False promises of silk worms and alternative energy
by Gordon Tomb
Under the Georgia Charter of 1732, London philanthropists established a colony in the New World that was to flourish through the production of silk. The enterprise, as described in Daniel Boorstin’s The Americans: The Colonial Experience, is an 18th century version of the Obama administration’s vision of alternative energy leading to an economic renaissance.
Georgia’s trustees poured private and public money into the colony that they had populated with England’s poor. Projections were that that the 500,000 English pounds expended annually on Italian, French, Dutch, Indian and Chinese silk would be supplanted by revenue from the Georgian silk industry.
Silk production “would provide employment for at least 20,000 people in the colony during the four months of the silk season and for at least 20,000 more in England the year round,” reports Boorstin. Competition “could be easily defeated because in Georgia land could be had for the asking and the precious mulberry leaves (on which silk worms feed) grew wild.”
Unfortunately for the speculators in silk, what grew wild in Georgia was the black mulberry tree, a variety shunned by silk worms that prefer the leaves of white mulberry trees.
Not to be deterred, the trustees encouraged silk production with a guaranteed inflated price and wrote into land grants requirements that grantees plant at least 50 white mulberry trees on every 50 acres. Grantees with 500 acres had to plant 2,000 trees within 20 years. When Georgia was allowed to have a representative assembly, a citizen had to have planted at least 100 white mulberry trees on each 50 acres of land in order to become an assemblyman.
But alas, in 1742 nearly half the silkworms in Savannah died, proving that Georgia’s climate was ill-suited for that particular caterpillar
In addition to environmental obstacles, there was the matter of economics: Silk production required labor that was both skilled and cheap. But Georgia silk laborers earned only one shilling a day and could get twice that at other work. Meanwhile, peasants in the world’s major silk-producing regions were making one-quarter the wages of their Georgian counterparts
“Despite all this,” says Boorstin, “the Trustees remained blind and incorrigible in their optimism.” In 1750, they doubled the requirement for Georgian assemblymen to 100 mulberry trees for every 50 acres.
The do-gooders of London finally gave up their Georgia charter in 1752, 20 years after its incorporation, blaming not adverse economics and climate for Georgian silk production but rather the lack of enough money “to give any Encouragements for the Produce of Raw Silk.”
So it is with the utopian dream of solar panels and windmills pristinely supplying the good people of America with electricity as they silently transport themselves in battery-powered vehicles to eat veggies and drink smoothies at organic bistros.
Billions are directed from Washington to alternative energy providers whose business plans have no chance of winning in a free market. And when a solar energy company fails, the complaint is that somebody else is making a cheaper product (so?) or that more public money needs to be invested (of course!).
Ending his chapter on Georgia, Daniel Boorstin writes, “By the time of the Revolution, Georgia – the darling of philanthropists, the spoiled child of charitable London – was the least prosperous and least populous of the colonies.”
Oh, that politicians and philanthropists would read more history.
Note: Gordon Tomb is director of communications, PA Coalition for Responsible Government, and an energy writer. firstname.lastname@example.org