Why and How I’m Celebrating Human Achievement Hour

“Better to light one incandescant bulb than curse the darkness”

Tonight is Human Achievement Hour, a time to celebrate human progress and the market institutions that facilitate and protect it. It’s also a time to laugh at the regressive ideology that implores us to turn out the lights to honor the Earth. Hence the wonderful acronym for our cheerful occasion: HAH!

Our friends at CFACT nail the contrast between our event and the other team’s when they proclaim: “It’s always Earth Hour in North Korea.”

Earth Hour CFACT

HAH is an alternative and antidote to Earth Hour, the premise of which is that carbon-based energy is bad for people and the planet. That’s about as wrong-headed about the big picture as one can get.

Carbon energy supports all the technological advances that sustain and improve a world of seven billion people who on average live longer, healthier, and with greater access to information than the privileged elites of former ages.

Fossil fuels have been and remain the chief energy source of what Cato Institute scholar Indur Goklany calls a “cycle of progress” in which economic growth, technological change, human capital formation, and freer trade co-evolve and mutually reinforce each other. Progressive civilization is the very context of modern life. It is the most valuable of all public goods. Without carbon energy, humankind would be dramatically smaller, poorer, and sicker.

The fundamental contribution of carbon energy to social progress is reflected in the strong correlation between carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, per capita GDP, and population.

Global Progress 1760 - 2009 smallest

A survey by the National Academy of Engineers identifies 20 engineering achievements that made the greatest improvements in the quality of human life during the 20th century. Number One is electrification. All the others presuppose electrification either for their manufacture, operation, or mass production.  Here’s the list as presented on About.Com:

  1. Electrification – the vast networks of electricity that power the developed world.
  2. Automobile – revolutionary manufacturing practices made the automobile the world’s major mode of transportation by making cars more reliable and affordable to the masses.
  3. Airplane – flying made the world accessible, spurring globalization on a grand scale.
  4. Safe and Abundant Water – preventing the spread of disease, increasing life expectancy.
  5. Electronics – vacuum tubes and, later, transistors that underlie nearly all modern life.
  6. Radio and Television – dramatically changed the way the world received information and entertainment.
  7. Agricultural Mechanization – leading to a vastly larger, safer, less costly food supply.
  8. Computers – the heart of the numerous operations and systems that impact our lives.
  9. Telephone – changing the way the world communicates personally and in business.
  10. Air Conditioning and Refrigeration – beyond convenience, it extends the shelf life of food and medicines, protects electronics, and plays an important role in health care delivery.
  11. Interstate Highways – 44,000 miles of U.S. highway allowing goods distribution and personal access.
  12. Space Exploration – going to outer space vastly expanded humanity’s horizons and introduced 60,000 new products on Earth.
  13. Internet – a global communications and information system of unparalleled access.
  14. Imaging Technologies – revolutionized medical diagnostics.
  15. Household Appliances – eliminated strenuous, laborious tasks, especially for women.
  16. Health Technologies – mass production of antibiotics and artificial implants led to vast health improvements.
  17. Petroleum and Gas Technologies – the fuels that energized the 20th century.
  18. Laser and Fiber Optics – applications are wide and varied, including almost simultaneous worldwide communications, non-invasive surgery, and point-of-sale scanners.
  19. Nuclear Technologies – from splitting the atom, we gained a new source of electric power.
  20. High Performance Materials – higher quality, lighter, stronger, and more adaptable.

Note too that those technologies are highly developed and deployed at scale only in societies with access to plentiful, reliable, affordable energy, most of which comes from fossil fuels.

Ah, but our greener friends will say, HAH, as the very name suggests, is “anthropocentric.” What about the biosphere? Shouldn’t we turn off the lights to show respect for non-human nature?

Nope. As Goklany also explains, by improving the productivity and efficiency of food production, distribution, and storage, fossil fuels not only rescued mankind from a penurious Nature but also rescued Nature from an ever-growing humanity.

Every critical input of modern agriculture depends to some extent on fossil fuels:

Fossil fuels provide both the raw materials and the energy for the manufacture of fertilizers and pesticides; farm machinery is generally run on diesel or another fossil fuel; and irrigation, where it is employed, often requires large amounts of energy to operate pumps to move water.

Fossil fuel-supported agricultural technologies continually improve, with the result that “In 2007, the global food and agriculture system delivered, on average, two and a half times as much food per acre of cropland as in 1961.”

Fossil fuels also provide energy for refrigeration and raw material for plastic packaging — technologies critical to limiting food spoilage and waste. Finally, fossil fuels are essential for transporting food from farms to population centers and from surplus to deficit regions.

Goklany estimates that to maintain the current level of food production without fossil fuels, “at least another 2.3 billion hectares of habitat would have to be converted to cropland” – an area equivalent to the territories of the United States, Canada, and India combined.  He concludes:

Not only have these fossil fuel–dependent technologies ensured that humanity’s progress and well-being are no longer hostage to nature’s whims, but they saved nature herself from being devastated by the demands of a rapidly expanding and increasingly voracious human population.

The cycle of progress has many blessings, one of which is an ever-expanding diversity of human pursuits, interests, and tastes. On a personal note, I am gateful to have been born in the Age of the Electric Guitar. That amazing combination of twang and growl, attack and sustain, chime and hammer is a thrilling experience for millions, it was completely absent from human existence less than a century ago, and it too is a product of a carbon-energized civilization.

So tonight at 8:30 pm, I will celebrate HAH by breaking out the Telescaster, cranking up the Fender tube amp, and letting the good times roll.