Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude - Andrew Nikiforuk

Slave labour built the Roman Empire. Territorial expansion required thousands of soldiers and a society to support them. Huge agricultural estates farmed by slaves grew food for Ancient Rome’s growing population. Aqueducts, temples, and public baths were all built and maintained by the energy of slaves. Few in Roman society thought of slavery as a moral question; the need for their energy to fuel the empire was simply too great. Roman philosopher Seneca, however, worried that the institution of slavery had given godlike powers to many masters. Eventually so much slave energy was required that there were not enough slaves to meet the need. The price of slaves increased, economic surpluses decreased, and the Roman Empire’s economy collapsed.

Investigative journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, in his latest book “Energy of Slaves,” argues that 21st century society is in a similar situation, except that our slaves are machines. Nikiforuk claims that just like the Romans, modern society is entirely dependent on vast amounts of energy—mainly from fossil fuels—to function, and in fact requires so much energy that it is doubtful any other fuel can provide the energy needed to maintain our standard of living. He argues that we are now “slaves to petroleum and its masters” and must find a way to use energy on a “moral, just and truly human scale” before our own society faces collapse.

Nikiforuk is not exaggerating. He cites a UK experiment where cyclists pedaled generators as they tried to meet the daily energy needs of an average family. It took 24 cyclists to heat the oven, and 11 to make two slices of toast. Overall, the cyclists consumed more energy in food than they produced. Canadian energy analyst David Hughes calculated it would take a little more than seven years of cycling a 40-hour work week to produce the energy stored in a single barrel of oil. Given that the average North American consumes 23 barrels of oil (about 3680L) each year, it becomes obvious that we are living on borrowed energy.

Even the food we eat is highly oil energy dependent. Fertilizers, pesticides and farm machines all come from oil, and Nikiforuk shows how farming is now closely tied to the petroleum industry. While more food can now be grown in less time and with fewer people, the drive for profits means that the food industry is incredibly wasteful. More food is being produced than can be eaten, so people now consume more daily calories than they actually need. Estimates show that households waste 20 to 30 per cent of the food purchased. It also takes more energy inputs to produce food than is contained in the food itself, especially in the processed foods invented to absorb these food surpluses.

Fossil fuels are non-renewable, though they have not been treated as such. Nikiforuk outlines the history of the oil industry, showing how government subsidy has allowed corporations to monopolize the energy market and hinder the development of alternative fuel sources. He also shows how even as far back as the 1920s there have been voices calling for big oil and its dependent industries to use oil more wisely. He quotes John Ise, an economist writing in 1926, who said: “the history of oil exploitation in the United Sates is a history of criminally rapid, selfish, and wasteful use of an exhaustible resource which, as far as present knowledge goes, will be indispensable in the economic lives of the next generation, as in our own.”

But these warnings were not taken, and now the oil industry is finding itself in a situation of having to extract difficult oil—as Nikiforuk expertly outlines in another of his books, “Tar Sands”—that actually returns less energy than it takes to get it out of the ground. It used to be that one oil barrel of input yielded 100 barrels output; today it is only 5 barrels of output.

While Nikiforuk states the obvious that renewable energy sources like wind and solar must begin to be used, he shows that it will not be an easy task. First he explains that the petroleum industry will not be willing to give up its profits. Renewable energy will not provide the same monetary return, and oil companies will suppress its use for as long as possible. Nikiforuk also shows how petrostates—the close ties of government and the oil industry—have acted together to stifle the science and implementation of renewable energy. But he also states the uncomfortable truth that it is unlikely renewable sources can provide the same amount of energy as oil and that society will need to downsize.

Nikiforuk rightly places the problem with rationing our fuel use and implementing renewables with the fact that the capitalist economic system depends on continuous growth and accumulation, that is, production and consumption. For Nikiforuk, the Benedictine order founded after the fall of the Roman Empire offers some ideas. The Benedictine order strived to be adaptable and flexible, and deemed one virtuous if they “served God by living and working in a community that provided its own sovereign energy.” Through this, the monasteries sustained themselves—with much surplus time for artistic pursuits—for hundreds of years.

In early October I heard Nikiforuk speak about this book. He shared with the audience his opinion that we have to start living more and consuming less, using fewer energy slaves, and choosing quality over cheaply made items, for example. According to Nikiforuk, communities need to change because we cannot wait around for it to happen another way. The same solutions are echoed in the book’s epilogue. As Nikiforuk said during his book talk, we need to “be ready when the system falls, with open hearts and ready hands to pick up the pieces.”

Making changes at the individual and community level is one step, but it cannot be the only one. As the roots of the oil-based consumer economy are firmly planted in the capitalist system, the struggle to detach our society from oil must also include a fight against the very system that wants to continue to live outside the means of the planet. Nikiforuk’s book “Energy of Slaves” is important for understanding just how entangled our lifestyle is with oil, and how we urgently need to unravel ourselves from it and find ways to live sustainably.

Review originally published at

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