Jim is a Justmeans staff writer for Energy, Climate Change, and Transportation. "From my years as a debater prior to undergraduate work in Massachusetts, I have written about science and technology, carrying this focus into graduate school, where I examined the history of Birmingham and the early twentieth century South from working class and progressive perspectives. In addition to work as ...
Understanding the TVA in Terms of Sustainable Business
Everyone, at least everyone whom I've ever encountered, assumes a lot: the path of the sun, the course of the seasons, the way that awakening follows sleep, and so on and so forth. A human existence might well be unfathomable without some such presupposition.
On the other hand, almost all of us will nod at the truism, whether on a bumper sticker or in a philosophy class, that we should 'question authority,' or that we should not 'take things for granted.' Still, on the whole, very few people indeed are able to do away with most common stipulations about their lives.
Who among us doubts the internet connection? Or the cell phone signal downtown? Or the current of juice when we flip a switch? The list of such expectations goes on and is generally so long as to be innumerable. Of course, as generational change transpires, the elders can shake their heads ruefully at the presumption of the young about such relatively recent developments as TV. "Why in my day..." still elicits a smile from most kids and old folks alike.
Readers who have paid attention to these posts will have noted that I request from citizens a sense of skepticism, a relentless questioning, a willingness to suspend certainty of either the positive or negative variety. Nowhere is such a skeptical attitude more useful, some would say essential, than in the investigation of the past.
Since I have ever insisted that a comprehension of the here-and-now is, at best, pointless without a clear and rich linkage to what has come before, that I would make this assertion should surprise no one who has taken even the slightest notice of my proclivities. Today's story, as the second of three installments on the history of the electrical grid, examines an arguably important institutional phenomenon, the Tennessee Valley Authority, through the lenses of sociopolitical, economic, and technological history.
In so doing, I am asking readers to imagine a past in which easy light, ready-at-hand abundance, and plenty of manufactured entertainment simply did not exist. In this world, the urbanization of America was a recent eventuality--1920 was the census when more than half the population could affirm a more or less urban dwelling. Far flung travel was much more a rarity, despite two world wars before mid century that sent millions of soldiers across the continent and across the oceans, at times to their significant enrichment, at times to their deaths.
Perhaps as much as any other shift that folks might keep in mind is the transition from a more localized unfolding of power and relationships to a more centralized, and most would now agree, globalized, web of influence and hegemony by a few governments and a relatively few large corporations. A recent report about such trends can state, for instance, "Of the 100 largest economies in the world, 51 are corporations; only 49 are countries."
In this dual concentration--of people into cities and power into business enterprise, the rise of science and technology has obviously been critical. Vannevar Bush, who authored Science: the Endless Frontier and played a key role in putting science policy at the center of government, finished his report to Congress, transmitting the final product, with these words.
|"Legislation is necessary. It should be drafted with great care. Early action is imperative, however, if this nation is to meet the challenge of science and fully utilize the potentialities of science. On the wisdom with which we bring science to bear against the problems of the coming years depends in large measure our future as a nation."|
What anyone becoming a part of the academic scene today, or who currently practices his or her life in relation to research, has difficulty grappling with is that this centralization of funding, logistics, and knowledge did not always exist. On the contrary, as Leo Marx notes in his essay, "The Invention of 'Technology,'" the background of this word that is about as old as my great grandfather would be, were he alive now at about a century and a half, is in the craftsmanship associated with the guilds and tinkerers and 'natural philosophers' who preceded and helped to create what we call 'the enlightenment' and the 'scientific revolution.'
Moreover, Dr. Marx makes very well a point that I have struggled repeatedly to convey, essentially a Jeffersonian sort of thinking about the necessity for a democratic science. Marx's essay contends that this earlier view has undergone a shift, with profound implications in favor of technocracy and as opposed to an empowered citizenry 'large and in charge' of, literally, the machinery of State.
"(T)he advent of the concept of technology...and complex technological systems coincided with...a subtle revisioning of the ideology of progress. ...To leaders of the radical Enlightenmnet like Jefferson and Franklin, the chief value of those (practical) arts was in providing the material means of what really mattered: the building of a just republican society. After the successful bourgeois revolutions, however, many citizens, especially the merchants, industrialists, and other relatively privileged people...took the ability...to reach the political goal for granted. ...What was now important, especially from the entrepreneurial standpoint, was perfecting the means. ...At this time, accordingly, the simple republican formula...was imperceptibly transformed into a quite different technocratic commitment to 'improving technology'...as the basis of (social) progress. This technocratic idea (thus) tacitly replaced political aspirations with technical innovations as the agents of change."
We subsist in an age when the U.S. government promises hundreds of billion of dollars to nuclear technology, but holds out only a small fraction of that to renewable energy development. Unhappy people now receive anti-depressants and the victims of cancer receive chemotherapy; altogether lost is imagining a social process that might yield more of the "pursuit of happiness" that Jefferson envisioned, or a less toxic manifestation of the "public welfare" than currently holds sway.
Such a 'deeply ecological' flowering, however, cannot bloom in the context of narrowly defined political agendas that discount both the experience and the capability of regular people. This is what thinkers who are seeking interrelated ecological comprehension are saying. This is the point of much of what I create.
