The Light Bulb and the Oil Spill: Two Modern Fables
By Aaron Sachs
On September 4, 1882, at 3 p.m., Thomas Edison was in J.P. Morgan’s offices on Wall Street—literally inside the mahogany walls—and when he closed a switch shortly after the clock struck three, hundreds of his incandescent bulbs lit up simultaneously in a 5-block radius all around him. It seemed like a miracle to the gathered crowd; it seemed like magic. People started murmuring, “They’re on!” The lights stayed on as evening fell, and everyone in lower Manhattan noticed how different they were from the smelly, flickering gas lamps that they were used to. The next day, The New York Times reported that the “light was soft, mellow, and graceful to the eye. It seemed almost like writing by daylight to have a light without a particle of flicker and with scarcely any heat to make the head ache.”
What the crowd did not see were the six steam generators a few blocks away on Pearl Street, each the size of an elephant (they were nicknamed Jumbos, after the famous elephant who starred in P.T. Barnum’s circus). To power the generators, men had to shovel loads of coal into furnaces (and of course no Manhattanites had seen the coal dug out of the mountain), and those furnaces boiled water to form steam, which was channeled in such a way that the resulting pressure rotated turbines, which created electrical energy. But of course no one wanted one of these generators in his work space. So to connect these contraptions to the lightbulbs, a crew had dug 18 miles of tunnels that were lined with brick and laid with copper wire, and then they had connected smaller wires from these main channels into light sockets in the walls of various buildings in the Wall Street district.
Edison’s light bulbs lit up lower Manhattan—but simultaneously consigned labor to the shadows. Energy had become the perfect commodity. All that people knew about electricity was that you could buy it—and that was all that mattered. Like most commodities, it seemed to have no social or ecological context, but it went even further than most in the direction of abstraction and disconnection. In 1882, most people looking at a steak on their plate still had some solid idea of where it had come from and what it had taken to produce it. People staring at an Edison bulb imagined that somehow we had harnessed lightning.
Not even 20 years later, on January 10, 1901, in Beaumont, Texas, there was an explosion on a hill known locally as Spindletop. A primitive drilling operation had been going on here for almost a year—just one derrick, with one drill, pushing ever deeper, powered by a boiler fed by firewood. Suddenly, at about 1,300 feet, there was a bubbling up of mud, and then a blast of gas, with huge chunks of bedrock flying everywhere, and then finally a stream of oil that shot up 150 feet into the air. The flow was 18,000 barrels every 24 hours. But the problem was that the flow was so intense it couldn’t be capped. On January 14, The Dallas Morning News ran a headline: “Want it stopped: reward offered to anyone who will control the flow!” Every vehicle in Beaumont had been requisitioned to help carry buckets of oil to holding tanks, but still about 60,000 barrels had been wasted, and people started to worry that the oil-soaked ground might catch fire. Finally some engineers managed to put on an iron T-joint and pressure valve to cap the gusher. And then Beaumont became a boomtown, and by January of the following year, Texas oil was burning not only in New York and Philadelphia but also in Europe, Cuba, and Mexico. It was another miracle, and the men responsible for drilling and capturing this new resource were considered to be contributors to the common good, so drilling came to be governed by an old legal principle called “The Rule of Capture,” according to which the driller was allowed to take as much oil as he could get without needing to pay any local or national taxes.
Soon Beaumont oil produced companies like Gulf, Texaco, and Exxon, which in turn helped spur the explosion of the auto industry. But meanwhile, Spindletop had immediately revealed some of the dangers inherent in buying into a new oil-based economy. In 1901, the Spindletop field produced 3.5 million barrels; peak production came the next year, with 17.5 million barrels; in 1903 production fell to 8.6 million; and by 1907 there was nothing left. The oil market, in other words, has always been volatile. In 1901, each barrel was selling for $1. In 1902, the price per barrel went down to 3 cents. But two years later, as the supply shrank, and as more people started converting their coal-fired engines to oil-fired engines, which spurred more demand, the price shot back up again. Oil was amazing, exhilarating, magical; it was also deeply unsettling. Like modernity itself.
Modern fables don’t have obvious morals. The argument over whether modernity has been good or bad, whether electricity and the oil economy have been worthwhile inventions and investments, will never have a definitive conclusion. But the power of stories and histories of modernity is that they can force us to see the contingency of what we now take for granted.
All of us—we critics of society and culture must always include ourselves in the problem, must always acknowledge our complicity—have been charmed by the magic of modernity. Who could argue with the value of cheap, abundant energy, given the ways in which it has dramatically improved the lives of so many people, replacing bodies with oil-powered engines capable of performing the most brutal kinds of labor, much of which, throughout history, had been done by the most vulnerable classes (sometimes enslaved racial minorities, sometimes women) in any given society? Who could deny the social value of hospitals and airplanes and cranes and computers?
No one. But history reminds us that this enthusiastic perspective is blind to the ways in which modernity has also proved to be oppressive. The rising tide of energy has not in fact lifted all the world’s boats and ships: it has widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots. And all forms of energy come with costs, whether mountain-top removal, or toxic emissions that poison already-vulnerable communities, or the piles of dead birds at the base of wind turbines. Do we really want to be so deeply embedded in an energy system that we can’t possibly hope to understand? Do we want to be this dependent on an unstable supply of oil and an unstable supply of electricity? Do we want to feel this helpless? Do we want to continue going to war to try to secure our energy supply? Do we want to be responsible for this much of the violence in the world?
History reminds us that sometimes it’s about generating the political will to reject what we think we can’t live without—the way this country finally rejected slavery.
History reminds us that the dawn of modernity brought not just new technologies and resources but also an enormous growth in Americans’ desire for energy, as people increasingly moved to cities and defined themselves as consumers. So any serious conversation about energy policy will have to consider not just the technical matters of supply and production but also the cultural matters of demand and consumption. Confronting climate change does not mean simply maintaining current levels of energy use via cleaner technologies; it will have to mean thinking differently about the work that we do as a society.
Our deep love of oil, in particular, and of oil’s culture of mobility and consumerist fun, has left us with long-term expectations that fly in the face of the world’s hard realities. Many of us are grateful for the pleasures provided by petroleum—I love road trips, and I could watch movies all day long—but we haven’t grappled with the actual costs of those pleasures. No single discipline or field of study can solve so dramatic and complex a problem as climate change, but history at least springs us from the trap of inevitability: human choices established our existing energy system, and human choices, under certain kinds of social and environmental pressure, will transform it.
Aaron Sachs is an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of History, Cornell University. His primary focus is on issues of nature and culture. He is also a faculty fellow at Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and founder and coordinator of the Cornell Roundtable on Environmental Studies Topics (CREST), which seeks to bring together faculty and graduate students across all the environmental disciplines on campus.
Category: Climate Change Forum