Spending a few hours at Old Sturbridge Village on Friday evening definitely altered my perspective on all things urban, if only for a few hours. The rather large agglomeration of historic homes and buildings brought together in what they’ve now pinpointed as being a re-creation of the year 1838 immerses the visitor, especially during an evening tour illuminated only by candlelight and oil lamps, in a New England where rail travel and the industrial revolution are just beginning to change the lives of the villagers.
This “Sturbridge” is located about half way between Springfield and Worcester in central Massachusetts. The War with Mexico is about to explode arms production at the Armory in Springfield and the city’s population is in the process of tripling over a period of 30 years, and its first train station is about to open. In Sturbridge women are spinning wool into yarn by candlelight, cobblers are stitching together shoes, and shopkeepers are selling Jamaican rum at 6 1/4 cents a cup. Chestnuts are gathered both to eat and to feed pigs. Children learn to participate in the domestic economy by the age of 5 or 6 by learning to sew and knit. Poorer residents in small homes extinguish their small fires, even in winter, once the afternoon meal is cooked, no matter how cold the air temperature as precious, and much rarer, firewood is for cooking, not home heating:
“Your home is warm in the summer and cold in the winter, why wouldn’t it be?” Said the “resident” of the small house.
My older brother and sister would tell me that our grandmother refused to let the electric stove my grandfather purchased for her into her kitchen, it stayed on the porch as a permanent fixture. What’s the Arab saying? My grandfather rode a camel, my father, an automobile, my son, a jet, and my grandson will ride a camel…more or less that, but with a wood stove.
Certainly these people would find a Greek or Roman village from thousands of years past as more intelligible than the city of today; and it represents a reality from only 180 years ago. It would be 20 years until the Pennsylvania Oil Rush. The world of the post Industrial Revolution is the only one most of us know, and was the only one most of our parents and grandparents knew, but it’s barely more than a blip on the timeline of human civilization.
A reader is surprised, and given climate change, somewhat heartened by the idea that I believe that fossil energy will “run out soon.” I really don’t. And I think, as David Collum said, whatever its impacts on our environment, we will “run the experiment”of burning all we can. When the debate on drilling in ANWR was raging I used to say I supported those who were against it, but not because I thought we wouldn’t eventually drill there, I think we’ll put an oil derrick on Abe Lincoln’s head on Mt Rushmore eventually, but the lack of EROEI will, if it doesn’t already, drain our civilization of its vitality and its benefits won’t be distributed as widely as they are now.