One might turn to a scholar like Bill Devall for a fuller explication of these ideas, in the context of several essays on this topic in the anthology, Philosophy of Technology. Devall calls for a rethinking of how we approach technical matters--and hence, of course, sustainable business and any reasonable notion of 'business better'--that includes fifteen distinct steps. Several of them, though, seem particularly apt to note.
"Based on 'ancient wisdom,' science should be both objective and participatory, without modern science's subject/object dualism....Modern human-induced disruptions of ecosystems will be unethical and harmful to men....(so) human settlement should be with nature, not against nature. ...(H)uman existence and...welfare should not be measured only by quantity of products. Technology is returned to its ancient place as an appropriate tool for human welfare, not an end in itself." He also reemphasizes his commitment to democracy, at the same time elevating community over 'efficiency' and 'soft-energy' over 'base-load-grid' options.
The point that I hope readers will grasp is the inherent interface between the arguments of MIT's Professor Marx, about the class basis of pursuing 'technology-for-its-own-sake,' and the insights of Humboldt State's recently deceased Professor Devall, about the importance of values over economic gain, of nature over management, of democracy over bureaucratic control. This confluence impels us, if we accede to it, to think more holistically, more 'ecotopically,' more socially, and more democratically.
At times, the promulgators of such viewpoints as these do not themselves appear aware of such arguably inherent interconnections. They promote values essential to underpinning 'business better,' but seem unwilling to countenance the necessity for a more democratic orientation to economics as part of the process.
In such an evolution, a 'greening' of capitalism may be possible; a sustainable business paradigm may emerge. But the primacy of capital and of the paradigm in its favor cannot be the inception point; they can only grow out of a more people-centered and community-led expression of human productive capacity.
Even John K. Galbraith, the instructor who has sent tens of thousands of economists down the path of market-oriented solutions to social dilemmas, on occasion spoke of the necessity to elevate the social end of the spectrum over a belief in the ruling power of markets. On closer inspection, he formulated, such potency often looks as if it is only as tangible as the political and social predominance of business people and their corporate formations.
Moreover, in the context of the sort of military-industrial technocracy about which he contends Eisenhower was correct in warning us, this fuzzy belief in strong and friendly markets presents many dangers. "A very sombre thought will occur to many...here. We have seen that the State is necessary for underwriting the technology of modern industrial enterprise... .within the framework of its military expenditure." A belief that such budgetary decisions flow from defense needs "will do for those for whom the mind is an instrument for evading reality," but the rest of us might shout out, with this frequent spokesman for capital, that "there can be few matters where it it will be safer to be guided by reality."
This reality orientation will serve us well in delving the distinctly dialectical evolution of the Tennessee Valley Authority. It responded to the command, 'Let there be light' in two paradoxical ways: on the one hand bringing true illumination to millions without power, and on the other hand seeding a nuclear weapons complex that continues to loom over the human future today with the threat of terminal fire from the holocaustic glow of which no recovery is imaginable.
In an 1897 article, about the nascent manufacturing might of Appalachia's lower reaches, Harpers Magazine propounded "the industrial awakening of the South, or more particularly of that part of that section where since the war the coal and iron buried in the rocks and soil meet their resurrection in an activity that has connected Georgia with Pennsylvania." We might certainly hypothesize that more than the vagaries of fate place the coming of TVA in the very center of this 25,000 square mile region, laden with both beauty and the rich resources--coal, iron ore, limestone, and more--upon which steel-making and metallurgy rest.
Randall Ralph wrote the above-mentioned article, which mirrors scores of other contemporary sources about this region, with the arrogant tone of the conquerer seeking to give succor to the rulers among the conquered. "The poverty of the planters," poor things--they'd lost their slaves--"their dependence on the negro, and the shiftlessness of the negro... led (all parties) to favor cotton as the easiest crop to handle on shares and to borrow money upon."
The casual viciousness of his bigotry is critically important to note in relation to the writing I have shared here about 'race.' For purposes of today's essay, the naive and supremacist thinking at the most offered a partial explanation for 'Southern backwardness.' "Carpetbag rule and the demoralization of the peculiar labor of the South added ten years to the period of Southern prostration, and it was not until 1880 that the present great industrial development of that section began."
An understanding of what likely actually transpired in the overturning of slaveowners' predominance is more readily available from such work as W.E.B. Du Bois' Black Reconstruction in America, especially in such interludes as Chapter Four, "The General Strike." In these pages, he presents the social and economic class factors that resulted in the takeover of Southern productive capacity by Northerners in many cases, and in all eventualities, the assumption of control over the Southern economy by Yankees.
In this vein, the 'carpetbag' as the accoutrement of those who followed the interloping Federal troops was often not as important as the officer's commission, since these leaders were frequently in the nature of adventurers in search of investment opportunities, or idealists who saw potential for the South to demonstrate 'model' capitalist development, the cost of their 'commissions' in the army part of the tab either for business start up, or for enabling noble goals. In any event, the results were similar.
Ownership settled on outsiders, confederations in search of profits that paid for the price of victory. Near Chattanooga, for example, "Lookout Inn, a hotel that will accommodate three hundred boarders, is on the tip-top of the mountain. and has the reputation of being one of the very best hotels in the South. It is owned and controlled by a land and improvement company, and the principal stockholders are New-Englanders."
