Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 608, February 20, 2011


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Of Pine Trees and Light Bulbs
by L. Neil Smith

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Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise

The earliest flag associated with the American Revolution shows the image of a pine tree, beneath which is the legend, "An Appeal To Heaven".

I'd often wondered about what I thought was a fairly strange logo and motto, but in the dark days before the Internet, information was a great deal harder to find than it is today. Then, in 1972, I attended a seminar given in Wichita, Kansas, by the famous libertarian author and lecturer, Robert LeFevre (most likely, you know him better as Professor Bernardo de la Paz from Robert A. Heinlein's novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress), and he told us this story about the Pine Tree Flag.

Great Britain, in the latter half of the 18th century, was poised to become master of the world's oceans. She had the ships (often they were designed by the French, who had a scientific academy dedicated to that purpose, although France lacked certain other qualities that let her keep her ships, once they found themselves in combat). She had wonderful guns. And she had the men, many of them press-ganged slaves, but disciplined nevertheless, courageous, and, above all, well-drilled.

What Britain lacked was the tall, straight trees from which ships' masts—which needed occasional replacing for a variety of reasons—could be fashioned. She was long accustomed to importing suitable trees from Norway, but at some point in the 1770s, possibly worried about the worldwide empire the little island nation was building, the Norwegian king decided not to let his British cousins have any more trees.

This decision caused a lot of moaning and handwringing among the elite until somebody reminded the Prime Minister, Lord North, that, just across the Atlantic, Britain was in possession of a handful of colonies on the east coast that were, quite literally, covered with trees.

The Prime Minister, who had already distinguished himself by failing to repeal the infamous Navigation Acts of 1712—which would eventually become a principal reason (remember the bit about "taxation without representation"?) the colonies rebelled—went to his buddy, King George III, and they whomped up a decree that Americans could cut no more trees until the Royal Foresters had had a chance to count them.

(It probably helped that George was later known to talk to trees, from time to time, the way Richard Nixon got drunk and talked to the portraits of his predecessors in the White House. George didn't need to get drunk, though. He was on a natural high, being crazy as a bedbug.)

Understand that people had a different attitude about trees in the 18th century. Everybody seems to like them now; some are even known to hug them. But second only to Red Indians, they were seen then as an obstruction to progress. Nealy every farm in North America had been wrested from the trees. Cutting them and clearing them by a process of backbreaking labor (remember: no chainsaws back then, nor tractors for hauling logs away, nor dynamite for removing stumps big enough to hold square dances on) was the principal task in rendering the wilderness poductive.

Trees had to be cut, as well, to build houses, to build ships, to build carriages, furniture, weapons, and musical instruments. True, it was an Age of Iron—edging into steel—but most of it was made of wood.

The story is told that, in those days, a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic coast to the Great Lakes without ever having to touch the ground. In due course, aboard the King's ships, the King's Foresters arrived in their splendid Lincoln green uniforms, marched straight through the towns (of Boston or New York, I don't remember which), disappeared into the woods, and were never seen or heard from again.

But orders are orders, and edicts are edicts. The word was, "Cut no more trees". That silliness was more or less the straw that broke the camel's back and made Revolution both necessary and inevitable. It was impossible to live on the frontier without cutting trees. But of course King George and Lord North didn't have to try. The colonists raised their hands and shoulders in a massive group shrug, and lifted their eyes upward to the sky where their god lived, in "an appeal to Heaven".

Today we'd quote P.J. O'Rourke: "What the fuck? What the fucking fuck?"

It is one of the great tragedies of human existence that people—particularly those in politics—seldom learn anything from their own experience, and never learn anything from the experience of others. In December of 2007 (when a Republican President could easily have vetoed the abominable act, but—as we had long since come to expect of him and his party—failed to do the right thing) Congress crammed a new directive down our collective throats, aimed at "phasing out" the familiar Edison-style electric light bulb as we have known it all our lives.

