Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Local heroes of history, future and gone

On the day after the Fourth of July I went looking for a grave. 

I had the day off, and I'd been reading about the history of Albuquerque, the place in which I live. As I mentioned toward the end of my last post, I have this notion that a crucial guide for our de-industrial future, in the age of declining fossil fuels, can be found in our past. In the days when fossil fuels were unknown, or their levels of usage much lower than today.

Whether we like it or not, we are headed back to those levels of energy use. There is nothing that can replace the fossil fuels, pumped up as they are with hydrocarbons that give more bang for the buck, with easier infrastructure requirements, than any other energy source. All the alternatives produce too little energy in return, like wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal. Or, getting a particular alternative up and running would require vast amounts of fossil fuels already running short, and acidifying the oceans, and super-heating the atmosphere. Fission or fusion power plants, for example, have to be built by petroleum powered vehicles, themselves made in factories electrified and heated mostly by coal and natural gas. The literature making the case for the inadequacy of alternative energy sources is quite large. For an introduction, I recommend the book The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies, by Richard Heinberg.

The point is that the days of low-energy society are coming back. It behooves us to look back at what such societies were like before. We will find examples of things to relearn (local, sustainable agrictuture) and things to avoid (rampant racism and sexism). I've been curious as to what lessons might be learned from the history of the place I live now. What was Albuquerque, New Mexico like in the days before super-abundant fossil hydrocarbons bloated the city to its currently enormous size? Albuquerque today has 520,000 people in the city itself, and 850,000 in the greater metropolitan area.

In 1880, the year the transcontinental railroad arrived, the little town's population was 2,315. Over the next sixty years, the population grew steadily, as first the railroad, then automobiles and early civil aviation, brought raw materials and manufactured goods to the Southwest. After 1900, oil became increasingly abundant, driving explosive growth in the national transportation network. Railroads carrying diesel locomotives crisscrossed the United States. Armadas of cars zoomed along an expanding road net. Air fields sprang up in meadows across North America, allowing freight to hop its weigh across the continent. All of this brought new citizens, and their money, to set up businesses in the expanding desert community along the Rio Grande. The population growth of Albuquerque during the rise of fossil fueled transport looked like this:

1880: 2,315
1890: 3,785
1900: 6,338
1910: 23,606
1920: 29,853
1930: 45,430
1940: 69,631

(Population history is from Albuquerque/Bernalillo Country Comprehensive Plan 2002, available online at, accessed July 10, 2010.)

During that period, U.S. fossil fuel consumption rose as follows:

1880: 2.15 quadrillion BTU
1940: 22.96 quadrillion BTU
(see "Estimated Primary Energy Consumption in the United States, Selected Years, 1635-1945", in U.S. Energy Information Agency, Annual Energy Review, available at, accessed July 10, 2010). 

Nominal U.S. Gross Domestic Product (i.e. not adjusted to be shown in constant dollars) swelled:

1880: $10.4 billion 
1940: 101.4 billion
(GDP figures available from Measuring Worth, at, accessed July 10, 2010).

So energy use climbed steeply, driving rapid growth in the U.S. economy and Albuquerque's, despite a depression in the 1890s and again in the 1930s. Still, while growth was rapid, the overall use of fossil energy during the period was much lower than today. The U.S. Energy Information Agency reports that U.S. fossil fuel consumption in 2008 was 83.436 quadrillion BTU. The EIA has an extremely comprehensive data set of U.S. energy production and consumption on its website.

By learning what Albuquerque's economy and society were like in the low-energy years of 1880 to 1940, I hope to get a useful starting point for an important exercise: anticipating what my city will look like at similar energy levels in the future, on the down-slope as fossil fuel supplies decline. Assuming that world oil production will peak sometime in this decade, with natural gas soon to follow and coal sometime this century, Albuquerque's energy levels will return to their 1880-1940 levels not too long after 2100, give or take. This projection, which is really just an educated guess, comes from looking at forecasts of likely future oil production compared to levels in the past. Here's just one example:

This graph comes from an especially doom-laden web site. This is not intentional. I use this particular graph, from a coincidentally grim and depressing web site, not to endorse doom and gloom, but because I find the graph nice, clean, and and handy. It illustrates how we can get a get a realistic handle on the future. It shows how global oil production in the early 22nd century will approximate that of Albuquerque's early fossil energy boom, circa 1900. The two eras lie at different ends of the bell curve; because of that separation in time, they will differ in other critical ways as well. Albuquerqueans of AD 2120 will have knowledge (I hope) of penicillin, radio, and many other nice things that their forefathers didn't know about in the late Victorian age of 1900. But the energy supplies available to Albuquerque a hundred years or so from today will still be Victorian in scale. My city will be limited, by hard physical realities, in what it can do to employ, house, feed, transport, and educate its citizens.

