Book review: The Energy of Slaves

By Tamara Cottle

Calgarian Andrew Nikiforuk’s latest book is a departure from his typical environmentalist critique of the fossil fuel industry. The Energy of Slaves examines our energy consumption from a moral perspective, equating our relationship with petroleum to that of a master and slave. 

The book is presented as a thorough dissection of the historical context that led to the near universal adoption of what he calls “energy slavery.” Nikiforuk draws parallels between our current use of carbon and the African slaves that were exploited in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He even goes so far as to suggest that the only reason Britain abolished the slave trade was due to the discovery of an even more efficient energy source: coal.

The transposition of human slaves to a petroleum slave has resulted in a Western culture heavily reliant on massive surpluses of energy. Much like the slaveholders of the past, Westerners see their energy as an entitlement. Nikiforuk compiles the work of a number of notable experts, including David Hughes, a Canadian energy analyst who calculates the energy produced from a barrel of oil as being equivalent to 3.8 years of human labour. He estimates the average North American’s “slave holdings” are about 89 slaves per year. 

According to political scientist Terry Lynn Karl, another expert featured in the book, oil dependency reduces diversity in economics, fosters inequality and sponsors autocratic governments. With the excessive surpluses from a slavocracy, economic power is concentrated into the hands of a few major corporations who dominate the market with petroleum-based products. 

The agricultural sector is an example of how markets narrow and power is concentrated. With the help of carbon slaves, three firms control all American meat packing, Walmart is responsible for half of retail food sales and Monsanto monopolizes most of the world’s corn and soy production. Disparity can be witnessed in states like Nigeria, where oil exports account for 80 per cent of national revenue. The elite one per cent receives 85 per cent of this wealth while 70 per cent of the population lives on less than one dollar a day. Nikiforuk mentions Alberta as being a Conservative Party “petro state,” with an autocratic government that has lasted 41 years.

Though the thrust of the book is centred around morality, the environmental impact of energy slavery can’t be ignored. Sometimes the side effects of carbon servitude can impact both environmental and ethical domains. The production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which is made from coal to increase agricultural yields, has leached into oceans and waterways, creating dead zones. It was also used to make explosives by American terrorists in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. BASF, the German chemical company, produced insecticide Zyklon B that was used to kill millions of Jews in concentration camps during World War II.

Nikiforuk expertly wields stunning analogies to illustrate the state of energy gluttony happening on the planet today. According to him, one of the worst abuses is the automobile. In one day of driving, the typical North American uses the fossil fuel equivalent of all plant matter that grew on land or in the ocean in one year. 

This book confronts the reader with the cold, hard fact of complicity in the sacrilegious practice of energy slavery. Laptops, smart phones and cars may seem part and parcel to the convenience of modernity but, in reality, speak to a hidden evil that is harboured in our dependency.

In the last 50 years, people in the West have had more stuff than ever before, but are less happy. Anytime we enter a master and slave relationship, we are also binding ourselves to our property, thereby restricting our own freedom. The Energy of Slaves is a call for a new generation of “abolitionists” who “eat slowly, travel locally, plant gardens, work ethically, build communities, share tools and eschew bigness in economic and political life.” 

Nikiforuk suggests that when people start living within their own means, they liberate themselves and find happiness in self-reliance. 

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