To describe the development of Southern might in the metal trades, however, as a basis for 'prosperity,' and not just profitability, is at best disingenuous, as Ralph and others acknowledged, speaking in glowing terms about gross receipts and net worth but blaming the hideous gyrations of boom and bust, even continuing to this day, on 'overproduction.' To shift responsibility to 'shiftless' Southerners, and away from systematic convulsions of capital, is either contemptible or stupid, of course.
For those readers who recall the unified Black and White miners' front that ridded Chattanooga of the convict lease, the following admission by an observer, concerning the depression of the mid-1890's, displays the easy acceptance of slavish labor practices by outside onlookers. "Only the few companies that relied upon convict labor were able to make both ends meet at th(e prevailing) prices, and it became painfully apparent that there is no decent profit in iron-making at a lower price than $10 a ton."
In spite of such depredations as worked-to-death prison labor's forming the basis for this Yankee-led Southern lucre, in some cases, such as Atlanta, local wares absorbed enough of the output of the fiery mills to thereby lay a foundation for true local wealth along Peachtree Street, even if it did overwhelmingly concentrate among members of the deposed slaveocracy. "Such changes are brought about by one thing at a time, and already in addition to the works that have been mentioned there are large works in Chattanooga and in Atlanta for the making of ploughs and cane-mills, which" solidify local development of a capitalist class.
And, on terms entirely and purposely favorable to the Carnegie interests, which soon enough became the J.P. Morgan-inaugurated U.S. Steel Corporation, with smaller segments--but still massively more substantial than anything native to Dixie--owned by Cleveland's Republic Steel and others, this burgeoning wealth of Southern soil and labor became part of America's booming imperial colossus, "contribut(ing) to a trade that already reaches into South America, the East Indies, and Australia." Such planetary markets, obviously, depended on the 'brawn' of Black, and White, backs, which when convenient the foreign, Northern element saw fit to term 'shiftless.'
A more honest assessment appears 'between the lines' of the journalists and other commentators who always began with blaming the victims of Southern poverty and ended with paeans to the soon-to-come 'Southern progress' that the magic of bourgeois rule would elicit. "Southern coal is much more easily and cheaply mined than that in the North, and of the Southern iron ores the greater part is mined, not at the bottom of deep shafts, but from the hill and mountain sides in the full light of the sun. (A savvy investigator) thinks that the continued presence of negro labor in such great force in the Southern States is 'providential.' The negro's brawn and muscle, his cheap labor, and his characteristic contentment with his surroundings" will yield success.
As the decades following the Civil War flowed, up and down the seemingly ineluctable cyclic economic ride from calamity to bonanza and back down again to catastrophe, the South remained a social backwater. Jim Crow bigotry, backed up by the lynch rope, continued to prevail. Children died more frequently at every age. Schools were 'fair-to-middling' for Whites and execrable-to-nonexistent' for Blacks. Life expectancy was lower.
Nearly every measure of prosperity and well-being was significantly lower. While disparities such as these still go on, to this day and hour, so that to reveal a drawl in one's speech is tantamount to a social denigration, the gap was substantially wider as the 1920's 'roared' to their inevitable conclusion.
In the collapse that followed, radicals of every stripe, even the new-fangled Reds of the Communist Party, found fertile soil for organizing in the mordant regions of the former Confederacy. Nowhere was this affinity for rebellious, even revolutionary, reform more pronounced than in the mining and metals district that were about to be 'liberated' by the intervention of 'public ownership of the means of production,' in the form of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
If most people were to associate any part of the United States with a 'Red Tide,' they would, as an aggregate, probably be least likely to select the South, let alone the 'cracker country' often assumed to predominate in the Appalachian region. Richard Wright's origins here, and his elevation by the communists and through his own masterful storytelling, W.E.B. Du Bois' assignations with the 'commies,' after he left Atlanta University and continued to look at the South as central to U.S. history, and hundreds of thousands of other examples show that such a presumption--Southerners can't be 'Red!'--is at best a distortion of a complicated reality of oppression and resistance.
"The Southern Agrarians and the TVA," by Edward Shapiro, makes clear this complexity. "Historians have generally misunderstood the attitude of the Southern Agrarians to the TVA. Donald Davidson, it is true, consistently opposed the authority from the late 1930's on, but the other five agrarians who expressed an opinion were generally favorable to the project, and two of them were highly enthusiastic." John Gould Fletcher even "desired a similar project for his native Arkansas."
And, of course, the TVA was never 'a Commonist plot' or anything similar. At the same time, it did stand as a response to the horrifying conditions--poverty, annual losses of life to floods and other natural disasters, lack of even the most basic components of a modern technical infrastructure, and more--that gave Communist ideas, research, and propaganda real social traction.
As our own economic devolution threatens to become a slow swirling of an irresistible suck down the drain of bourgeois control of all production, we may gain a clearer understanding of just how close to the edge folks were in the South eighty years ago. To call that downturn, even more grotesque in Appalachia than in most of the rest of the South, hard times approximately equals calling an aortal slice a serious injury.
