Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Human Labor as Renewable Energy

Ugo Bardi has an interesting essay on the Oil Drum titled The dark side of coal - some historical insights on energy and the economy. included in this essay is part of an 1864 picture by the Italian artistTelemaco Signorini titled "L'alzaia" or the River Bank. The painting depicts men pulling a barge loaded with coal up the River Arno from the sea port of Liverno to Florence, to the port city of Livorno. Bardi's essay indirectly calls attention to the role of energy in improving the lot of laborers.

Although the Signorini painting dates from 1864, it is the mode of labor is actually pre-industrial. In Italy of 1864 men pulled barges, but even in the 17th century England, barges well pulled by animals. By 1864 in Great Britain coal was transported by train, or on sailing and steam ships, far more than by barge.

Signorini painting is echoed by a then contemporary Russian artist, Ilya Repin, Barge haulers on the Volga. The there are a number of differences between the two paintings. But one obvious difference is the presence of the man in the top hat and the little girl, in the Signorini painting.

The top hat does not distinguish between the two groups in the Signorini painting. One of the workers is also waring a top hat, and the Italian workers are better dressed than the Russian workers.

What distinguishes the figures to the left in the Signorini picture and the workers, is the leisure of the former and the strain of the latter. Neither group notices the other, but the workman in the top hat appears to be looking at the viewers. Signorini's picture is a stunning social commentary.

It is a commentary for our times as well, because Signorini's picture is one of renewable energy. The physical labor of people is a renewable form of energy. Not all sustainable energy is renewable, and nuclear power is quite sustainable. A nuclear powered future would be one in which human labor can direct energy produced under human control, rather than produce motive energy. A "renewable" future will be one of energy shortages, and increased demands for physical energy from the human bodies of workers.


Soylent said...

The distinction between sustainable energy and renewable energy is that sustainable energy fulfills the needs of today without compromising the needs of tomorrow, where as renewable energy doesn't necessarily accomplish either.

All renewable energy does is be in principle available for a really long, but finite, time. It is specifically defined to not include useful sources of energy like hydro(usually excluded but not always) and nuclear.

bobcat said...


After reading your post I got the urge to listen to the "Song of the Volga Boatmen" sung by the Russian Red Army Choir and "Old Man River" sung by Paul Robeson, both via Youtube. I built a sweat just listening to those songs. Just imagine if you had to be the one to actually pull a riverboat upstream or load bails of cotton by hand. It makes one appreciate the time we live in with the miracle of electricity and the mastery of the internal combustion engine. Life would be harder and shorter without them. All I can say is thank god for these "Modern Marvels."

Robert Hargraves said...

I'm reminded of a horrid fact about slavery. I understand that humans are twice as efficient as horses, in terms of mechanical work delivered per calorie of food ingested. True?


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