The Energy of Slaves
By Andrew Nikiforuk. Greystone, 282 pp, hardcover
“If you put a chain around the neck of a slave,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “the other end fastens itself around your own.” The 19th-century author’s words echo today in an illuminating new book by Calgary-based investigative journalist Andrew Nikiforuk. The Energy of Slaves: Oil and The New Servitude is a paradigm-shifting, astoundingly counterintuitive book. We are all, particularly us affluent westerners, slave owners; and, as Emerson hinted, we are included among the indebted and the enslaved.
In our homes, in our workplaces, in nearly every region of our daily lives, we employ machines. The work these machines perform and the amount of fuel they require are stunning. We have at the ready a greater army of servants than the most profitable plantation in the American South could have wished for. Citing an energy analyst, Nikiforuk reveals it would take someone riding a bike on a full-time work schedule about 7.37 years to produce the energy in a single barrel of oil. “Given that the average North American now consumes 23.6 barrels of oil a year,” he reasons, “every citizen employs about 89 virtual slaves.”
Recalling Emerson’s words, this state of affairs enslaves us as well. We have lost the incentive to innovate, relying instead on the current plenitude of oil. “Thanks to the work now performed by energy slaves, North Americans behave, think, and often look like obese, overbearing plantation slave owners,” writes Nikiforuk in a typically scathing denouncement of western life.
There’s not much difference, according to the author, between the way we rent out our lives to jobs many of us dislike in order to pay for our addiction to oil and its products—and to slavery. “North Americans now live on credit to support their own energy slaves,” Nikiforuk reminds us, “and to buy largely unnecessary goods created by other energy slaves.”
It’s an unnerving thesis that will be rejected outright by many who will have trouble accepting their association with the slave holders of the past. But Nikiforuk marshals such an impressive array of data and argument that it becomes increasingly apparent that we are party to a noxious system—one that has made us both slaves and enslavers.