A radical online journal frames the situation for us, quoting FDR.
|"Not the least cementing factor was the despoiling of the South and its people. (Q)uick-buck depredations reinforced the historic problems of the exhausted land, played-out mines, etc. ... However, with the advent of the Great Depression of the thirties, the (region) threatened to sink the entire ship. The already impoverished South was the hardest hit..., and the New Deal regime saw the need for reforms. Franklin Roosevelt stated in 1938:|
'It is my conviction that the South presents right now the Nation's No.1 economic problem - the Nation's problem, not merely the South's. For we have an economic unbalance in the Nation as a whole, due to this very condition of the South.'".
People were starving in Tennessee when Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office; not only in Tennessee either. As the essay here about Smedley Butler and yet another sort of 'Bush' made very clear, the nation may have been teetering on a political precipice as stark as the social cataclysm unfolding among our grand parents and great grand parents. FDR asked Congress for action, and, unlike today, he got it in the legendary '100 days,' that saw the passage of sixteen major pieces of legislation.
The organization's official history presents its inauguration, on May 18, 1933, in the following terms. "President Franklin Roosevelt needed innovative solutions if the New Deal was to lift the nation out of the depths of the Great Depression. And TVA was one of his most innovative ideas. ... He asked Congress to create 'a corporation clothed with the power of government but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise.'"
While no 'corporate history' can be dispositive, just as no autobiography can stand alone as an authoritative source, the Authority's perspective meets what one finds in other literature. "Right from the start, TVA established a unique problem-solving approach to fulfilling its mission: integrated resource management. Each issue TVA facedwhether it was power production, navigation, flood control, malaria prevention, reforestation or erosion controlwas studied in its broadest context. TVA weighed each issue in relation to the others."
This adherence to integrated planning in some senses precurses the assertion of relational thinking that I have made in these pages. At the time, the height of mechanistic positivism and reliance on market-driven solutions--in other words, good old boys and the denizens of Ivy Eating Clubs--ruled Federal policy, so TVA broke new ground in many radical ways.
Rather than a cozy combination of Army engineers and developers, even then the leading voices on flood control, TVA's employees, of whom over 9,000 were laboring after less than a year in which sixteen flood control dams went up, actually listened to people on the ground. One such crusty fellow recalls those early days.
"Aldred. J. 'Flash' Gray directed the Regional Studies staff. Gray knew of White's earlier writings concerning alternative approaches to the resolution of flood problems. As a fellow geographer, he understood those concepts. He, and other TVA staff, would take White's ideas and make them an operational program. Gray viewed flood damage prevention planning as only being successful if it was part of comprehensive community planning. The problem, as he viewed it, was lack of land use planning and not a flood warning issue." In the fullness of time, this reliance on community would fade, as we will see; that's not what characterized the inception, however.
TVA's explicit mandate included bringing electricity to the powerless, in direct competition to some of the 'natural monopolies' that we have already encountered. These companies sued TVA with abandon, and at first, according to "Teaching Grandmother to Spin," a serious examination of the report of Electrical World about TVA activity in 1935, TVA tread softly on the turf of such ever-profitable enterprises as Georgia Power, in the days before the Southern Company.
But the effects of TVA pricing structures were unavoidable, as this passage makes clear. A "'kilowatt-hour contest' between the two towns was widely publicized. It, like other news from the TVA towns, helped to dramatize in all parts of the South the possibilities for electrified living, with a cheap and abundant supply of power. Now it is not by accident that some months later the Georgia Power Company announced its "Home Town Contest," offering $10,000 in prizes to the communities showing the greatest gain in average use."
According to a more recent TVA Chairman, however, more was at work in those long gone days than merely fencing about the nature of power-production in the up-country South. TVA was a laboratory, as its own account states, in all sorts of ways.
"'People have forgotten all the things TVA taught the rest of the nation in the early years,' former TVA Chairman S. David Freeman told me last week. 'We taught the rest of the nation about flood plain management. We had a civil service system before the (rest of the) federal government had one. TVA was the fertilizer research center for the whole world, and we developed all kinds of fertilizers. We taught soil conservation to the farmers.'"
But even as the broad-based, integrative, community approach held sway, the glittering promise of electrification proved addictive. As a correspondent of mine on a tributary to the French Broad makes clear, and as Don Harris also attested, TVA put plenty of community power supply systems out of business, "up in the hollows," in the words of Don Harris, like Ralph Haney's little system on the Laurel River.
At the same time, as Lewis Manderson told me, "if it weren't for TVA, I don't know when we'd have heard the President on the Radio" in Walker County, Alabama, where only the wealthy had generators. His parents, with oil lamps that were expensive to keep alight on the meager wages of the '30's, wouldn't allow for night time reading, let alone tuning into a 'Fireside Chat.'
A comprehensive and intricate telling of the TVA is not the purpose here; I mention these countervailing facts because, in examining our own wildly knotty troubles, we need to recall the trade-offs, the pay-offs, and the process that have yielded distinctive results, whether positive or negative or--most likely--mixed in the past.
"The Tennessee Valley Experiment," one of several early articles in Harper's Magazine on TVA, got at the "'nubbin'" of this conundrum, in the lingo of the mountain folk with whom Drew and Leon Pearson were conversing. One local, John Keck, compared TVA's damming ways to the 'seven-headed' monster of Genesis, and while his friends tell him to 'quieten down' and have a Coca Cola, this nascent defender of the green ridges now inundated had a point that grew especially poignant in relation to a nearly 100% oversupply of power, compared to then current rates of usage.
