The Age of Oil: Every man a master, every man a slave

May 31, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude by Andrew Nikiforuk, Greystone Books, 282pp, hardcover, $29.95.

“If we do commit a sin owning slaves,” said one Alabama slaveholder in 1835, “it is certainly one which is attended with great conveniences.”

You can say the same thing about using energy from fossil fuels — it may be immoral, but it sure is handy. And that’s the conundrum that Andrew Nikiforuk examines in The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude.

Every man a slavemaster

Just like human slaves, fossil fuels save a lot of hassle for those who use them. Thanks to the work done by machines run on electricity or petroleum, according to Nikiforuk, every North American alive today has the equivalent of 89 virtual humans working for him or her 24/7. These “energy slaves” run our cars; light, heat and cool our houses; power our TVs and phones; and provide consumers with all kinds of stuff from Dacron™ blouses and strappy summer sandals to cookware and books.

Of course, fossil fuels enable technology that human-power could never operate. Cheap energy allows even a lower-middle class American to enjoy luxuries from cold beer and hot showers to anytime texting — all of which were unimaginable to the richest potentates of old, whether the Qing Emperors of China or the Bourbon kings of France.

Yet, if there’s such a thing as secular sin, using fossil fuels is surely among the worst. Burning oil, coal and gas is the biggest factor behind the climate change that could ultimately destroy Earth’s ability to support human (or any other kind of) life. Meanwhile, as Nikiforuk ably documents, our society’s drive to keep energy cheap gives us oil wars, corrupt governments and an obscene and growing gap between the rich and the 99%.

If energy slavery is so bad, why hasn’t modern society abolished it yet? Nikiforuk suggests that it’s because, while human slavery in the plantations of the American South or the Caribbean was easy to see, fossil fuel slavery under industrial capitalism is hidden from view. This leaves ordinary First World consumers in the dark about the services that energy provides.

But a more important reason why ordinary North Americans don’t get as worked up about abusing energy as they would about slavery should be obvious: because oil, coal and gas aren’t, well, human. Hydrocarbons don’t groan under the lash of the slave driver’s whip or cower in the corner of a barred-window sweatshop. And that’s a problem that Nikiforuk, so eager to make the analogy between slavery and energy use, seems to miss.

Every man a slave

When you compare real slavery to virtual energy slavery, you need to ask the question, Who suffers?

In slavery it was (and is) the slaves who suffer, despite some moral degradation to the slaveowner. By contrast, in fossil-fueled industrial capitalism, it’s only the metaphorical masters of energy — consumers — who suffer. Oil, coal and natural gas never feel a thing.

Too often, Nikiforuk conflates the suffering of consumers who use oil today with the suffering of humans living in bondage in the past. Perhaps the most glaring instance comes when Nikiforuk quotes Brazilian historian Gilberto Freyre on the history of slavery in his South American homeland:

Brazil’s slaveholders showed “a lack, or near lack, of feelings of pity” for abused slaves, Freyre wrote. A slaveholding patriarch might harbor some degree of human sentiment for black nurses and household help, but toward “beasts of burden” the master showed what one visiting German prince described as a “complete lack of the idea or sentiment of conscience.” The easy living afforded by slavery explained this lack of conscience, just as the easy living afforded by petroleum might explain North American indifference today to the proliferation of inanimate slaves in our midst.

This rhetorical move is a little too quick. I’m sure Nikiforuk doesn’t lack compassion for actual human slaves of old. But his impatience to make the image of slavery stick to the topic of energy seems to blind Nikiforuk to the unique nastiness of the suffering that unpaid, unfree laborers endured for thousands of years and continue to endure today.

Not surprisingly, modern slavery is another blind spot for Nikiforuk. The Energy of Slaves tends to talk about emancipation exclusively in the past tense and so ignores the 27 million people who are still held in bondage around the globe today. Though every nation has outlawed slavery, today there are more slaves than ever before. How can that be? I’ve referred to this as the Cotton Gin Paradox. That’s when labor-saving machines somehow create a demand for more human labor. And it’s labor of the very cheapest kind. Just as the cotton gin revitalized the dying institution of slavery in the early 19th-century American South by making it more efficient to process cotton, so today’s mechanized globalization made possible by cheap energy actually creates a new demand for modern human slaves.

Somebody’s got to do all that work

Failing to at least mention today’s slaves, many of them involved in sex tourism or export manufacturing made possible only by cheap energy, is a major omission for a book about slavery and energy. Overall, though, modern slavery may be an exception to the rule that Nikiforuk explores so well: in general throughout history, fossil fuels have replaced human labor, whether enslaved or paid.

And that begs a scary question. In the future, once cheap energy disappears, will even more widespread human slavery make a comeback?

Reassuringly, Nikiforuk answers that it need not be so, if only we embrace energy conservation. A scaled-down version of industrial society that would yield as much or even more well-being than most industrial consumers enjoy today can be run on a fraction of the energy we use today but with a lot more democracy.

The average North American uses energy equal to about 50 barrels of oil a year but could live a good life by cutting back to energy equal to just seven barrels a year. Citing research by energy expert Vaclav Smil, Nikiforuk writes that,

Low infant mortality, a healthy diet, high life expectancy, and decent housing, say Smil, can all be achieved with energy spending three times less than what the average North American now throws away.

As to political freedoms, some of the world’s most repressive regimes — Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela and Russia — are petrostates that are also huge energy hogs.

Rage against the machine

As to the world’s original petrostate, the United States, we continue to suffer under a neo-fascist plutocracy run largely by Big Oil not because we lack enough cheap energy, but rather, because we have too much of it. Historically, countries that gorge on cheap energy lose their freedom and resilience just as they destroy their water supplies, mountaintops and forests. Cheap energy centralizes power and makes the rich huge while making the rest of us small. By contrast, low-energy societies promote equality while giving people back the oldest freedom, the ability to make nearly every daily trip on foot. Nothing to maintain, and everything in walking distance.

Despite its challenges, the image of energy slavery is invaluable to make clear our dependence on a demonic force that today’s economy seeks to hide. And Nikiforuk’s relentless focus on energy, rather than money, as the root of all industrial evil, reminds us that a person who wants to see the real problem of America today must not let herself get distracted by healthcare or gay marriage or the national debt but must keep her eye on kilowatts and BTUs.

Anybody can get worked up about energy when gas reaches $4 a gallon, even if they can’t do much better than foolishly repeat Big Oil talking points about Keystone XL and “North American energy independence.” But if you want to prepare yourself and your community for the economic, ecological and energy shocks that are coming, then you need to think and talk about energy even when it’s still cheap and when nobody else seems to care.

As inspiration to remember that it’s all about energy, energy, energy, it would be hard to find a better guide than Nikiforuk.

Slideshow photo: duggar11/Flickr.

– Erik Curren, Transition Voice

Erik Curren

Erik Curren is the publisher of Transition Voice. He co-founded Transition Staunton Augusta in December 2009 and serves as managing partner of the Curren Media Group, an online marketing company. He is also partner in a solar energy development company. He has served on the city council of Staunton, VA since July 2012.  

Tags: Fossil Fuels