What future Albuquerque will see as limits, their ancestors of 1880 to 1940 experienced as buoyant, exuberant growth. They didn't have much energy to throw around by our standards, but they had more than their grandparents ever imagined. Reading popular histories about the early boom years of Albuquerque yields heroic, worshipful stories of the exalted leaders who built a modern city. These objects of hero worship were businessmen and politicians, for the most part, along with the stolid professionals of the solid middle class (doctors, engineers, lawyers, architects, and so on). In the conventional accounts, these men (and they were mostly men) turned the tiny 1880 cluster of adobe ranch houses into the sprawling modernist megascape of 1940's skyscrapers, railroads, airplanes, and asphalt. The heroes of Albuquerque's expansion era, according to conventional stories, were the men who helped the city grow.

What lessons do the stories of those men offer for the coming age? What can the heroes celebrated by a past age of energy ascension say to a future of energy descent?

* * * * *

In reading about New Mexico's early industrial, low-energy past -- and its heroes -- one name struck me in particular. Edmund G. Ross, governor of the New Mexico territory from 1885 to 1889. I had encountered that name years ago, during a hero-worship phase I went through in my youth. One of my heroes then was John F. Kennedy, thirty fifth President of the United States. In his book Profiles in Courage, Kennedy wrote about a Senator from Kansas named Edmund G. Ross. This Senator cast the deciding vote in the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868. Ross' vote saved Johnson from being removed from office on trumped up charges with purely partisan motives. Such a development might have crippled Constitutional government in the United States.

In my memories of JFK's account, Ross' vote to save the President defied immense pressure from his Republican party colleagues and his constituents, who wanted Johnson's head. For casting his decisive vote for Presidential acquital, Ross suffered political and personal destruction. He was ostracized and vilified by nearly everyone he knew. He suffered evil stares, shoulders turned in silence, and strangers spitting at his approach. He lost his fight for re-election. And then, from what I remember of Kennedy's book, the Senator from Kansas faded into obscurity. I had images of him dying in a gutter sometime later.

In reading about New Mexico history recently, I wondered if this same man had become the territorial governor of New Mexico in the 1880s. Turns out that he did. Like so many others, including me, he went west in search of a new life.

After suffering political immolation over the Johnson impeachment, Ross went back to the Kansas newspaper business that had been his trade before entering politics. Then he went to points west. In 1880, the same year the railroad came to Albuquerque, so did Edmund G. Ross and his wife. He got a job working for the Albuquerque Journal newspaper, itself started in the same year by two of the men who brought the railroad to town. They were agents of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, Franz Huning and William Hazeldine. Huning and Hazeldine, along with their friend Elias H. Stover, had bought the land and swung the deals necessary to bring the railroad through Albuquerque. The rail and its iron horse behemoths were on the way to connecting sea to shining sea. Railroad promoters were, I imagine, good contacts for a newcomer like Edmund G. Ross. The three railroad operatives, Huning, Hazeldine, and Stover, dominated the politics and business and ballrooms of Albuquerque for the rest of the century.

I don't know how much they helped Mr. Ross, but it's clear that he made good. He got a new start in politics in his new home. In 1885, President Grover Cleveland appointed Ross governor of the New Mexico territory. From what I can gather in a not necessarily complete search of historical accounts, Ross' term was undistinguished. Mainly, he fought with the state legislature in Santa Fe. It was controlled by a nefarious ring of political tycoons known as "the Santa Fe ring." They were Hispanic ranchers and businessmen who envied and hated the rising Anglo business class of Albuquerque. Upstart easterners like Albuquerque's Huning-Hazeldine-Stover triumvirate threatened the interests that had dominated New Mexico since the days of Spanish rule. Led by the enterprising interlopers from the east, Albuquerque was spreading across the desert along the Rio Grande, as the railroad brought daily mountains of raw materials and trade goods, with thousands of new settlers every year. This wouldn't do. I gather that the men in Sante Fe tried to stop it, or at least harass it, and they held a stranglehold on the legislature.