But this fierce independence and preternatural skepticism of 'new ways' also enticed from bureaucrats whose progeny have now grown arrogant an almost worshipful attitude toward community desires. The Pearsons note one such encounter.
|"On Pine Ridge in Campbell County a church has just been built with TVA funds. There are no homes near it. There are no people far or near who will attend services, no pastor to conduct those services, and no sexton to dust its pews or ring its bell. Once, as Old Indian Creek Baptist Church, it did have members, pastor, and sexton. But the Indian Creek community, soon to be inundated by the water of Norris Reservoir, is now scattered among half a dozen counties. TVA bought the property and proposed to demolish the church before the waters rose. But the people of Indian Creek demanded as a condition of sale that the building be reconstructed on a site above the water line. And there it stands to-day, safely locked and barred against the intrusion of all save the Pine Ridge squirrels."|
Another reporter, a historian and Appalachian at that, takes "A Hard Look at the TVA" and finds much there to critique. More especially, he has a warning that, in retrospect, and to many citizens wrestling with this true hydra-headed H-bomb monster today--what with the Watts Barr Nuclear facility now producing tritium for new American warheads--would seem eerily prescient.
|"Is TVA democratic? I think it is. It is democratic chiefly because its administrators rely so heavily on persuasion, accompanied by co-operation with state and local authorities through negotiation and shared responsibility. But nevertheless I find it hard to convince myself that the way TVA is at present operated is the only way it could be operated under the existing law, even though that law does pretty clearly specify persuasion. I can imagine' another set of directors resting on their oars and relying upon the passive coercion of federal prestige to get the required results. I can even imagine the covert use of active coercion as an instrument of policy. In short, after careful reading of the law and of a reasonable amount of the literature about TVA administration, I feel sure that the active pursuit of the correct course is a matter of the personalities of the directors, and especially of the chairman, David E. Lilienthal."|
I feel fairly comfortable in asserting that C. Hartley Grattan could have gone to a more political conjunction than 'personality,' itself a somewhat malleable construct, as the subsequent story of Sir Lilienthal makes clear. Ever a friendly consort, to his final agonal gasp, he performed a 360 degree flip on the notion of centralization, even as the TVA lost its reliance on persuasion and ended up with some mixture of Byzantine subterfuge and Romanesque arrogance instead.
Professor Grattan, for his part, saw TVA as ultimately a friendly challenge to capitalism that he fully anticipated the bourgeoisie would meet. As for me, I'm not so sanguine.
Harper's Magazine, as the fateful Supreme Court decision that signed off on the TVA's viability as a Constitutional expression of Federal authority approached in 1939, presented readers with an insightful piece about the resentments of investors whose 'safe' purchases of utility stocks had gone so sharply awry, about the social delicacies percolating from the electric presence of TVA in the hills and valleys of the region, and about the general cocktail of angst and anticipation that TVA seemed always to induce. He combines a critical distance with occasional admiration.
This article, in line with other commentators who foresaw democratic upsurgence in action through TVA, ends with a sense of what was possible, even as the 1930's drew to a close and capital's nearly thanotopic convulsion in a second world war came to pass. He asks that we imagine the possibilities, although we also know the alternative future that will always also loom ahead.
He mentions two small electric member co-ops that sprang up like well-fertilized corn from TVA's presence. "These are common people, they own these co-operatives, and yes, elect their own directors from among themselves, make profits, and themselves determine the disposition of the profits, whether to reduce the debt or to lower rates further. They own the business, they operate it, people you and I never heard of, people like the little candy-store man who sells your youngsters marshmallows and chewing gum, like the quiet farmer who owns forty acres over by the foot of the hill. TVA is only a beginning. But through co-operatively owned electric systems, electric iceboxes, strongly built concrete silos, and land-terracing machines, the farmers and townspeople of the Tennessee Valley are relearning the lessons of history, rewriting the social contract."
Now, 'this is what democracy looks like,' says Jimbo looking backward. Somewhere along the way, that received, to put the matter mildly, short shrift--more likely the shredder ripped it up and said, 'never again!' 'This democracy nonsense smells just like socialism.'
"Morgan and Morgan and Lilienthal," a dissection of a dogfight behind the scenes at TVA as the clouds of war gathered, dark above the Eastern horizon, and the 1930's drew to a close, demonstrates with acute good humor the inherent political economic questions that uncontrollably boil whenever huge matters of energy policy and public engagement come to the fore. This little jewel of a narrative about the forces that fomented big changes in the TVA in the 1940's will show up prominently in the next section.
