An alternate history
Terry Bisson’s underappreciated alternate reality masterwork Fire on the Mountain posits an alternative Civil War, where Harriet Tubman was well enough to join John Brown in his ill-fated raid against Harper’s Ferry. In Bisson’s book, her tactical common sense leads to the raid’s success, and rather than the Civil War beginning with a Southern Rebellion, it begins with a slave revolt.
I’m going to post a bit of speculative fiction myself, on the same premise. But rather than leading to an egalitarian utopia, as it does in Bisson’s novel, I’m going to assume it leads a world rather like our own, except that the technology evolves based on biofuels and renewable energy rather than on coal, then oil. The point of this is not to compete with Bisson’s literary genius, but to riff off it to explore some of the oversimplifications made about the relation between oil and war. [Attention conserving notice: this post is a bit of a shaggy dog story.]
Embers on the Mountain
When the Union army marched triumphantly into Atlanta to receive Jefferson Davis’s final surrender, it solidified the triumph of the Northern Radicals as well. Although much of the North had initially sympathized with the South at the beginning of Tubman’s rebellion, the retaliatory lighting raids by Southern militias into Baltimore and slaughter not only of local abolitionists, but of newspaper editors deemed “soft” on abolitionism soon turned public opinion against them.
Lincoln was elected as a moderate on the slavery issue, and he tried to remain so even after the South refused all compromises he offered, and rose in what became known as “The Second Rebellion." Initially he conducted the war with great respect for slave-owners and their property rights. But many of the bravest and brightest supporters of the Union supporters chose to join Tubman’s army rather than Lincoln’s. He gave up trying to fight a war on two fronts early on; the Union and the Tubman army maintained an informal truce. But in the end, a truce was not enough. The North needed an active alliance with Tubman’s guerilla fighters. (Her success had revived the term from the Napoleonic Peninsular wars.) And she would only agree to such an alliance if the goal of the war went beyond mere reunification to a full elimination of slavery, compensation of the slaves, and a constitutional amendment declaring full citizenship for every man and women, including the right to vote for both former slaves, and for all the brave women (slave and free) who had play such key roles in abolitionism and in army she and John Brown had led.
So, the end of the ten year long civil war [twice the length of our own] did not just mean the restoration of the Union. It meant that full suffrage for every adult natural born in the U.S. or naturalized to it. It meant that every former slave family — and in an act of political shrewdness on the part of Lincoln, most landless white families in the South as well — would receive forty acres and a mule from the land and property rich Southern plantation owners had refused to pay taxes on through the long war.
In a U.S. where women had the vote, and black people had enough economic leverage to prevent the betrayal of reconstruction, the prohibition movement, that great diversion of radical reform energy, never took hold. In a U.S. where racism and informal discrimination were far from dead, but where Jim Crow was never born, where women had equal legal rights with men in theory, if not in practice, the tremendous waste of talent was not quite as great as in our own history.
Elijah McCoy, instead of being forced into railroad work (and inventing in his spare time), found a place in a progressive engineering firm — where what was called the diesel in our history became know as the “Real McCoy” instead. Invented decades earlier than in this world, it soon became the engine of choice for rail locomotives and steamships. Peanut oil soon was supplemented by rapeseed.
There were plenty of people working in the glamorous peanut-based chemical industry, so George Washington Carver turned his genius to hemp, developing softening processes to let it replace most cotton; by producing 2 to 4 times more fiber per acre, it freed much of the land devoted to cotton for raising peanuts and rapeseed — until someone imported palm trees which could out-produce the oilseeds many times over.
Meanwhile — by accident — Carver discovered bacteria that could cheaply and easily convert cellulose to ethanol, with almost no pre-processing. (Those bacteria are extinct in our own world, and will never be discovered unless some genetic engineer happens to recreate it.) He initially thought it might help the whiskey industry, but the foul tasting product never was used except by the cheapest, lowest grade makers. However, with some filtering it soon proved a popular substitute for kerosene; a gallon of it in a lantern did not last quite as long; but it provided cleaner light with fewer odors. Even before gas and then electric lighting replaced it, kerosene was reduced to a little-used niche product. Nobody ever bothered to find many uses for the horrid waste called “gasoline” produced as a kerosene by-product.