Ross tried to break them, campaigning for laws that would bring homesteaders to the state, taking over the land grants held by New Mexico's old families. He also tried to get legislation to promote mining, farming, and public schools, and give further favors to the railroads. All of that would have fueled the burgeoning growth of Albuquerque and the influx of eastern newcomers to New Mexico as a whole. Ross, like the Albuquerque business barons who supported him, fought for growth. That's what made them heroes to the boosters of business expansion, then and now. They were emblems of the age, when rising fossil energy supplies fueled relentless economic and industrial Progress. Modern Albquerque, which would later grow to 225 times its 1880 population, got its start in the days of Edmund G. Ross. It was a process he tried mightily to help.

Mostly, he failed. Ross lost to the Santa Fe ring at every turn. I don't know much about the details, but it appears that Ross' adversaries surpassed him in parliamentary skill and political savvy. They beat down his attempts to promote new settlement and economic growth. But the growth came anyway. Railroad-driven Albuquerque continued to swell. Ross failed, but the future he fought for still came.

He did have one important victory. Ross supported a bill in the legislature to establish a state university in Albuquerque. And it passed. He signed the bill on February 28, 1889. The University of New Mexico was born. In a way, I owe Governor Ross my job. I work at UNM today. I'm not sure how Ross managed to get this bill through, but evidently it was part of a deal that appealed to the Santa Fe ring. In return for Albuquerque becoming the site of the new university in the bill, Santa Fe would get the new state prison and Las Vegas, New Mexico, would get the insane asylum. Somehow the Santa Fe ring saw that as a victory. I imagine Ross telling his aides, hurry, let's sign it before they change their goddamn minds!

When Benjamin Harrison, a Republican, took office as President in 1889, he removed Ross as governor of New Mexico. Territorial governors held their position at the pleasure of the President, and Ross was a Democrat, having abandoned Lincoln's party after the trauma of the Johnson trial. Ross went back to the newspaper business. He led a quiet life. As time passed, more and more people admired him for his vote to save the President in the crisis of 1868. He came to be regarded, by the turn of the century, as a hero. Not for having promoted economic growth, but for having saved the Republic by an act of conscience. Later historians would question whether that's what his act was. I'm
reminded of words that appear on the screen during the opening moments of the movie The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. "Maybe this isn't the way it was. It's the way it should have been."

In 1907, an old abolitionist agitator from Kansas, one Hugh Cameron, visited Ross in Albuquerque. He came bearing written testimonials to the former Senator from Kansas citizens, thanking him for his vote in the trial of the President. Ross died not long after, on May 8, 1907.

* * * * * 

Governor Ross was buried in Fairview Cemetery, in Albuquerque. In my reading about him, I realized that his tombstone in that graveyard stood only a couple of miles from my house. So I set out to find it, and pay a visit. For no other reason than to do it and later be able to say that I had. And, also, because it seemed worth doing, somehow. Hard to say why. Though I revel in the use of words, for this I couldn't find any that would do.

I walked with a friend along busy streets near the University of New Mexico in the early evening of July 5, 2010. We came to Fairview Cemetery, which contains around 16,000 graves. We set out surveying the older portion of the grounds, in search of the resting place of Edmund G. Ross.

We found it, in a little enclosure, buried next to other members of his family. His tombstone on that day looked like this:

It felt like a bit of a triumph, finding the grave among all those thousands. It's a humble little block of stone. Not some ornate monument like others in the cemetery. There's no imposing, macabre mausoleum, like the ones that lurk under the pine trees here and there across the Fairview grounds.

Seeing the grave wasn't a profound experience. I didn't come to any great revelation or catharsis or moment of transcendence. I just kind of smiled and took pictures in the light of the descending sun. And thought of the mortal man come to rest in that spot after the body's life was ended.

Edmund Ross is a footnote in the history of the American Republic. He played a crucial part at a crucial moment. Without Ross' vote, or so the heroic version of the tale goes, a government with power over millions might have changed for the worse. There would have been consequences, either way.

The American government's power would only grow. So would the industrial plant it oversaw, the engines and factories of capitalism, which were the lifeblood of one of the greatest empires the world would ever know. Ross, like others of his generation, dreamed of making that empire great, by stoking the growth and settlement of his little corner of it. Along the banks of the Great River, in the valley once ruled by the empire of Spain and the grace of God, who took it from the Indians who came there first, a long time ago.

