Energy slaves: Abandoning our servitude to the petroleum order

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Considering the distance traveled to present at this year’s Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifesyle Fair (Aug. 17-18 at Ogle County Fairgrounds in Oregon, Ill.), Andrew Nikiforuk volunteered to make a second presentation based on his book, The Energy of Slaves.

Before the consumption of fossil fuels, society was run on solar energy and the energy of human slaves. The Roman empire relied on slaves captured during military adventures and referred to them as speaking tools. Cheap slave labor degraded the behavior of many slave masters and their families, and removed any incentive to create energy alternatives.

As the empire conquered more distant lands and the resistance of the slaves intensified, energy and economic benefits of slave labor dwindled, and the cost of maintaining a larger army became too costly, causing the empire to collapse.

A dramatic return to an economy based on slavery followed the expansion of the Europeans into the new world. The practical benefits of slave labor muted the moral qualms regarding the institution. The invention of the steam engine and the arrival of the hydrocarbon age gradually displaced reliance on human slaves. It was after the arrival of the steam engine that the emancipation movement gained strength. Nikiforuk sees society as having now reached a point where it is essential to develop an ethical understanding of how to use energy judiciously.

It is estimated that the average North American family has the equivalent of 400 energy slaves, which has given rise to a costly, complex society. Increasing reliance on extreme hydrocarbons from offshore oil, bitumen, shale gas and shale oil complexity has intensified. As complexity increases, society is seen as increasingly fragile, and society faces a decline in the global standard of living.

With increased energy flows, political power has accumulated in centralized governments known as petrostates. Wealth becomes concentrated in fewer hands, and democracy withers. Nikiforuk presented slides illustrating that states with abundant energy supplies of oil and natural gas and those without are associated with the political divide between red and blue states.

America’s exceptional development has been linked to its historic surplus of energy. Early oil production from large fields used the energy equivalent of one barrel of oil to secure 100 barrels of oil. By 2006, one barrel of oil only captured 10 barrels of oil. In the case of bitumen from Canada, one barrel of oil only yields three to five barrels of oil.

Neither unconventional fossil fuels nor renewable energy sources produce enough surplus energy to power our existing system of energy slaves. We have entered an energy transition in which it is essential that the public understands our current rates of energy consumption are not sustainable.

Much of our energy use has been wasted in heating and cooling our homes, and powering our electronic devices and throw-away goods. All involve considerable environmental destruction.

We can choose to adjust to the new energy situation in an orderly way, or wait until conditions force us to change. By describing our lifestyles as being based on energy slaves, Nikiforuk is calling for a new moral narrative and emancipation movement in which we abandon our servitude to the petroleum order and its masters.

From the Sept. 4-10, 2013, issue

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