To an extent, the TVA has spent nearly eight decades, the span of a rich, long human life evolving not so much structure from 1933 to 2010--its shape is still visible in the original act--as it has a behind the scenes spirit and an up-front deference to and whole-hearted embrace of the faux enthusiasm for markets that is the pretentious front of monopoly capital today. A reader willing to look at tragedy without cringing can view what our citizenry has lost in the process.
|"In the Tennessee Valley (of 1940), power consumption is on the increase. Towns are vying with towns to see which can put electricity to the greatest use. Whether the power is supplied by TVA or private companies, people have become acutely aware of its possibilities. Meanwhile the debate will continue: Who brought it to pass? Which came first, the hen or the egg? And for that matter, which is which? It will be a long time before advocates of public power and private power will have settled the matter to their mutual satisfaction. ... In the Tennessee Valley people are not going to worry very much about that. They are not going to analyze very deeply. All they know, or feel they need to know, is that since TVA was established rates have been reduced and service has been improved. Rightly or wrongly, they give credit to TVA. They have become alive to their partnership in the power resources of the region. 'The Tennessee River is ours,' they say, and they are determined to share in its benefits."|
We would do well to remember these ministrations of a sympathetic journalist from seventy odd years ago. Though salvation cannot emanate from mere words, wisdom can yield the only chance at salvaging our place on this planet, and the early TVA generated a lot more than electricity. Its transmission lines also carried this message of empowered democracy.
From the Manhattan Project to McCarthy and the 'Knoxville Fifteen'
I've been struggling, as these fascinating and detailed evolutions of text have unfolded--some might say unraveled--in front of my eyes week after week with how to 'front load' occasionally shorter pieces into my milieu. And then the solution struck me, as I faced another five to ten thousand words before sleep would come.
I can provide three precis for the remaining parts of the story. Once a week or so, when the stresses of trying to be thorough, entertaining, and competent--and inevitably failing at all three while I flail away(mamas don't let your babies grow up to be writers), I'll drop first one of these updates, and then the next, into the mix. Anybody actually interested will have to follow along of course, but they will, within a month or so, have the complete set, a Jimbo annals of the TVA.
So saying, here is a synopsis of what will appear next. Vannevar Bush and Albert Einstein create Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Appalachia makes Hiroshima possible. Socialism makes utility executives very angry. Commies seem to proliferate in Knoxville. The FBI and HUAC roots them out. Democracy is...what? Undermined is accurate, but it's a 'fine kettle of fish,' as an old friend likes to describe a smelly situation. Meanwhile, the H-bomb breadbasket, powered courtesy of TVA keeps on baking to end Part Two.
From King Coal in a Competitive Free-for-All to the 'Friendly Atom' to a Partial Meltdown and a Fiscal Breakdown
The complicated emanations of public power's necessary socialistic look, and a Federal and Dixie establishment that loathed any threat that such forms might become actually democratic, guaranteed that nuclear reactors would appeal to the TVA eventually. That its electrical capacity had made the Manhattan Project possible, and continued to potentiate the nuclear arms race, also contributed to this inclination to view radioactive power favorably.
Who could have predicted a partial reactor meltdown three days prior to a debate between, on the one hand, Professor Ed Passorini and Jimbo-the-ever-humble correspondent and, on the other hand, stressed out freshly-minted DOE operatives sweating the consequences of what 21 inches of water might have yielded. Part Three will be a nail biter.
From Market-Centered Predominance to a Democratic Decoupling
In the Preface to Arjun Makhijani's Carbon Free/Nuclear Free, a former head of the TVA gives some insight into the last season in which our rulers sang the praises of radioactive steam. S. David Freeman sings Makhijani's praises for the simple reason that he recognized the futility of a nuclear electric model.
But keeping TVA out of bankruptcy as a result of surplus power and an overdose of debt, not to mention saving snail darters and other adventures in litigation, are only predecessors to the deregulatory grave into which free-market myths try to bury a magnificent American model, that China and the rest of the world is still trying to emulate as we face profiteering plutocrats who want our grandchildren to glow. Readers should stay tuned for Part Four.
In a sense, all that separates TVA from playing a central role in salving our present environmental wounds is community leadership. Put another way, the TVA could indeed blaze the trail toward ecological stewardship under the auspices of a citizen movement to assume command of the corporate headquarters in Knoxville. Unfortunately, such potentials as these seem roughly as far-fetched as establishing a healthy outlet for human ennui, tomorrow, on the planet Mars.
Nevertheless, observers are ill-advised to scoff at any possibility inherent in truly "public power" merely on the basis for the manifestation of a corporate simulacrum of that potentiality along the course of today's Tennessee River. The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League(BREDL), after all, has focused its propensity for brilliant extemporaneous political theater on TVA forums, among other venues. The policy skill now available in such groups as this, and the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance(OREPA) more than match the need for local liaisons for community policy promotion.
Paradox, as readers have frequently seen in these pages, seems to maintain its simultaneously amorphous and unshakeable grip on everything that TVA has ever touched, and vice versa. Thus, for instance, in North Alabama counties where I have conducted interviews and encountered bristling hostility to 'big government' are also replete with the recognition that TVA changed the world, more or less uniformly, for the better.
In the same vein, activists with whom I have associated for decades, who cry out at the anti-democratic nature of TVA process and the immense bias on the part of its officials in favor of nuclear reactors and in providing cheap power for H-bomb manufacturers, also expound on the tremendous benefits of local control and public power initiatives, both of which historically associate with TVA. And the list could go on, for many pages.
As matters stand now, perhaps any strategic conception of TVA, in terms of sustainable business, would have to imagine a three-tiered approach.
*The first tier would be to deconstruct, much more fully than does this very sketchy overview, the institutional, legislative, and techical/scientific history of the TVA.