Ross had a measure of fame. In some ways, he lived a typical hero's story, like those of literature and film and ancient story. A crucial choice at a defining moment, and a fall from grace. And redemption. A subsequent return to the simplicities of home and a quiet retirement, in the years of twilight, with his memories and the knowledge of the approaching end.

I read a story once, about a man born in the age of woolly mammoths who did not age. He lived for 15,000 years, eventually becoming an accountant in New York City. One day, walking to work in the 1990s, he passed a construction site. A wall fell over on top of him. End of the line. He stood looking down at his body, crushed under the rubble, with the angel of death next to him. He said to her (the angel appeared as a she): I had a pretty good run, right? I mean, 15,000 years, that's pretty good, isn't it? 

And she replied. You got what everyone gets. A lifetime. No more, no less.

* * * * *

What can Edmund G. Ross and the other heroes of his age offer to us, and those who will come after?

Ross and his generation enjoyed energy supplies similar to what the American Southwest will have in the early twenty second century. But that post-oil future, I think, will still be very different from the world of Edmund Ross. He lived with the knowledge that American industry would continue to expand, that thousands of new settlers would roll west every year, that this growth would continue, on into the bright and shining future celebrated at the gaudy, Utopian World Fairs of Ross' day. For him, a citizen of expanding Albuquerque, the future was a city that sprawled as far as the eye could see, conquering the desert as no earlier people had managed to do. The heroes of his age were the people who brought that future closer to becoming real.

If those heroes offer a lesson for the post-petroleum future, it lies in the differences between their world and the one our great-grandchildren will know. Heroes of the former time fought for a future of growth. Those of future America will fight for a decent life after growth is over, as energy supplies contract and the era of industrial abundance becomes a fading memory. Building a decent life in that future will be an even more vital task than paving the way to industrial expansion was in its day. Because creating a humane de-industrial society will be infinitely harder, and the stakes infinitely higher. People will have to learn to live on what their ancestors did: less energy, less material, less resources; humbler technology and settlements living within the landscape, instead of trying to subdue it. Right now, Americans don't know how to do those things. They can't even imagine them.

And they can't imagine the massive industrial expansion of the nineteenth and twentieth century shifting into reverse. Americans can't imagine a twenty first and twenty second century where the sprawling continental mass of skyscrapers, strip malls, airports, superhighways, and industrial farms has to be gradually converted and substantially dismantled, to make way for something else. The mega-machinery left by fossil fueled growth will have to be altered for an age with much lower energy supplies and a wildly shifting climate and biosphere. Multitudes of the buildings will have to be retrofitted, jury rigged, subdivided, and otherwise tinkered with. Many of them, along with vehicles and machinery of every kind, will have to be stripped for raw materials and parts. Abandoned housing tracts, industrial parks, and suburban shopping centers will have to be torn down, to make way for marketplaces, gardens, farmland, and other uses more suited to the realities of energy descent.

Undoing two hundred years of industrialism will consume the next two hundred years or more of our country. Or whatever succeeds it. We don't know what sort of political and cultural events will face our descendants. We don't know exactly how cities and communities in America will change. But we know they will be as radically different from ours as today's Albuquerque, a vast desert sprawl, is from the tiny railroad town by the Rio Grande in the year of our Lord 1880.

To build the industrial world, Americans looked to leaders who might show them the way. That's how human communities work. We're a hierarchical species, in many ways. We need leaders. The mechanisms for selecting them are different in a country like the United States which, at least in principle, is a constitutional, democratic republic. Still, even in a democracy, people choose someone with the power to make decisions. But hierarchy remains. Some have more power than others, democratically chosen or not.

In the industrializing society of late Victorian America, power wasn't necessarily democratic. Nobody elected John D. Rockefeller or J.P. Morgan. Nobody elected the railroad company officials who turned Albuquerque into an outpost of America's expanding industrial might. The company men and their successors made their city a flourishing metropolis in the desert. The industrial Republic of which it was part rose to dominate the planet and determine much of what the human future would be like. That process of American ascent, its guardians believed, needed heroes. Ordinary citizens of humbler means concurred.