In 1903, Ford-Walker motors was launched by 11 businessmen, including Henry Ford, and one prominent Detroit black business women — C.J. Walker. Like Ford, and unlike the rest of the investors, she was shrewd enough to hang on to her stock; the Ford and Walker families would jointly retain control through most of the early history of the automobile giant; the real profits began as it found ways to modify its early palm-oil powered cars to run on 70% ethanol while still maintaining the efficient fuel use and high power that “Real McCoy” engines provided.
In 1910, when Madero called for the overthrow of dictator Diaz, the U.S. decided it could not risk the great Mexican hemp plantations that already provide one twentieth of U.S. fuel needs falling out of the hands of great fuel giants — Standard Palm and United Fruit. Roosevelt sent in the Marines immediately; the great war which followed was continued by Taft and Wilson. Finally exhausted by the continued death toll in Mexico and the loss of life in California to Pancho Villa’s lighting raids — which, with the whole of Mexico behind him, extended as far north as Los Angeles — Wilson agreed to a truce. The U.S. would withdraw all troops from Mexico; the great plantations would no longer be run by U.S. companies. But they would let their great northern neighbor bid first on all output — a concession Mexico would have made without the need for war — especially since the U.S. provided 95% of its own needs in this respect. There was also a secret agreement by Madero to give the U.S. veto power over all sales to other nations.
In 1913, Woodrow Wilson met with the head of the Secret Service, along with the heads of United Fruit and Standard Palm, and agreed that the U.S. must form a new agency devoted to intelligence gathering, bribery, manipulation, assassination, and other forms of precisely targeted intervention to advance U.S. goals — substituting for direct force where possible, and preparing to make it effective where not. Thus the United States Intelligence Agency was born; U.S. intervention in Latin America would no longer be done on an ad-hoc reactive basis; the U.S. was going to play the great game in the South as systematically as the British Empire did in the East. In the decades that follow, the USIA will be feared for its brutality, its unlimited budget, and its incompetence — which would make it a danger to enemy and ally alike.
Meanwhile, in 1911, as First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill, lead the great reform that switched the British Navy from coal to palm oil — even though no part of the UK was suitable for growing palm trees; from then on the Empire would have to rely on African and Asian colonies to power the core of its military.
You see the pattern I’m sure. Some things are better in this ghost world, others worse than in our own. But one thing that stays similar to our own is war; nations fight over markets, ideology, strategic advantage, and resources just as in our own; and just as in our own fuel sources — in this case the giant plantations — are among the most important of these resources.
Just as in our world, U.S. domestic production of fuel eventually peaks, and the U.S. becomes overwhelmingly dependent on imported ethanol and tree products.
Just as in our own world, we disrupt the carbon cycle — replacing diverse wild ecosystems with giant monocultures which take up much less carbon. And what continues to get taken up also gets returned via processing and burning much more quickly than natural ecosystems would. Possibly most of the land taken is wild land, rather than agricultural; perhaps that is not the case, and in this alternate universe, hunger is based on absolute shortage rather than merely the cruelty of severe inequality.
So today, in 2007, this alternative universe has a Grist magazine and a Gristmill blog. And this Gristmill blog has extensive discussions of alternate energy. Some of these discussions revolve around efficiency and wind and photovoltaics, just as in our own universe. Others center on huge untapped potential fossil oil and methane gas; many people argue that, if they are not exactly carbon neutral, they at least disrupt the carbon cycle less than agdustrial monoculture. Also, the political gain from switching to fossil fuels is clear.
After all, that nations will fight over great wealth producing plantations is obvious. But who ever heard of anyone shedding blood for oil?