*The second would be to imagine media, informational, and Peoples Information Network output and publicity about TVA that would be both proactive about engaging with the organization at every level of its activity, including gaining seats on the board plus some input into agendas, and aggressively democratic, participatory, and community-centered in their orientation.
*The third would be the convening of a People's TVA Democratization Council(or something similar) that would, from the outset, seek to return the Authority to its original vision, even to expand that notion of democratic energy to have amore robust manifestation of democratic power.
These ideas only make sense for citizens who make a 'long-haul' commitment to achieve democracy, or at least to stand behind a movement for democracy that has been moribund in this nation for far too long, insomuch as we value the things--like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--that we say are valuable to us.
Here in the Hydrogen-Bomb breadbasket, in the words of my favorite Congressional candidate ever, Major Joyce Marie Griggs, "the time has come to take a stand." We need to stand up for a revitalization of the greatest failed experiment in democratic energy and people-centered technological policy that ever stumbled across the stage of life, only to be co-opted and subverted by the powers that be toward ends antithetical to the people originally slated to benefit from its existence.
That would be an experiment in sustainable business worth fighting for. It might have some faint hope of resuscitating the idea of 'business...better' that readers here on JustMeans and people elsewhere long to make real. I tell my students that a key to being able to think is to "Get Real!" While taking over the TVA is not currently realistic, such a process is the only 'real' pathway that might untangle otherwise insoluble conundrums. "If you're waiting on me, you're backing up."
Whatever the militaristic and profiteering results of Vannevar Bush's ontology and epistemology and leadership, we cannot deny his brilliance. In his proto-autobiography,
|"Do birds sing for the joy of singing? I believe they do. The complexity of their songs is far greater than is needed for recognition or for marking of reserved areas. ...Moreover, I believe that evolution produced birdsongs, and the joy that goes with them, because of the survival value they bestow. He who struggles with joy in his heart struggles the more keenly because of that joy. Gloom dulls, and blunts the attack. We are not the first to face problems, and as we face them we can hold our heads high. In such spirit was this book written."|
That, too, is the underlying gheist that guides my inscriptions here, week after week. To say that this humble correspondent has enjoyed posting forty one extensive essays on the human condition, almost all of them in some way involving how groups of seven billion cousins manage to light and warm and otherwise 'energize' their lives, almost all of them addressing in one way or another issues of sustainable business, renewable energy, and other key ideas about life on earth now, is tantamount to saying that a hungry tiger likes a little nibble of lamb.
A prime reason that ecstasy grabs hold of me, as I churn out this difficult work, is that I constantly get a chance to engage my doubt. "Is that right?" I constantly get to inquire about how things do work, about what I have assumed compared to what is demonstrable or dubious or unknowable without further investigation. Like I told my printing professor in library school, to justify my almost primitively simple final projects, "After all, answers really do require questions."
Today, as in nearly every one of my stories, I have drawn on historical sources to get at answers. In relation to the TVA, as much so as in anything else that Howard Zinn implored us to learn, truly, "history is a weapon" for actualizing popular capacity, for obtaining popular power. In the annals of the TVA, we see again the complicated interweaving of competing agendas, of the paradoxical interplay of people's longing for democracy and established authorities' scheming for power.
The evolution of TVA, moreover, went hand in glove with the concentration of the people's of the upper South and of Appalachia into cities--Knoxville, Nashville, Huntsville, Birmingham, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Asheville--and a host of slightly smaller but still vital metropolitan areas, flank and intersperse the waterways that form the 40,000 square mile watershed of the Tennessee River, which itself drains much of the what ended up being lucrative for Union business' conquest of the Confederacy.
And Big Business itself, in the form of the ultimate expression of monopoly capitalism in the Manhattan Project, overseen and modeled by Vannevar Bush himself as the basis for the management and growth of American society ever since, has mushroomed in and around the TVA. Oak Ridge's National Lab and H-bomb plant, the prototypical "Bomb Plant" at what is now the Savannah River Site, and about which readers will be hearing more, the facilities for Uranium enrichment that we have already seen at Paducah, Kentucky(INTERLINK, Nuke 3), and more have burgeoned as TVA has shot up like rain forest bamboo in the Blue Ridge foothills.
One of the initial leaders of TVA, David Lilienthal, who went on to head up the Atomic Energy Commission's hoarding of secrets and creation of a destructive horde capable of annihilating human life many times--a cache of death that still exists, courtesy of the power of TVA and the expenditures of DOE--wrote an important little book based on his TVA and AEC experience. He essentially calls for us to look at his vision of those two agencies as a template for America.
Big Business: A New Era asks us to leave behind puerile Jeffersonian fantasies and to embrace the notion that in concentrated economic power itself lies the basis for the lives that almost all of want. He is not dishonest. He notes that many 'liberal' critics--he does not deign to consider radicals and Marxists, a failing which I will soon write about as a crucial deficiency of much American thinking--decry his POV.
He quotes Reinhold Niebuhr, as follows. "American sanity is threatened not only by the combination of power and insecurity which has become our fate. ...(but)also by the preoccupation of our nation with technology. ...it will require...the most rigorous and vital kind of criticism to save our American culture from destruction by technocratic illusions, even if it should be saved from physical destruction by atomic explosions."