America of the twenty second century and beyond will need heroes no less, but of a different kind. Leaders who will show people how to make a new world out of the old. Who won't see the end of growth as the end of the pursuit of happiness. Who will believe, and help others believe, that we still have it in our power to make the world over again. Not for Utopia, because that isn't possible. But for the better. A low-energy life where people are fed, and clothed, and housed, and protected from storms; where knowledge and freedom and equality are celebrated as the reigning ideals; where people are citizens instead of consumers; where they have livelihoods that allow them to provide for those they love and pursue a meaningful existence in their days on the Earth.

It's doable. It has to be. And we have to try. There is no other choice, unless we stupidly make no choice at all. Someone will have to lead the way. That's what a vanished world and its heroes can teach to ours, and to the one that's coming. Now the old heroes are ghosts, as we will be, too. But ghosts still have stories to tell.

On the fifth of July I went looking for a grave in a garden of sixteen thousand ghosts, for reasons hard to name. Maybe I came to hear a story. I would want that, if I were a ghost. Someone to listen to mine.


  1. Very well written! I agree that our people (and by our people I mean everyone, not just Americans) will need leadership in the coming times, I just hope that it turns out to be the sort of benign leadership you hope for. I've been thinking about how society in the coming centuries might resemble, and differ from, pre-industrial ones. On the one hand, I'm optimistic; Europe didn't need oil to explore the world, and I find my heart warmed at the thought of tallships plying the seas once more, as they undoubtedly will when wind re-emerges as the energy source of choice for maritime navigation. On the other hand, I don't know if the Enlightenment enabled the industrial revolution, or vice versa; it's easy, as a society, to embrace equality and peace as ideals at least worthy of lip service when increasing one's personal power and wealth is primarily a matter of securing a large share of society's continuous growth. We're facing a future, however, that is not a zero-sum game but a NEGATIVE sum game, and increasing one's wealth and power in such a world will more or less require taking scraps of what is left from your neighbors. Lofty ideals of democracy and equality don't seem to weather such reverses well. That's why I think building community ties is going to be what is most important, as opposed to the individualistic survivalist crap so dear to so many ultra-right wing whackos these days!

  2. Alas, you may be right that democracy and equality depend on growing affluence and abundance.

    On the other hand, a lot of the democratic ideals that arose along with the industrial revolution had roots and precursors in non-industrial societies with mostly static economies. The Greek polis, the Roman Republic, the Italian city-state republics, and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) confederacy. If energy descent is taking us back to an era of non-growing economies, there are precedents for democratic-ish institutions in such economies.

    Also, the de-industrial future here in North America will unfold in a culture that has regarded democracy as the political norm for 400 years. The current version of that democracy may not survive, but I hope the cultural momentum of four centuries will at least exert a heavy influence.

    Hypothetical example: if New Mexico of the year 2100 is faced with the need to set up a new government in the aftermath of a collapse of federal authority, I would think that most people would agree that the forms, at least, should be democratic. The general idea that citizens should have a say in their government, which should be limited in its power, would probably be popular. Even if the realities of power, like unequal land ownership, gave some people more say in practice than others.

    A final observation, from John Michael Greer's most recent book, The Ecotechnic Future. He doesn't see a future of energy descent as a simple zero sum game; he sees it as a competition but with subtleties that will matter. That competition will consist of ecological systems -- i.e. human cultures -- evolving under changing conditions. Some strategies for cultural success will work better than others, and the cultures that find more effective strategies will out-compete their rivals.

    Greer argues that democracy might be one of the effective strategies, because he sees it essentially as a mechanism for cultural self-correction. Democratic societies, with their relatively open discourse, are more likely to examine and correct mistakes. And so they'll be more likely to prosper in the new world.

    That's Greer's case, anyway. He also notes that while history may not have a direction or goal (e.g. "Progress"), it does tend to encourage the accumulation of successful practices over time. One of his examples: the Greeks invented logic as a way of exploring human thought; the Arabs and Christians adopted Greek logic for religious purposes in the Middle Ages; the scientific and industrial revolutions combined it with empiricism to deliver unprecedented technological innovation. Greek logic, a cultural form that arose in a very specific and limited setting -- a few antique Mediterranean city states -- ended up being extremely useful for thousands of years afterward, in a variety of cultural settings. Because it helped those cultures succeed.

    I'm hoping that democracy might have a similar long-term usefulness, even when the industrial world which brought it to its greatest extent has gone away.