Material Freedom

Updated: May 31, 2019

Why distributed energy is essential for liberty.

by Sam Miller McDonald

Liberty is a simple virtue. Reasonable people spanning political spectrums can agree that liberty means that an individual enjoys the autonomy to control their economic, political, and personal trajectory, to navigate the world without coercion, except where they might harm others. Most Americans consider political freedom a supreme virtue, but the concept remains contested. There’s no consensus on who deserves it. Competing attitudes toward political freedom rest not so much on its definition as on its distribution. Although ideological battles waged over the distribution of liberty have raged through history, there is powerful evidence that the form of energy underpinning an economy may be by far the most important factor determining how broad a liberty society enjoys.

In 1824, Thomas Jefferson argued, in a letter to Henry Lee, that there are two broad categories of political belief. First, "[t]hose who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them,: and consider other citizens “the most honest and safe…depositary of the public interests”. In the other category are “[t]hose who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes”. They constitute two parties in every polity: “Call them therefore liberals and serviles…aristocrats and democrats or by whatever name you please; they are the same parties still and pursue the same object”. In other words, these parties represent conflicting ways of distributing liberty in society: the democrat aims to distribute it broadly, the aristocrat narrowly.

One way of conceptualising Jefferson’s two conflicting parties is in Aristotle’s distinction between democracy and oligarchy. In Aristotle’s conception of liberty, democracy is indispensable: broad freedom is enshrined in the rule of law and exercised by citizens enfranchised to elect accountable representatives. Under Aristotle’s definition of oligarchy, political freedom is restricted to those few who hoard wealth; only the wealthy are entrusted with power and liberty. Instead of universal enfranchisement, power in oligarchies is distributed through hereditary transfers (as in aristocratic monarchies), fiat and favours (as in military dictatorships), or state-sanctioned monopolistic markets (as in capital oligarchies). In the latter case (the most relevant to the US) freedom becomes commoditised, purchasable by those with the most wealth and diminished for those who suffer poverty or precarity as a result of concentrated capital.

Put another way, tying individual liberty directly to capital means that those who gain more of the former achieve a proportional increase in the latter. Capital buys freedom: freedom of movement, freedom from servitude, freedom from want and freedom from the consequences of criminal behaviour. Where capital concentrates, so does freedom. When elite ideologies refer to ‘freedom,’ they mean this particular species of liberty. This is why libertarian, neoliberal conceptions of freedom found on the Institute for Economic Affairs website, for example, look so perversely unfamiliar to those invested in democracy and broader conceptions of liberty.

Whether freedom is democratic or oligarchic depends on many factors: cultural attitudes, political traditions, economic ideologies, geographic conditions and geopolitical conflict. But there is growing evidence to suggest the most important factor in mediating whether a state is free and democratic rests on one element: the form of energy capture on which its economy depends.

Liberty and Energy, Wild and Domestic

Energy capture refers to the material calories that humans consume in order to live. Calories from animal protein, wood fuel, or coal, all derive from the energy emitted by the sun. The ways in which we capture this energy from the environment has varied through time.

Stanford archaeologist Ian Morris, author of Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels, separates energy capture into three historical paradigms: first,foraging’, which started probably 300,000 years ago; second, ‘agrarian’, which began around fifteen thousand years ago; and ‘fossil fuel industrial’ which emerged about two hundred years ago. This framework aligns with mainstream anthropology’s arc of human history.

Morris calculates foragers’ energy consumption at around 4,000 kilocalories per day for those living around the equator and double that for those living nearer the poles. This energy came in the form of “food, tools, cooking fuel, a little clothing, and simple shelter” foraged from the immediate environment. Given the natural paucity of wild resources, groups were small and nomadic, ranging from a few to a few dozen members. This meant that resources could not be hoarded; one could only control what they could carry. It also meant that individuals controlled the means of their economic production. Unable to withhold resources from other members, it was difficult for one member to maintain coercive power over others. On average foragers would dedicate just “two to five hours a day” to labour. They would spend the rest of their time as they pleased. Groups tended to make decisions via voting or consensus. On the whole, no one had much more liberty than anyone else. According to Morris, foraging societies achieved these enviable levels of democracy due to the nature of the energy they relied on.