And Lilienthal responds, to end his little book, seeming to seal his status of having at least the honesty to consider a dialog, with this. "There is a new dream: a world of great machines, with man in control, devising and making use of these inanimate creatures to build a new kind of independence,...a new spirit of brotherliness."
Leaving aside the grotesque concept of how the Y-12 H-bombs, assembled with TVA electricity, are going to pour forth such 'brotherhood,' Lilienthal's thoughtful honor alone alone will not rescue him. His buying-in to what William Appleman Williams called "the great evasion" of social democratic, Marxist, and radical critiques allows him to nod toward Niebuhr and say, 'But, Reinhold, we both want the same thing--a good society; maybe the route there is in the direction of centrality and huger forms of hugeness; we agree on values, do we not?'
And the likes of Niebuhr, and his spiritual heir, Wendell Berry, who both insist on a materiality of their spiritual bent, would not stand for this patronizing pat on the back and call for subsuming our dreams in a mechanization of death. Niebuhr did not 'evade' these critics. Indeed, he saw the confluence of his critique and theirs as supremely ironic, as we find outhere.
|"'The irony of American history,' as Reinhold Niebuhr put it in 1952 was the situation in which '[t]he evils against which we contend [Soviet totalitarianism] are frequently the fruit of illusions which are similar to our own.' The following year C. Vann Woodward adopted this idiom in The Irony of Southern History.' 'Our opposite numbers in the world crisis,' Woodward wrote, 'are bred on illusions of innocence and virtue that parallel our own with ironic fidelity, even though they are of very different origin and have been used to disguise (perhaps even from themselves)what seems to us much greater guilt of oppression and cruelty.'"|
Both of these thinkers, not radical, not Marxist, not social democrats, contend with the necessity of acknowledging such thinking. And such thinking also grounds us in the material world, which--supreme irony--Lilienthal asks us to leave behind. 'Imagine,' this scion of TVA and nuclear holocaust asks us, 'that machines of death are our destiny for an independence that brings us closer to each other.'
Precisely this idealism, which far too many now who want 'business better,' and who long for renewable energy, and who so hope for a 'green future' cannot discard, prohibits dealing with the reality of the current anti-democratic, anti-community, anti-human forms that bigness takes. As an 'ideal' devoid of politics, of critical self-reflection, and of an insistence on participation by regular people in the process of policy, 'Big Business' is exactly the noose that Eisenhower foresaw and that Lilienthal and the defenders of the TVA SOP evade.
David Noble, in one of the final essays in Major Problems in the History of American Technology, places this point in a dramatic framework. "The role of the military in shaping our technologies, our productive activities, our social organizations, the power relations between us--in shaping our lives, in short--has gone relatively unnoticed and unrecorded. It is time we gave the matter some serious attention, subjected it to critical scrutiny, brought it under democratic control. ...(to) beg(i)n to answer the fundamental questions: what kind of progress do we want? What kind of progress can we, as a society, afford?"
Again, the sounds that resonate from this imprecation are not the clarion calls of trumpets to arms, but the wise counsel of elders that we pay attention to the signs of the forest, that, as Don Harris would have it, we "learn how to read the trees." Deep ecology may sound like homework, but survival may depend on mixing just such a committed focus with a willingness to countenance the equality of all our divergent cousins, in widespread communities, who manage to return 'command and control,' and the knowledge on which they depend, to a vox populi into another flip of the 'shopping network' and the attendant hope that Big Business and its engines of death will save us.
Vannevar Bush foretold the internet four decades in advance. "Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and to coin one at random, 'memex'' will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory."
He believed that such a system would salvage the dialectical doom that the 'bigness' beloved of David Lilienthal seemed to hold in store. After all, said Professor Bush, who was not evasive in his thinking, "There will always be plenty of things to compute in the detailed affairs of millions of people doing complicated things."
But as we have seen in examining Michigan's woe's with wind, and in listening closely to Wendell Berry and others, no technology can rescue us from relationships that put rulers in charge of overruling techniques that primarily serve to continue the plutocratic predominance that yielded the machinery of annihilation. But Vannevar Bush saw this as well. He ended up propounding wise advice as well as that which led to a vicious circle.
|"Science has a simple faith, which transcends utility. Nearly all men of science, all men of learning for that matter, and men of simple ways too, have it in some form and in some degree. It is the faith that it is the privilege of man to learn to understand, and that this is his mission. If we abandon that mission under stress we shall abandon it forever, for stress will not cease. Knowledge for the sake of understanding, not merely to prevail, that is the essence of our being. None can define its limits, or set its ultimate boundaries."|
And, as Bush goes on to suggest, working in congress with others, in community with others, perhaps we can move closer to true comprehension, even acknowledging complete ascertainment's impossibility. In any event, given the bizarre and tragic and fascinating difficulties that we face together, we have at some juncture to accept that either we find a 'sustainable business' model collaboratively or we face collective doom that will take each man down alone, leaving the planet to the roaches and the redwoods.
I write one day about biofuels in North Carolina; the next about depleted Uranium in Iraq; then about the perambulations of the peripatetic Don Harris's California dreams; and so on, until today, I ask us to ponder a beautiful web of water that pours forth from the Appalachian massif, a holy land for thousands of years. Maybe something in all of this can instruct us. On this point, I am in sync with the dear Professor Bush.
Oil Lamp: Pete
TVA Historical Pictures