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Slavery 2.0

Albert Bates, The Great Change
For a number of years now we have been parsing tea leaves to mull what Hubbert linearization may do for human rights. To briefly recap, earlier civilizations almost uniformly were far more cruel, brutal and oppressive to the majority of their subjects than is our present globalized industrial society. Consumer societies have apparently learned that they can only abuse their buyers/producers to a point or markets shrivel. Hence, they have been steadily conferring more rights, expectations and aspirations for the better part of 150 years, and now some of that is coming around to bite our collective hindquarters.

Attacks on public employee’s unions (and the recent recall election in Wisconsin), the student fee-hike protests around the globe, and the Greek rebellion against fiscal austerity measures imposed by the European Union are all manifestations, in part, of unbound entitlements meeting up with the curve of binding entropy.

Going back to the last turning, the War of Northern Aggression was as much a product of Colonel Drake’s discovery of “coal oil” on Seneca land as any of the unleashed tensions set ablaze by John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid. Fed by a steadily expanding diet of coal and oil, Northern industrialists vastly outproduced Southern planters in the key commodities of guns and steel. They wanted and, from a capitalist standpoint, needed, market hegemony, particularly to the Eurozone and the Western Frontier, both opened by steam power. A plantation economy based on the joules per kilogram of imported African slaves was no match. When the two horse armies clashed on the plains of Shenandoah, the trenches of Verdun were birthed. Warfare would never be the same, but, more importantly, neither would our thinking about human rights.

The rising aspirations of energy-rich consumers, including the children of former slaves, brought a near revolution a century later, as well-educated Northern freedom-riders took gasoline-fueled mass transit south into slavery’s last bastions and the Montgomery bus boycott was beaten harmless by car-pools using private automobiles owned by middle-class blacks and liberated housewives, their kitchens automated with General Electric and Westinghouse products. These same people would soon be sending children of their own to rich, formerly while male bastions of academia to be educated in the liberation theology that was breaking down walls from Berlin to Bothaville.

Alas, all of this was erected on an edifice of boundless energy density.
(8 June 2012)

Masculine, Feminine, Collapse, And The Next Culture

Carolyn Baker, Speaking Truth to Power
During the past three years since the publication of my two books focused on the collapse of industrial civilization, Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path Of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse and Navigating The Coming Chaos: A Handbook For Inner Transition, I have been asked countless times how I predict that people of color, women, children, the elderly, and the LGBT community, the most vulnerable members of a society in chaos, will be treated as industrial civilization continues to unravel. Many point to James Howard Kunstler’s futuristic novels as one likely scenario. Kunstler essentially believes that during and after the demise of civilization, minorities will be blatantly scapegoated as a principal cause of the demise, and that as the criminal and legal systems crumble, virtually nothing will deter crazed and criminal elements from foisting all manner of violence on the most defenseless. In fact, Kunstler argues that the gains experienced by ethnic minorities, women, and gays in the past forty years will essentially be erased as berserk, belligerent males succeed in ruling the day.

In Navigating The Coming Chaos, I wrote very candidly about how I imagine women will be treated as existing societal structures deteriorate. Frankly, I agree with Kunstler that women and minorities will be targeted, and that members of targeted groups who believe otherwise are pathetically naïve. While I have never launched a crusade to arm women, whenever I am asked about how I believe they will be treated in collapse, I implore them to learn self-defense techniques and if they are open to it, complete at least one training in the use of firearms—and to stay current with practicing how to use the weapons with which they have trained.

However, to insist that throughout collapse, all gains made by the aforementioned targeted groups will be permanently obliterated, defies history. Beginning with the plight of ancient Hebraic peoples, slavery was never forgotten, and they carried with them the legacy of liberation from antiquity into the modern world. Likewise, Africans brought to theAmericasin the fifteenth century and thereafter, continued to cherish the prospect of freedom and allowed it to profoundly inform the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Similarly, the native peoples of theAmericaswho endured generations of genocide and exploitation have reclaimed and continue to embrace their heritage and significant portions of their traditions in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The women’s movement of the 1970s was engendered by a variety of factors, not the least of which was the history of women and the awareness of their oppression throughout most of recorded human history. So while the powerful can exploit the vulnerable for centuries or millennia, the memory and legacy of freedom and dignity cannot be irreversibly erased.
(10 June 2012)

You and Your Slaves

Andrew Nikiforuk, The Tyee
Yes, you’re the slave master of many energy-driven gadgets that replace human labour. But our slave society won’t last.

… The experiment … convinced one of the experiment’s designers, Tom Siddall of Electric Pedals, that “volunteer slavery” (hordes of sweating cyclists) or old fashioned shackled labour will power the future. “I have no doubt that slavery will return as the world’s energy resources get increasingly scarce.”

Now most people don’t regard oil, say, as an energy slave or a liquid replacement for human muscle, but they probably should. Thanks to petroleum, every North American now behaves, thinks and often looks like an obese and overbearing 19th century slave owner.

Oil slaves, of course, are more portable and versatile than human muscle and now order our world. They grow and deliver food; transport friends and goods; and energize fields and cities. Every laptop computer arrives impregnated with 240 kilograms of oil. Like any good slave, oil removes the toil.