As people domesticated their energy with sources like wheat, rice, and livestock, new politics and economies emerged. With agriculture, daily per capita energy capture increased to about 6,000-8,000 kcal and grew over time. The added energy wealth from denser food production increased populations. But the means of energy capture, more than amount, dictated the degree to which political freedom was distributed. Agrarian rulers could now withhold vital resources like tools and weapons. Most importantly for controlling populations, they could withhold water and food. These static, dense populations coalesced into strict hierarchies.

In arid regions dependent on irrigation, large administrative states arose to control the flow of water, as in Ancient Egypt, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, China, and Amazonian South America. In his classic and controversial text Oriental Despotism, Karl Wittfogel developed the idea of the ‘hydraulic civilisation’: he argued that economies dependent on scarce water for economic production invariably consolidated into monarchies and monopolies. With this consolidation of energy, the democracy and liberty of foraging societies perished; instead, most people lived in squalor, ruled by brutal, absolute dictators. As Marvin Harris writes in Cannibals and Kings, “Century after century, the standard of living in China, northern India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt hovered slightly above or below what might be called the threshold of pauperisation”.

Nineteenth-century abolitionist Theodore Parker proclaimed: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one…[a]nd from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice”. The arc of the moral universe, however, did not bend toward justice for the hundreds of generations who toiled in abject servitude. As Harris writes, “The fact that societies providing such meagre resources endured for thousands of years — longer than any other system of statehood in the history of the world — stands as a grim reminder that there is nothing inherent in human affairs to ensure material and moral progress”. Harris sketches this destitution: “The ancient empires were warrens full of illiterate peasants toiling from morning to night only to earn protein-deficient vegetarian diets. They were little better off than their oxen and were no less subject to the commands of superior beings who knew how to keep records and who alone had the right to manufacture and use weapons of war and coercion”. The West was not exempt from this despotism, with monarchies and aristocracies ruling Europe and the Mediterranean for millennia.

Historians may reasonably point out ostensible exceptions to agrarian despotism. The classical Athenian democracy, the Roman Republic, the Achaemenid Empire in Persia, and the Maurya Empire in India, all experimented with more broadly distributed liberty. While it’s true that the political systems of Athens and Rome, for instance, were qualitatively distinct from the extreme consolidation of power and freedom under a despotic ruler, Ian Morris argues that these exceptions in fact prove the rule. According to Morris, “Athens…imported most of its food in the fourth century BC, using its position at the centre of extensive trade networks to increase dramatically the energy available per person”. Because these cities were centres of commercial maritime trade, energy wealth flooded their markets, giving more citizens access to capital and allowing them to wield greater political power. Energy capture still mediated the extent to which these city-states confined or distributed political liberty. It’s also worth noting that Athens still resembled despotic agrarian states in the sense that it utilised “one of the strictest slave systems on record” to sustain its economy. In this rudimentary democracy, voting citizens comprised a relatively small male elite ruling with impunity over an underclass of chattel slaves, women and non-citizens whose personal freedom was substantially constrained. Patriarchal and stratified, liberty was still extremely limited.

The Persian and Mauryan Empires experienced brief flickers of broader freedom. In Persia, slavery was abolished for a time – except in the case of conquered peoples – and in India, the emperor Ashoka brought peace and prosperity to many more citizens. In both of these states, the changes were possible due to a confluence of trade routes ballooning energy density. Like the Mediterranean examples, both were short-lived. Agrarian despotism would likely still rule the world if not for one resource that broke the old order.

Oil and Liberty

The relationship between energy and liberty grew even more complex with the injection of fossil energy – coal, oil and gas – about two hundred years ago. Whereas the upper limit of daily energy consumption was around 30,000 kcal in agrarian societies, energy consumption has reached 220,000 in industrial economies.