If anything falls into the category of "If it isn't broken, don't fix it," it's Thomas Edison's history-altering invention, the greatest gift one individual ever bestowed upon humanity. Edison gave us the night that our ancestors had always feared—turning it into a warm, cozy time for friends and families after a hard day's work, and for individuals who wanted to extend their creative and productive hours—and gave us independence, as well, from the whims of weather and seasons.

We're all accustomed to the quality of the light that we get from Edison's bulbs. It's a warm, yellowish white, reminiscent, I believe of the firelight, torchlight, candlelight, and gaslight our ancestors lived by for hundreds of thousands of years. We're highly adapted to it, and when we're subjected to a different quality of light—the shivery fluorescence of offices and stores, the ugly brown light of the latest generation of streetlights, possibly even the blue-green lights before that—we sicken, in one way or another, and sometimes die.

The excuse offered for the recent change is "efficiency". By some standard, Edison's bulbs are using "too much" electricity. But this—like nearly all environmentally-based excuses—is spurious, based on extremely bad and very politicized science, and ethics that are even worse.

(Another conspicuous example: thanks to more efficient engines and anti-pollution devices, cars today emit little from their tailpipes but water vapor and carbon dioxide which is a significant reason the whole global warming swindle had to be generated, and carbon dioxide demonized, by those who hate the private automobile and individual liberty.)

The accusation of "inefficiency" implies that Edison's bulbs waste energy, usually in the form of "excess" heat. But I happen to like that heat, and what is "waste", after all, but a matter of purely subjective judgment? Once I've paid for it, it's my energy, to do with exactly as I see fit. If the value that I derive from any given application of energy is worth what I'm willing to pay for it, nobody has a right to say anything about it. What I do with my energy, whatever color the resulting light turns out to be, is an aesthetic choice nobody—especially politicians—has any right to make for me.

The energy available to the average individual in any given society is pretty much a measure of how free that society happens to be. From ancient Sumeria, through Egypt, Greece, and Rome, energy was scarce, compared with today, and that probably made slavery—the muscle-power coerced from unwilling human beings—necessary and inevitable.

After the fall of Rome, and especially after the Great Plague which, among other things, created a vast shortage of labor, people started learning to use animals better, then natural forces—water wheels and windmills—to do useful work and people began to be more free.

We live today in what Brits would call the "Age of the Octopus", that mollusc being their symbol for an electrical outlet sprouting a dozen cords from cube taps, power strips, and other devices. The most spectacular specimen I've ever seen is in the movie A Christmas Story, when they plug in the tree and blow a fuse. This sort of thing often happens whenever there's a wave of new electrical or electronic inventions.

The movie was set in 1939, in an Age of Innovation.

Thanks to the TV, VCR, DVD player, radio, four different lamps, a lighted rifle case, a fan, two computers and a set of speakers for them, most of which extend my eyes and ears and mind around the world and into space—but didn't exist when my house was first built in 1949—I could easily use twice as many outlets as this room has to offer.

Today, the average household in America consumes roughly 10,000 kilowatt hours of electricity every year, most of it to generate the light and warmth which is the very essence of our civilization. The twisted, shriveled, inorgasmic, parsimonious cheese-parers among us resent that, somewhere in the cold, bleak depths of their emaciated souls, but we should simply ignore them. Fact is, we should be doing our best to increase that number, not decrease it. Energy is liberty. With every kilowatt hour we generate and consume, we are another step closer to untrammeled freedom, biological immortality, and the stars above.

Allow me to repeat myself. For many good reasons, we should all be attempting to use more electricity, not less. It will be good for the economy, and it will be good for us. It will encourage the creation of many new devices we can barely imagine now, some of which—like the personal computer—will greatly enhance our lives, liberty, and our pursuit of happiness. It will also bring economic pressure to bear on utility companies to increase the amount of electricity they generate—or it would if there weren't enormous pressure being put on them by the state, at the behest of environmental fascists not to increase it.

