One of the great joys of life is those hours with loved ones that are so serene that time just seems to stop. A few weeks ago, I had that feeling during a long-overdue reunion with two of my dearest friends. We talked about everything and nothing, we made each other think and made each other laugh, but most of all we just enjoyed the gift of time with kindred spirits.
Such times are best savored in the moment, so I wasn’t in a particularly reflective mood, but given my obsession with human progress, one thought did strike me. While what I treasured about the time we spent together was spiritual, it was ultimately the product of man’s physical transformation of the Earth.
Throughout most of history, human beings have spent the overwhelming portion of their lives engaging in grueling physical labor just to keep their bodies going long enough to engage in the next day of grueling physical labor. To keep going, that is, if they could withstand the harsh environment of undeveloped nature–where clean water was hard to find, where the air was full of diseases they couldn’t cure and full of smoke from open fires they needed to huddle beside, where waste and filth were their inescapable neighbors.
It is only through technology–transforming the world around us for human purposes–that we eventually lessened that load. Technology, by creating a human environment in which our goals are easier to accomplish, buys us time–time to enjoy ourselves as we please, or time to create more technologies that will buy us even more time by improving our environment even more.
The fundamental technology that buys us time is energy, which fuels the machines that do our work for us. James Watt’s steam engine made laborers in every industry it touched far more productive, meaning shorter workdays and more jobs focused on intellectual labor to create still more technological innovation. Rockefeller and the pioneers of the oil industry turned glop to lamplight, adding hours of pleasure to the day of millions in America and around the world.
For those that say that our standard of living is “high enough” or that we have “enough” time, I ask you to think about what more time means. Here’s what it means to me, and to one of my two friends who inspired this article. Last year, she was life-threateningly sick, even given modern technology. It took doctors seemingly forever to find out what was wrong. They ran test after test on her in an ordeal that overtook her whole life for over a year, and both she and those who love her had to experience the chronic fear that comes with having a serious, undiagnosed disease. There was only one thing that brought me comfort. I knew how much time our state of industrial progress buys a human being. And I knew that despite major government impediments to progress, there were people working every day to create more energy and more technology and more progress.
My friend needed every bit of it. Every watt-hour of energy generated over the years has meant more time for people to learn medicine, to discover cures, to develop medical devices and pharmaceuticals, to collaborate at medical conferences, to make her symptoms bearable, and anything else that would be the missing link between her living and her dying. I am profoundly grateful that I did not lose my friend–just 50 years ago, I probably would have.
When you hear about government restrictions on energy production or manufacturing, or you hear about rising energy costs, don’t think of it as some talking point or academic statistic. Think of it as the specific, wonderful things you can do with your life: the moments and passions and people and experiences that make life worth living. Because the ultimate product of our “unnatural” human environment–our factories, hospitals, power plants, comfy homes, and whatever industrialists come up with next–is time: the unrepeatable, irreplaceable currency of life and happiness. In the end, that is the wealth the Center for Industrial Progress exists to create.