What If Atlas Shrugged?

Recently by David Deming: Taking the Second Amendment Seriously

Atlas Shrugged is the title of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel in which the world grinds to a halt after the productive segment of society goes on strike. Tired of being demonized and exploited, the world’s innovators and entrepreneurs simply walk away.

What would happen to the US today if the fossil fuel industry went on a strike of indefinite duration? What would happen if we gave the environmentalists what they want? Instead of nibbling around the edges, what if we just went all the way? What would be the consequences if Atlas shrugged?

Within 24 hours there would be long lines at service stations as people sought to purchase remaining stocks of gasoline. The same people who denounce oil companies would be desperately scrounging the last drops of available fuel for their SUVs. By the third day, all the gasoline would be gone.

With no diesel fuel, the trucking industry would grind to a halt. Almost all retail goods in the US are delivered by trucks. Grocery shelves would begin to empty. Food production at the most basic levels would also stop. Without gasoline, no farm machinery would function, nor could pesticides or fertilizers be produced on an industrial scale. The US cannot feed 315 million people with an agricultural technology based on manure and horse-drawn plows. After two weeks mass starvation would begin.

Locomotives once ran on coal but today are powered by diesel engines. With no trains or trucks running there would be no way to deliver either raw materials or finished products. All industrial production and manufacturing would stop. Mass layoffs would ensue. At this point, it would hardly matter. With virtually all transportation systems out, the only people who could work would be those who owned horses or were capable of walking to their places of employment.

Owners of electric cars might smirk at first, but would soon be forced to the unpleasant reality that the vehicle they thought was “emission free” runs on coal. Forty-two percent of electric power in the US is produced by burning coal. With natural gas also out of the picture, we would lose another 25 percent. The environmentalist’s favorite power sources, wind and solar, could not fill the gap. Wind power currently generates about 3 percent of our electricity and solar power accounts for a scant 0.04 percent. The only reliable power sources left would be hydroelectric and nuclear. But together these two sources could only power the grid at 27 percent of its normal capacity. With two-thirds of the electric power gone, the grid would shut down entirely. No electricity also means no running water and no flush toilets. When the bottled water ran out, people would drink from streams and ponds and epidemic cholera would inevitably follow.

Hospitals could continue to function for a few days on backup generators. But with no diesel fuel being produced, the backups would also fail. Emergency surgeries would have to be conducted by daylight in rooms with windows. Because kerosene is a petroleum byproduct, lighting by kerosene lamps would not be an option. Even candles today are made of paraffin, another petroleum byproduct. It is doubtful if sufficient beeswax could be found to manufacture enough candles to light the 132 million homes in the US.

With no electricity, little to no fuel, and no way to transport either people or commodities, the US would revert to the eighteenth century within a matter of days to weeks. The industrial revolution would be reversed. The gross domestic product would shrink by more than 95 percent. Depending on the season and location, people would begin to either freeze or swelter in their homes. My academic colleagues who think human progress is an illusion would have to face the bitter reality of reverting to a time when life expectancy was less than half of what it is today.

But I’m wrong. Reversion to the eighteenth century is not what would happen. It would be much worse than that. In eighteenth-century America, about eighty percent of the population lived on family farms and were largely self-sufficient. They had horses and blacksmiths. People knew how to work and relied upon valued networks of family and neighbors. Today, less than two percent of our population is engaged in farming. And virtually all modern agriculture depends on machinery powered by petroleum. People today could not survive in a world that lacks fossil fuels.

The picture I paint is grim, but it is nothing less than what environmental activists want: to put all fossil fuel companies completely out of business. If you don’t understand or accept this, I can only suggest that you acquaint yourself with the philosophy of biocentrism. Groups of college students are now demanding that universities divest stock holdings in fossil fuel companies – as if the production of fossil fuels was the moral equivalent of apartheid. And every March environmentalists celebrate “Earth Hour,” an hour in which they literally turn off all the lights.

Our industrialized and technological civilization does not run on rainbows and moonbeams. Nor is it likely to at any time in the foreseeable future. Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are not viable replacements for fossil fuels. It is not a question of politics, but limitations imposed by the laws of physics and chemistry. Instead of apologizing for the use of fossil fuels, we ought to be damn glad we have them.