This injection of new energy again revolutionised politics and economics. As Timothy Mitchell writes in Carbon Democracy, “Fossil fuels helped create both the possibility of modern democracy and its limits”. Democracy and carbon energy, he argues, were bound together: “The development of the two kinds of power has been interwoven from the start”. Carbon helped create new possibilities for democracy by fostering conditions conducive to mass politics and collective action. Industrial production brought workers into the same space in densely populated cities and factories; as Mitchell writes, the “mobilisation of new, democratising political forces depended upon the concentration of population in cities and in manufacturing […] made possible by organising the flow of unprecedented quantities of non-renewable stores of carbon”.

Fossil energy soon underpinned all economic production. Any entity that controlled this new method of energy capture controlled the economy. Early on, coal miners were able to wield power with their central role in bringing coal to the market. Miner strikes “played a leading role in contesting work regimes” with their capacity to shut down a factory on the other side of the country or stall shipments in every port. But even as the old despotism of the agrarian world crumbled, these new oil-dependent economies quickly began reconsolidating. In the US, this process accelerated as the frontier closed. Monopolistic corporations concentrated land and wealth. John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil, aggressively bought up smaller companies and built the model for the corporate monopoly, “a move that pioneered modern American capitalism,” according to Smithsonian Magazine. Oil and coal, like irrigation water of the agrarian world, was inherently complex to extract, requiring centralised organisation. And once controlled it was more efficient to generate power in a central plant and dole it out from a consolidated operation. It was oil that facilitated the rapid exploitation of natural resources and the liquid capital that flowed into the bank accounts of a handful of oligarchic families

By 1890, as Colin Woodard writes in American Character, “The richest 1 percent of Americans had the combined income of the bottom 50 percent and owned more property than the other 99 percent”. Life for Americans under a burgeoning oil-fuelled oligarchy grew precarious and devoid of liberty, rivalling the privation felt by agrarian peasants. Workers were routinely maimed and killed, consumers were poisoned by tainted food and drugs, and all were brutally suppressed when they organised for better conditions. The market was mostly closed off to all but a few trusts. This gave those companies immense and unaccountable power. As Woodard writes, “In 1905…two-thirds of the Senate was under railroad control plus a majority of the House”. And that was just the railroad trust.

Like the irrigation water of agrarian states, fossil fuels are easily controlled and concentrated, creating a stubborn tendency toward oligarchy. Political history of the past two hundred years in the US has been marked by this creeping consolidation of wealth, power and liberty. In the 1920s, wealth concentration reached its zenith with 0.1 percent of Americans holding 22 percent of the nation’s wealth. As Emmanuel Saez notes, extreme wealth concentration preceded both the Great Depression and Great Recession. Under the weight of concentrated fortunes the economy faltered.

A brief respite from oligarchy came with the New Deal, when wealth was redistributed broadly, creating an affluent middle class unprecedented in its scale and autonomy and representing one of the broadest distributions of liberty in history. But this gasp of freedom was short-lived. The nation has, since the 1970s, returned to the extreme consolidation of wealth characteristic of the Gilded Age. Freedom has contracted again into a tiny elite.

It’s not just the US. Of the top ten oil producing countries, nine are oligarchies, ruled by royal dynasties in the Middle East, non-hereditary heads of state in Russia and China, and wealthy cliques in liberal economies. Canada is democratic, but remains largely beholden to oil industry interests. In all cases, those entities that control the flow of energy control the government and economy.

Fossil fuel energy capture looks a lot like agrarianism. This tendency toward oil-funded autocracy is sometimes called the ‘oil curse.’ Foreign Affairs summarises the concept of the oil curse: “Oil states are 50 percent more likely to be authoritarian than are non-oil states, and between 1980 and 2013, oil-producing autocracies were four times less likely to transition to democracy than their non-oil-producing peers….oil states are today no richer, no freer, and no more peaceful than they were in 1980 — a marked contrast to most states in the developing world…” But the oil curse is not some aberrant demon of so-called ‘less developed’ countries, as it is often described. It is simply the nature of oil, wherever it reigns.