Truth: if there is any shortage of energy it is the result of government interference in the market. Their "solution" to the problem they created is to force everyone to drive little plastic "sippy cup" cars, as Ann Coulter calls them, turn their thermostats to SHIVER, turn off their air conditioners, and to junk their cheap, familiar, simple, reliable Edison light bulbs in favor of "compact fluorescent lights", which are expensive, have a high failure rate, and make our homes as creepy and uncomfortable as the weirdly-lighted sets in Dark City (buy on [DVD] or [BlueRay] from

It's certainly the diametric opposite of romantic light—it's more like anti-sex light, a form of birth control. Despite advertising to the contrary, these ugly, costly bulbs produce less light too. It's my experience that the human eye or brain can't handle information gathered by their light quite as well as they do from incandescent bulbs.

Even more ludicrous, while Edison's light bulb is the very model of elegance and safety, compact fluorescents are both complicated and dangerous. They can't just be thrown into the garbage when they fail but must be "recycled". They contain mercury which, if the bulb is broken, must be cleaned up carefully in a government-specified multiple step process and disposed of by legal means. Since mercury vapor is heavier than air, it poses a special danger to children and pets.

There is no reason to go through this nonsense, except to enrich the friends and allies (most notably China) of the politicians who passed the law. The last manufacturer of Edison light bulbs in America has closed its doors, hundreds of people have lost their jobs, while recyclers get rich and China has more and more to say about how we live.

I say once again, that whatever shortage of energy we may suffer is entirely the fault of crooked politicians and bureaucrats, lining their own pockets and enhancing their power and prestige at the expense of a Productive Class whose shoesoles they are not fit to lick.

America has more petroleum beneath its surface than Saudi Arabia, and so-called "peak oil" is a naked fraud. The generation of petroleum is a natural, non-biological process which never stopped. As we have observed before on many occasions, most of the world's old "depleted" fields are refilling again, from underneath, by geologically younger oil. Yet we are forbidden to extract it, thanks to the same so-called environmentalists who wish to reduce Earth's population by 85 or 90 percent.

We have enough natural gas to keep things running for centuries and we know how to extract and exploit these resources tidily. Exactly the same is true of coal, except that we have enough to last for millennia. But envionmentalists and their pet politicians think that coal—which gave us the Industrial Revolution—is the fuel of the Devil.

We also have nuclear fission, the quietest, cleanest, safest, most efficient source of power ever discovered by our species—until its cost is increased tenfold by nuisance lawsuits. If the people of Europe—especially France—can handle it, so can we. And we have catalytic fusion, now viciously suppressed by government and industry, but which will be an integral part of every household by the mid-21st century.

Last but not least, there is thermal depolymerization, a very inexpensive method of creating the equivalent of "light sweet crude" for about eight dollars a barrel by processing organic garbage. If anything, it's being suppressed even more savagely than catalytic fusion—it's too smelly, even sitting next to a chicken processing plant—specifically because it could solve the nation's problems all by itself, power our homes and cars, and empty every landfill in the country.

In attempting to suppress this particular technology, government and the old, established energy corporations, are unwittingly turning it into an ideal rebel energy source, a source that doesn't really require an enormous industrial establishment, but which, on a small scale, with a little clever underground engineering, could be up and operating in each of our homes. Goodbye gas stations, goodbye power lines.

When garbage is outlawed, only outlaws will have garbage.

Every single one of the "crises" America is going through—every single one—is a result of government interference in the market, often to benefit a chosen "pet" industry or corporation, or simply to destroy capitalism and reverse the Industrial Revolution. It must stop. It is long past time for those of us who pay the bills to get "uppity".

I hereby propose a very modest beginning, a flag a bit like the one this nation started with, to be prominently displayed on homes and in shop windows: a traditional Edison-style light bulb in the center of a bright yellow field borrowed from the Gadsden "Don't Tread On Me" flag.

And below it, the legend "WTF?!?"


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