The Ethyl story is about inventive genius and roads not taken. This is a story about big industries shifting the health costs of their products onto the public, despite obvious alternatives, even while proclaiming a lack of alternatives. It’s about the way history can be radically bent, like light, around the gravity fields surrounding great wealth.
It’s a relatively unknown story about an economic and technical conflict waged on a constantly tilting political battlefield, involving public health consequences for everyone on earth.
Most importantly, it is a story about the haphazard way that democracies are choosing their technologies.
For historians, it is an extraordinarily challenging story. Far more had been written about ethyl alcohol and a century ago, in the early 1900s, than is available today. And for much of the 20th century, the idea that any form of alternative energy technology might emerge to challenge petroleum would bring laughter and derision among industry experts and policy makers.
For instance, during the winter of 1979, when long lines of angry motorists waited on the freezing streets, desperate for gasoline to fill up their cars, journalists asked the head of the American Petroleum Institute about using ethyl alcohol as a fuel. He dismissed it all with a laugh: “Alcohol needs to be preserved for more pressing social uses.”
The dominant petroleum narrative
To laugh down alternatives at a time of crisis shows the strength of the dominant narrative. This narrative, sometimes called petroleum hegemony, underpinned both left and right-wing politics, both economic and environmental debate, and nearly all energy histories.
This dominant narrative was, to put it plainly, that oil was and would always be the lifeblood of the world’s economy and technology; that the Middle East had two thirds of all the world’s oil; and that the US had to protect it with a vast military armada. Perhaps, someday, according to this dominant narrative, synthetic fuels from coal and electricity from nuclear power could take the place of petroleum. But that would take many decades of research and no one in power believed — or could afford to believe — that there were any serious alternatives. “We have oil, coal and nuclear power, and that’s it,” one Department of Energy official told the American Public Power Association in 1979. “There’s no place for solar in this century.” Most energy policy and industry officials also had pessimistic views of ethyl alcohol as a fuel, comparing it to quack cancer cures and pitchfork populism.
Biofuels were a “will o’ the wisp,” (Leslie, 1982) or no competition for the “magic” of leaded gasoline (Rosner, 1989). Entire histories of the oil industry could be written without the slightest reference to competition from alternatives (Yergin, 1992). Entire groups of workers could be killed or confined for life to psychiatric wards, only to have it all passed off by General Motors and Standard Oil as the “problems” that were the “price of progress” (Robert, 1984).
As a result, many of the earliest myths about ethyl alcohol re-emerged in the 20th and 21st centuries, even though they had already been disproven by earlier generations of engineers. In the 1920s, automotive inventors like Henry Ford and Charles Kettering often said “of course” when referring to ethy alcohol as the “fuel of the future.” But the flood of cheap oil and the quest for the good life after World War II put most of these ideas out of the way.
Historical amnesia occurs in part because historians are attracted to success stories. The renewable energy industries in general, and biofuels in particular, met with only limited success in the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s easy to see the historical problem reflected in the thousands of books about traditional energy sources — oil and coal and nuclear power — and the mere dozens of histories concerning renewables such as solar, wind and biofuels.
Why study the history of renewable energy?
The 21st century success of ethyl alcohol and other renewable energy sources should open the door to more historical study. That study is long overdue, and has long been worthy subject from points of view.
In the first place is history’s requirement for honesty and for historical theories to be based on historical facts, avoiding gross inaccuracies by omission. Also worth mentioning is the simple practical need for understanding energy sources with more positive public health and environmental impacts that originate in more stable regions of the world.
In terms of the history of ideas, there is the intriguing thought that agricultural and biological resources could be primary sources of energy, and that humankind could live on renewable solar “income” rather than fossil fuel “capital.” The implications for the 21st century climate challenge are obvious, but the idea has held a fascination for previous generations of automotive and agricultural engineers.
We also need to explore the symbolic developments around technological controversy. Biofuels involve far more than the substitution of one energy source for another. Proponents have seen the potential to strike a balance between city and farm life; the prospect of civilizing and humanizing industrial machinery; the hope of improving agricultural economics, dispelling city smog, and curbing the power of the petroleum industry over politics and the economy. On the other hand, opponents have seen a scheme for robbing taxpayers to enrich farmers, as turning food for the poor into fuel for the rich, as compounding soil erosion problems, and as a marginally useful enhancement or replacement fuel for a transportation system that is poorly designed in the first place.
In terms of historical theory, we need to understand the clash between world views about technology, for example, determinism versus social construction as underpinning explanations for technological success or failure.
And we need to remember the ideas of Lewis Mumford and Wendell Berry, that fossil fuels involve a temporary, exploitative mining culture, as opposed to agriculture with its imperative for husbandry and permanence.
We need to understand the ethical questions about distribution of political power inherent in the technological systems we adopt. As Amory Lovins noted in the famous 1976 “Road Not Taken” article, it’s far more ethical to make capital investments that employ thousands of renewable energy and conservation contractors than to spend it on big power projects that employ only a few dozen engineers. Similarly, E. F. Schumacher, author of “Small is Beautiful,” opposed big failure-prone systems and hoped to see more appropriate or intermediate sized technologies. And Herman Scheer noted the challenge to democracy in big energy systems and the tendency towards social justice inherent in distributed systems.
As ancient Greek historian Thucydides said, history’s most important role is to give context and meaning to the challenges we face today, to help us learn the lessons of the past, so they may serve as a guide to the future.
Or, to paraphrase Goya, if the sleep of reason produces monsters, the sleep of history produces monstrous myths.
Good history busts the bubbles of myth created around wealth to shield its culpability for episodes like the Ethyl disaster.