothership and without it we could not exist. But it presents huge problems that plague us on a daily, hourly, basis. For the first ten or so millenia of human existence, humans overcame these daily and hourly problems by getting other humans, who were socially powerless, to do the heavy drudge work. Rich Roman households ran on slave labour. Running those, and building the Egyptian pyramids, to list just a couple of examples, were enormously labour-intensive, and that is because of gravity. A rich household does not run itself; somebody has to wash the clothes. (Try hand-washing your clothes some time: it is hard physical work.) A pyramid doesn’t build itself: somebody has to dig a foundation and quarry out blocks of rock; that involves lifting heavy earth and rocks and moving them somewhere else.

Roman households and Egyptian pyramids, monuments to civilization though they arguably are, were actually made possible by human slaves: people who, had they not been forced by other people to do it, would have done something else with their energy and their lives.

Gravity, one of the four fundamental forces of physics, has been described as an effect of the curvature of spacetime. Its inner workings, and especially its relationship to the three other fundamental forces, remain a mystery. But its reality is undeniable, as any manual labourer in human history can tell you. Only electricity has helped us humans to at least partially overthrow it.

It was only the Industrial Revolution that changed that. The Industrial Revolution introduced mass mechanized production, in labour intensive industries like agriculture and textiles. This freed millions of people from the brutally degrading drudgery of unskilled manual labour, and led directly to rapid urbanization and the massive political upheaval of the French Revolution and “enlightened despotism”: two contemporary and competing ideas of how to deal with the newly urbanized roiling masses.

Technologically, the steam engine underpinned much of this, especially in the early to mid-1800s. But it was the electric grid that finally—after literally thousands of years of horrific forced servitude, in which man, daily, blithely demonstrated unimaginable inhumanity toward his fellow man—allowed humans to walk their enlightened talk.

Electricity is simply the electromagnetic force: in the form with which we are today most familiar, an electric current occurs when you spin a coil around a magnet. Get a machine, say a modern steam engine, to turn the coil and you can send enough low current high voltage electricity through wires to help millions of people, across great distances, to do work.

Then you can get the electromagnetic force to overcome the gravitational force when it comes to fetching water, which is perhaps the single most backbreaking and time consuming chore in our lives. We in the affluent west don’t realize this. But if, say, every Toronto resident had to manually fetch his daily quarter-metric-ton of water, he or she would have very little time to do anything else. And he/she would be dead of exhaustion by his or her mid-forties.

Ubiquitous electricity, made possible by alternating current which in turn made the grid possible, made physically possible the nearest semblance of household labour equality that humans have ever experienced. Electricity, brought to every household across the North American and European continents, freed humans in those continents from the ugly implications of the force of gravity.

Until our fellow humans in Asia and Africa get continent-wide grids of their own, they will continue to live in medieval drudgery.

Today is August 7, 2014. I have never lived a single one of my 53 years without the benefit of electricity. It appalls me that millions of Africans and Asians woke up this morning without it.

I have extolled the grid in the following previous articles.

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10 years ago

Until our fellow humans in Asia and Africa get continent-wide grids of their own, they will continue to live in medieval drudgery.

It depends what they do with their newly-freed time and effort.  Population growth can outstrip any electrification program, so any improvement which raises the bar of the Malthusian limit can be quickly offset by new offspring (as the improvements of the green revolution already have been).  Relief from drudgery requires the self-control to avoid making the problem worse:  future time orientation.

10 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

It hasn’t worked in Detroit.

Joris van Dorp
10 years ago
Reply to  Engineer-Poet

It starts working when people are educated enough to realize that having more children is *no longer* a good survival strategy. That is exactly what has happened in most advanced nations, which is why many of such nations have a stagnant or even declining indigenous populations.

The evidence that points to declining fertility and environmental degradation as a function of affluence and education in developed countries is the main reason that Mathusian despair has become obsolete. It is also the reason that people should welcome and promote the further development of developing nations as a means to stabilize population and reduce environmental impact, rather than an exacerbation of it. It is through increased affluence that fertility and environmental degradation world-wide can be best reduced, not through poverty. On the contrary.

Finally, the fertility reduction that results from increasing affluence means that the belief that energy demand will ‘rise exponentially forever’ and that this means that ‘only wind and solar energy can supply exponentially rising energy demand, because their resource base is largest’ is also badly mistaken. Energy demand has already flattened in developed nations, and not just due to the financial crisis. It has been flattening long before the crisis. Population and energy use will follow an S-curve. Population will stabilize this century and energy demand in this century or the next. Nuclear power offers the best chance of delivering energy at low cost *and* with low environmental impact.

Smilin Joe Fission
10 years ago
Reply to  Engineer-Poet

A bit of that comes from extra welfare money these families get for every new kid. When the government puts out incentives to have more kids, some people take advantage.

10 years ago

This seems like part one of a bigger story. Questions like 1) What is the best means by which electricity is produced? (Nuclear) and 2) Knowing that Nuclear energy is an efficient way to produce electricity why don’t we see more of it? And 3) Given that electric cars can only reduce CO and CO2 if the source that charges those vehicles does not also contribute CO or CO2 why don’t we see the two being packaged together? Nuclear energy and electric vehicles are a great match and Ontario is the perfect place to expand electricity vehicle usage. That means the Ministry of Transportation need to be more flexible in accepting the new EV models. For example only the expensive Tesla is available in Ontario. They have a cheaper model but not in Canada.