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Dependence on 'energy slaves' driving us to economic collapse

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In the endless and merciless energy polemics, versatile Calgary-based journalist Andrew Nikiforuk blooded his sword with his 2008 book, Tar Sands. Now, with his latest book, his seventh since 1993, he charges once more into the breach.

As befits a battlefield on which no quarter is given, his title may smack of sensationalism, but the sobering facts, figures and authorities he references will be invaluable to anyone trying to understand the energy dilemmas we face.

Nikiforuk tells us that most ancient civilizations depended on the energy provided by slaves. Throughout history, slavery endured and was accepted by the Christian, Jewish and Islamic religions (among others) until fossil fuels could be harnessed as alternative energy sources.

So much was slavery taken for granted by British and American opinion that 18th-century calls for its abolition were then as shocking as calls for the abolition of cars and planes would be today.

Slavery's defenders used oddly familiar arguments. Abolishing slavery would cost jobs. Thousands of sailors and shipbuilders would be made redundant. It was hypocritical for anybody who used tea, tobacco, sugar or cotton to oppose slavery.

An 18th-century spin doctor proposed renaming slaves "assistant planters." A defender of white civilization came up with the pre-Orwellian slogan, "Freedom is not possible without slavery."

Inexorably, slavery yielded to the new energy systems. By the 1880s, coal-fired machines were doing work that once would have required three billion slaves. That was nothing compared to the impact of oil. In 2011, Canadian geoscientist David Hughes calculated that every North American now has 174 energy slaves.

In 2009, a British experiment attempted to use people-power to provide the energy needed in a typical family home. Throughout one day, an army of volunteers generated electricity by pedalling 100 stationary bicycles.

Just to make two slices of toast took 11 cyclists. The exhausted cyclists actually consumed more energy in food than they generated.

Nikiforuk makes a compelling case that the cost of our energy slaves is far higher than we imagine. We like to think of our cars as affordable and convenient.

But he cites the University of Manitoba energy historian Vaclav Smil to show otherwise.

Nikiforuk relates how Smil calculated the real convenience of car ownership by taking into account the actual time the average person spends on the purchase, maintenance, repairs, sitting in traffic jams, paying traffic tickets and the like.

By dividing the number of kilometres a year driven by the numbers of hours spent in car-related activity, Smil found that the reward for all that effort and expense amounted to about five kilometres an hour, somewhat slower than the average medieval peasant could walk.

Smil wishes we would value facts over delusions. He sees most North American consumption as wasteful and frivolous. For instance, it requires 800 pounds of fossil fuels to make one pound of microchips for products which are, to all intents and purposes, throwaways.

Almost every commercial product from toothbrushes to televisions comes imbedded with oil. Thanks to fertilizers, we are literally eating oil. Unfortunately, the supply of fossil fuels is finite.

"Rising energy and material consumption," Nikiforuk quotes Smil as saying, "is not a viable option on a planet that has a naturally limited capacity to absorb the environmental byproduct of this ratcheting process."

He believes that for the rest of the world to adopt the equivalent of North America's energy consumption would require five times the current global supply, "an utterly impossible option."

Unlike Smil, Nikiforuk thinks the world's cheap, light and easy oil will be exhausted as early as 2030. Unhappily, as he clearly explains, renewable sources will never be able to generate more than a fraction of the energy of conventional sources.

If our energy consumption continues unabated we can only expect scarcity, higher prices, food shortages, energy wars and the collapse of the world economy. Yet the barriers to change form "a wall as obstinate and thick as that which divided Berlin."

Nikiforuk refers to American economist Daniel Altman's belief that self-obsessed North Americans tend to do what they want regardless of the consequences for other people. This is reinforced by the billions of dollars spent by oil and coal interests to convince them that their security and happiness depend on an untrammeled fossil fuel industry.

Having said that, Nikiforuk refers us to the religion-based teachings of public intellectuals like Ivan Illich, Jacques Ellul and G.K. Chesterton. He makes an attractive case that security and happiness do not depend on wasteful consumerism but on lowering global energy consumption.

Solutions include restricting automobile use, taxing energy and carbon, improving public transport and using our energy slaves responsibly rather than wastefully.

How likely is that?

It's hard for Nikiforuk to reassure us that the glass is half full once he has convinced us that it is three quarters empty.


In case of emergency, Winnipegger John K. Collins always carries a stationary bicycle in his trunk.

The Energy of Slaves

Oil and the New Servitude

By Andrew Nikiforuk

Greystone/David Suzuki Foundation, 296 pages, $30

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 15, 2012 J10

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