Andrew Nikiforuk: Energy Slaves: Andrew Nikiforuk

* XE Network: Episode 76: Energy Slaves.
* SQSwans: Andrew Nikiforuk.

Energy Slaves: Andrew Nikiforuk & Chris Nelder

ExtraEnvironmentalist | XE Network


Our command of energy resources has created amazing technologies and social systems at a grand scale, but at what cost? Where past societies shackled human muscle with force and subjugation to create an energy surplus, beginning in the late 19th century we have used coal, oil & gas to create an unprecedented energy abundance. As the era of surplus energy comes to an end, how will our systems reliant on energy slaves for mechanical and cognitive work adapt? How is the energy transition moving forward?

In Extraenvironmentalist #76 we discuss our global energy systems with Andrew Nikiforuk as we discuss his new book, The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude. Andrew discusses ways of understanding our use and abuse of cheap energy. Then, Chris Nelderjoins us to talk about the ongoing energy transition and how it is reaching a tipping point through the recognition of a financial carbon bubble, the German Energiewende and the decline of the traditional oil majors.

As Terence McKenna once said, “Reason, and science, and the practice of unbridled capitalism, have not delivered us into an angelic realm. Quite the contrary: they’ve delivered 3% of us into an angelic realm, completely overshadowed by guilt about what’s happening to the other 97% of us who are eating it!”


Paraphrased Transcript:

The idea of subjugation is as old as civilization. Ruling classes have oppressed other humans into servitude to meet their wants, since humans first started wielding weapons. We tend to think of slavery as an institution from the past, one that we have matured out of as a species, but as Canadian journalist Andrew Nikifork, the author of Energy Slaves explains we have simply exchanged personal slavery for fossil fuel slavery. With as many as a 150 fossil fuel slaves running around the average US household we live a lifestyle radically better than even kings and queens of old, and rely on this complex system of support for most everyday chores. …..

First of all you have to think of slavery as being one of the worlds first energy institutions. We used, shackled human muscle to get work done, to provide comforts for rich people, and the basis for that were that slaves were cheap. When we compare that system to fossil fuels, it works along similar lines. The fossil fuels are cheap have been cheap for the last 100 years, and we have been feeding the fossil fuels to energy slaves: machines with combustion or steam engines that are doing work for us. So whether we are talking about cars, or refrigerators or lawn mowers, we are talking about tens of billions of energy slaves doing work for us because we have these cheap fossil fuel energy sources.

Whereas slavery was about the abuse of humans, energy slaves today are being used to abuse ecosystems: oceans, lakes, the atmosphere. So the big fundamental question for us as a species is: How do we use energy? The answer: Badly, we get obsesses with power.

The question then becomes how many energy slaves do we actually need and what shall we use them for and what energy sources shall be fueling them?

We use energy slaves the same way the Romans, Babylonians, Mayans used human slaves: to grow crops, provide entertainment, transport us by moving us around. The Romans had a slave to remember the names of important people as you walk down the street, just like today you have a Blackberry.

We have had two industrial revolutions, the first one with the steam and combustion engine, was all about the mechanization of human muscle; the second one about the mechanization of mental activities, with digital equipment. We forget that the amount of energy embedded into our laptop or Iphone is enormous. Sometimes more energy is embedded in an electric gadget than that gadget will ever consume in its lifetime and the energy embedded in that gadget is coming largely from fossil fuels.

Slavery provided enormous amounts of energy to keep the Roman empire going and it was the job of the Roman army to procure this energy source. At a certain point in Roman society about half of the people living in Rome were slaves. A typical Roman family may have had 4 or 5 slaves, the rich had 20 to 100 or 100’s. So there was alot of cheap energy slaves, and slavery was the economic foundation of Rome.

We today have more energy slaves than the richest Romans. By the 1940’s Buckminster Fuller calculated that the average American had at their disposal 39 energy slaves, that accounted for the American lifestyle.

Today the average American consumes on average 24 barrels of oil a year, has access to nearly a 100 slaves, purely fueled by oil, working for them 24/7. If we start adding our digital, electricity from coal or nuclear power, we go up to 150 slaves per person. Just like a Southern Slave Plantation owner, when you crowd your household with that much comfort and ease provided by slaves, you are changing all of your social relationships, the nature of your family, community and life in general. You then have other moral and philosophical issues you have to ask yourself which is fundamentally: How many slaves do I need to get work done?

Roman slaves did rebel. Romans responded to slave revolts like Spartacus, in the same way that we respond to an oil price shock. The Romans crucified slaves that rebelled, which is why there weren’t very many of them. The Romans did not tolerate public discussion about the abolition of slavery, they even called their slaves ‘speaking tools’.

Societies that have cheap access to energy in the form of slaves, makes the society dumb. Expensive energy makes you smarter, because stuff is not easy to do.

The Romans had a Military Slave Complex, just like we have a Military Industrial Complex. The Romans hit Peak Slavery when they experienced diminishing returns, when it cost the Roman military too much to conquer new slaves, that was when you hit peak slavery, and when the whole system it was upholding began to fall apart, resulting in debased currency and inflation. Similarly we have used to our energy to create complexity, big government, big corporations, big mega cities, that could only be done with cheap energy and now this cheap energy is becoming more and more expensive, with diminishing returns.

Does civilization require slavery? What every civilization needs is a source of energy that generates a surplus that allows that society to invest time and energy in education, culture and arts the things that we associate with civilization. Slavery is not required for civilization. Some civilizations have done quite well without slavery. …

Canada is essentially a petro-state, which is essentially a state that has a plantation economy for the production of fossil fuels. … Have we really progressed morally as a species… from Roman slavery to our current slavery?

The abolition of slavery was a small religious based movement of 12 people in a little room in England that felt that the shackling of human muscle was wrong, which arose at the time that we were using coal to power steam engines. So fossil fuels helped to make it possible for governments and industry to support the anti-slavery movement, because they could get work done with fossil fuels. Now we still have slavery of humans to machines, which has profoundly altered how we live. We now design cities around our machine slaves, not for people.

So the abolition question then becomes: How many slaves do you need? The abolitionists answers were none. A free man must work on his own, work with the energy afforded by his family and/or community. Americans don’t want to confront the issue of equity.

Why is it that North Americans can have billions of energy slaves at their command, where an American has access to 50 barrels of oil a year, and an Indian only has access to 2 barrels, and an African 1/2 a barrel?

Those are big moral issues about equity, that we are avoiding; as well as the fundamental one: What happens to you as a human being, when you deploy so many energy slaves that you change the character of your family, community and ecosystems, cutting down forests, polluting rivers, depleting fisheries, changing the very energy balance in the atmosphere itself? Those are the moral issues of our times that we have trouble even putting in moral terms. The abolitionists did that. That is why we need the equivalent of a new abolition movement that asks: How should we be using fossil fuels, what should we be feeding them to?

How do we discard our state of servitude to fossil fuels and become human beings that are independent and self sufficient again? …

People don’t understand that an energy transition will involve a huge socio-economic transition, because cheap energy has dumbed us down. It has provided so many comforts, so much ease, and so much stuff, that we now take it all for granted. Cheap energy has changed our economic thinking, which used to be about real things: peasants and crops and fertilizer and sun, and turned it into disneyland about markets and capital and overproduction and cheap things, that does not even incorporate energy spending in its economic models.

Cheap energy changed cities, it changed agriculture that was animal powered, it changed our politics, and our financial system, and our values. All of our materialism is the result of exploiting cheap flows of energy quickly.

Here is the big change: our energy is no longer cheap, the cost are mounting, from fracking, from polluted water, depleted fisheries, corrupt politics, social conflict, the returns are getting less, and a financial contraction is occurring. We are being forced to confront that the quality of energy has changed. One hundred years ago one barrel of oil could net you 100 barrels of oil for market. That is an amazing return, like investing one dollar and making 100 dollars from it. As it gets harder to extract and produce these fossil fuels, so globally today you invest 1 barrel to get 30, in the US you invest 1 barrel to get 10, in the Canadian tar sands you invest 1 barrel to get 5, or in some case on a par with biofuel; which is 1. That means you are investing 1 barrel to only get 1 back, which means there is a huge energy surplus reduction for police, education, art, culture, etc. So the tar sands are not going to help us to keep our slavery empire going.

Joseph Tainter talks about the energy complexity spiral. We used cheap energy to make all kinds of complexity, and attempted to solve problems created by the complexity by spending more cheap energy. As the energy transition occurs, some aspects of society will chase after the remaining energy sources with greater vigour, food costs will rise as a result of rising energy costs in agriculture. Fracking and the tar sands are examples of societal desperation.

Governments don’t want to begin talking about these energy depletion realities. Ordinary people can do allot of stuff, such as the transition movement, the prepper movement, where communities are finding ways to make their communities more resilient, tougher, they are gardening, forming coops, figuring out cooperative financial arrangements.

So business is losing all its credibility, is this transition also going to affect science? If this analysis is correct, we have probably peaked in a number of areas, such as democracy, which is stumbling everywhere.

Science is struggling, where innovation is declining, research is declining. Science was dramatically changed by cheap energy, we created big science, that was hugely dependent on big government and big corporations for funding support, and is no longer a community based enterprise. So the concentration of power in science, and as energy flows become more expensive, we have reached a point of crisis in the scientific community, where science is becoming esoteric requiring teams and teams of science to make elemental progress, that years ago required only one or two individuals. I would also argue that science has been abused as a mechanism for concentrating more power, where science is now in servitude to companies involved in scientific research, such as Monsanto.

Do we have invisible energy voters? Some people would argue that we have this invisible electorate, tens of billions of energy slaves, that have altered the environment – industrialized and fragmented it – that has enormously changed voting patterns and behaviors, where so much of democratic life seems to boil down to arguments about how fast our energy slaves, can speed through a city and where are they going to park.

When you step back for a moment and take the Martian view of things, and look at what we are using this energy for, we are not using this energy to become more creative, or more spiritual, or wiser. We are just using energy to spend energy.

Oil really changed the United States, which was the worlds first oil pioneer, and encountered the first form of energy, just before the civil war when kerosene became the worlds first source of illumination. It then took off when we started to use oil for powering combustion engines, which changed America the same way that coal and steam engines changed the British experience.

In the early 1800’s, the average American male was self employed on farms, they had a code of self reliance, of community mindedness, and there was this agrarian ideal that was fundamental to the American character, which made them value equality in their communities. Along comes oil that mechanizes and industrializes the landscape, takes all of these self employed men and the very notion of masculinity tied to all of that turns it upside down and makes men into managers and servants of machines. So within quick order the number of self employed in the United States completely changes and most American males become part of a work force, working with machines, quite often in states of servitude. Energy flows don’t just change your politics and families and character, but they also change gender roles.

Other changes included the consolidation of power, the rise of huge corporations, the rise of big government to control all the flows of energy, and manage the proliferation of energy slaves. You find Americans becoming fat and lazy and extremely dependent and insecure, and a lesser people who don’t have their former innovative wisdom and drive and ingenuity when they were a low energy people, that had to operate on their wits with an abundance of natural resources, to a people with so much cheap energy at their command, that they can do whatever they want whenever they want it, and as they export this cheap energy they change the global experience, changing human goals to materialism and narcissism.

So the Americans not only changed themselves, they have also changed the global ideal of what it means to be human. So we are now grappling with some pretty profoundly poisonous notions, about what it means to be a human being on this planet. You are nothing unless you are consuming enormous amounts of cheap stuff, that you don’t need. …

I think we will see, as we already are, people who are uncomfortable with the status quo and who decide to make changes in their lifestyles without waiting for shrinking political institutions and governments to respond. We have used our energy slaves to speed up and to be alienated and disengaged. Will we be able to slow down and reconnect, to be more dependent on our local community energy, to get stuff done? How successfully we as a society grapple with these issues is anybody’s guess.

Source: XE Network: Episode 76: Energy Slaves.