How many energy slaves does a typical Canadian have at his or her disposal? Dave Hughes, perhaps Canada’s premier energy analyst and the nation’s former coal specialist at Natural Resources Canada, has done the math and we are not an emancipated people.

… What worries Hughes and many other energy analysts is that cheap energy slaves have created a formidable global dilemma. Before the Fossil Fuel Age (it started with coal burning around 1700), humans numbered less than one billion for their entire evolutionary existence on this planet.

After coal and then the discovery of oil in the 1850s, Homo sapiens exploded to an astounding population of 7 billion in just 170 years. And non-renewable energy slaves paved the way. Oil, in other words, was a powerful Viagra for the species (with unwieldy erections and other side-effects).

Oil also broke all previous energy thresholds. While human population grew 5.4 times since 1850, per capita energy consumption exploded at a rate of 8.5 times. In fact total energy consumption jumped 45 times.

These extraordinary changes gave peasants vicarious lifestyles once only enjoyed by minor kings and queens.

… “Maybe we have been even less cognizant of the services provided by fossil fuels than people did from their slaves,” reflects Hughes. “Slavery, after all was in your face. Now it’s all about filling up the tank.”

In his thoughtful 1973 essay, “Energy and Equity,” the radical Catholic theologian Ivan Illich questioned whether “the well-being of a society can be measured by the number of years its members have gone to school and by the number of energy slaves they have thereby learned to command.”

While most people worried about the scarcity of fodder for these slaves, Illich asked whether free men really needed so many slaves in the first place.

The iconoclast concluded that each and every human being was entitled to a certain amount of energy, but beyond a certain threshold, people lost both their freedom and humanity as slave owners typically do.
(5 May 2012)
We re-posted this article at Energy Bulletin.

Energy and Equity
(online book)
Ivan Illich, Clevercyles
… The advocates of an energy crisis believe in and continue to propagate a peculiar vision of man. According to this notion, man is born into perpetual dependence on slaves which he must painfully learn to master. If he does not employ prisoners, then he needs machines to do most of his work. According to this doctrine, the well-being of a society can be measured by the number of years its members have gone to school and by the number of energy slaves they have thereby learned to command. This belief is common to the conflicting economic ideologies now in vogue. It is threatened by the obvious inequity, harriedness, and impotence that appear everywhere once the voracious hordes of energy slaves outnumber people by a certain proportion. The energy crisis focuses concern on the scarcity of fodder for these slaves. I prefer to ask whether free men need them.

The energy policies adopted during the current decade will determine the range and character of social relationships a society will be able to enjoy by the year 2000. A low-energy policy allows for a wide choice of life-styles and cultures. If, on the other hand, a society opts for high energy consumption, its social relations must be dictated by technocracy and will be equally degrading whether labeled capitalist or socialist.

At this moment, most societies—especially the poor ones—are still free to set their energy policies by any of three guidelines. Well-being can be identified with high amounts of per capita energy use, with high efficiency of energy transformation, or with the least possible use of mechanical energy by the most powerful members of society. The first approach would stress tight management of scarce and destructive fuels on behalf of industry, whereas the second would emphasize the retooling of industry in the interest of thermodynamic thrift. These first two attitudes necessarily imply huge public expenditures and increased social control; both rationalize the emergence of a computerized Leviathan, and both are at present widely discussed.

The possibility of a third option is barely noticed. While people have begun to accept ecological limits on maximum per capita energy use as a condition for physical survival, they do not yet think about the use of minimum feasible power as the foundation of any of various social orders that would be both modern and desirable. Yet only a ceiling on energy use can lead to social relations that are characterized by high levels of equity. The one option that is at present neglected is the only choice within the reach of all nations. It is also the only strategy by which a political process can be used to set limits on the power of even the most motorized bureaucrat. Participatory democracy postulates low-energy technology. Only participatory democracy creates the conditions for rational technology.

What is generally overlooked is that equity and energy can grow concurrently only to a point. Below a threshold of per capita wattage, motors improve the conditions for social progress. Above this threshold, energy grows at the expense of equity. Further energy affluence then means decreased distribution of control over that energy.

The widespread belief that clean and abundant energy is the panacea for social ills is due to a political fallacy, according to which equity and energy consumption can be indefinitely correlated, at least under some ideal political conditions. Laboring under this illusion, we tend to discount any social limit on the growth of energy consumption. But if ecologists are right to assert that nonmetabolic power pollutes, it is in fact just as inevitable that, beyond a certain threshold, mechanical power corrupts. The threshold of social disintegration by high energy quanta is independent from the threshold at which energy conversion produces physical destruction. Expressed in horsepower, it is undoubtedly lower. This is the fact which must be theoretically recognized before a political issue can be made of the per capita wattage to which a society will limit its members.

Even if nonpolluting power were feasible and abundant, the use of energy on a massive scale acts on society like a drug that is physically harmless but psychically enslaving. A community can choose between Methadone and “cold turkey”—between maintaining its addiction to alien energy and kicking it in painful cramps—but no society can have a population that is hooked on progressively larger numbers of energy slaves and whose members are also autonomously active.
“Ivan Illich (1926 – 2002) was an Austrian philosopher, Roman Catholic priest, and ‘maverick social critic’ of the institutions of contemporary western culture and their effects on the provenance and practice of education, medicine, work, energy use, transportation, and economic development.” (Wikipedia)