But the reign of oil cannot continue. Climate change and fossil fuel scarcity will not allow it. Perhaps if it could, fossil energy capture would reveal some grand historical pattern like foraging and agrarianism; maybe in the unforeseeable future it would tend toward progressive democracy. We’ll never know. What we can know is that the future of energy will undoubtedly impact the future of liberty.

The Future of Energy and Liberty

Energy transition is inevitable. Economies will either transition to an energy source other than fossil fuels – renewables, nuclear, something else – or will transition back to agrarian slavery or foraging. If we sustain our current energy trajectory, then a broken climate and bankrupt future is likely, for as long as Earth remains habitable. If nations act immediately, we could potentially halt catastrophic climate change and develop dense energy infrastructure capable of sustaining advanced economies. The energy choices we make now will have a profound impact on democracy and liberty.

A major prerequisite for achieving broadly distributed liberty is energy capture that cannot be readily monopolised. If we accept that simple premise, it becomes clear that distributed energy is probably the only form of energy capture capable of facilitating liberty.

Today, some methods of energy capture are inherently suited to broad distribution. Solar, wind, and biomass are widely available examples. Though it’s possible for these to be concentrated, it’s also plausible to design systems that can be governed at municipal and even neighbourhood or individual scales. This is less plausible for fossil energy. The nature of coal, gas, and oil is that they are more efficiently owned and sold from a centralised power plant. Solar and wind are more efficient when distributed. Cheaper methods of storage will bolster this efficiency.

While the US possesses the technical capacity to power the country with distributed energy networks, the harder task will entail overcoming administrative and political obstacles. The transition now taking place is mostly local. Cities, towns and neighbourhoods in the US and abroad are experimenting with new models of financing and distributing energy. Cities from Detroit to Harlem and states from California to Kentucky, are investing these programs. Traverse City, Michigan, likely the first city in the country to invest in utility-scale renewable energy, is now attempting to run all city buildings entirely on renewables. In Scotland, community energy programs are helping to forge social trust, making island communities more self-sufficient and bringing new social services to underserved populations. Though projects still account for probably less than one percent of electricity generated, there is reason to be optimistic that such projects will continue spreading.

Alongside this grassroots effort, there will almost certainly need to be federal programs that rapidly fund, incentivise, and coordinate the expansion of distributed energy programs. Given the oligarchic inertia hampering right and centre political parties, a progressive mass movement will likely need to initiate this effort. Providing a concrete project for people to cultivate together, community renewable programs can help bolster the social and political capital needed for an emergent progressive movement. Neighbourhood governance of energy inherently forges networks of cooperation and interdependence necessary for building political movements. These two projects, building a distributed energy network and progressive political movement, can be mutually reinforcing.

The arc of the economic universe bends toward consolidation. If the means of energy capture can be hoarded, they will be hoarded. This has remained a rule throughout human history, from the first small bands of nomadic peoples to the advanced fossil fuel economies of today. Governments predicated on egalitarian ideologies like socialism have mostly failed to deliver on their promises; they will always fail as long as they are based on concentrated energy capture. Capitalism purports to emphasise individual liberty, but instead violently concentrates markets and bends toward the same feudal oligarchies that reigned during agrarian antiquity. Communist regimes have almost universally consolidated into dictatorships or rule by an elite party structure. Any ideology or political program cultivated under concentrated energy will fail to deliver liberty.

If, however, energy wealth can be generated by means that are inherently distributed and inefficient to hoard, like wind and solar, there is the possibility for radically democratic societies to thrive. Economies that give most people liberty – the capacity to own their destiny, command their own labour value, and decide who represents their interests in government – will be possible only with distributed energy capture. More than any other single act, transitioning to distributed energy offers the promise of a more perfect liberty.

Sam Miller McDonald reads a DPhil in Geography and the Environment at Brasenose. He is a Managing Editor at

Illustration by Adam Story

This article appears in the print edition of Anthroposphere Issue I.

If you like what you've just read, please support Anthroposphere by buying one of our beautifully designed physical copies here. All proceeds go towards printing, designing and maintaining our publication, and your contributions will help keep our climate journalism interdisciplinary and accessible for all.

Find us on...

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram