The slaveholder in the antebellum American South knew only too well how much his livelihood depended on his slaves. Slaves were the visible and essential workforce of the southern plantation system. They worked and lived side-by-side with the master and his family. It was the energy of slaves which tended the fields, shod the horses, cooked the meals and delivered the produce to nearby wharves. It was an uneasy symbiosis punctuated by occasional revolts and flights to freedom.
We have long since abolished slavery as an absolute moral evil. And, we have long since replaced the energy it supplied with a dependency on concentrated forms of energy mined from the ground, namely coal, oil, and natural gas. Those fuels, supplemented with some nuclear, hydroelectric and renewable energy, provide Americans with the equivalent of 147 “energy slaves.” That means it would take the equivalent of 147 people working continuously 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to supply the energy currently used by each American. (Some people estimate the number is closer to 100 energy slaves; still, the point remains the same.)
But all those energy slaves are largely invisible. We flip a switch and the light goes on. We twist a key and the car starts. We turn on the stove and the flame lights. We adjust the thermostat and the heat comes on. We get what we want from our energy slaves, it seems, without having to deal with real people in any way remotely approaching the intimate way those living with or without slavery in the pre-fossil fuel age had to. Our main task is to pay the bill.
It is an illusion of autonomy. It is a libertarian fantasy seemingly come true. Cooperation and community appear optional; we can get everything we need so long as we have a little money.
Of course, in reality, the modern, energy-intensive world is a marvel of human cooperation mediated by financial and information flows of gargantuan proportion. But, that’s not how it feels. The deserted, anonymous suburban streets; the impersonal big box stores; the self-service gas stations; the lonely commute; the untold hours in front of a computer–all can give us a false sense of being isolated and autonomous. At the same time these things give us unrivaled luxury in our living quarters, unparalleled selection in our consumer goods, unprecedented mobility, and unhindered access to information about nearly everything we might want to buy or wish to learn. We feel omnipotent and self-contained.
How then will we come together for the great task ahead, a transformation that must move us away from this powerful, seemingly autonomous, but ultimately unsustainable existence? Will we accept the true context in which we live, that is, a world with limits? Will we rediscover our neighbors? Will we realize our dependence on one another? Will we find the will to cooperate rather than fight?
Will we be able to give up the illusion of autonomy which the fossil fuel age has engendered in nearly every one of us? And, most important of all, will we be able to do it in time?