Andrew Nikiforuk, The Energy of Slaves

Fun fact #1: In North America, about 27% of the total volume of would-be food is discarded without ever being eaten by humans.

Fun fact #2: The production, transportation, and storage of this never-eaten food accounts for about 2% of the continent's total spending on oil and electricity (Nikiforuk, pp.88-89).

We're living inside a leaky pipeline, in other words. Food banks, food insecurity, climate change: we do it to ourselves, and in the end, after all the hand-wringing and multi-variate analyses and flourishing rhetorical Actions, we give not a fuck, not really.

As regular Tyee contributor Andrew Nikiforuk makes painfully clear in The Energy of Slaves, the fossil-fuel economy over-reaches its grasp so far that there's just no hope. (His last chapter pretends otherwise -- locavorism! farmers' markets! pipeline protests! -- but it rang pretty hollow in my ears….) Hardly news, that, though we mostly keep living as if it'll all be fine eventually.

What's different and striking in this book is Nikiforuk's sustained assertion that economies are all about energy, and that while Western economies (and civilization) modernized impressively by commandeering the work and energy of human slaves, slavery was really only a dress rehearsal for the consumption of archived energy in our few hundred fossil-fuel years. This energizes what otherwise might read like a digression, Nikiforuk's chapter about economists, but his basic point is that we've built an entire culture that ignores, deliberately and pathologically, our absolute dependence on the cheapest of fuels. That includes all of our sciences, not just our corporations. "A once distinguished moral philosophy has degenerated into a bogus science whose experts offer predictions more inaccurate than daily weather forecasts" (p.131): it's not a fair comment on economics, entertaining as it might be, but on the other hand, do economic projections consistently account for the historical accident of fossil fuels and their rampant consumption?

This book isn't about climate change, either. That's a shadow behind all of this, clearly, but it's not the point of the book. If you're a skeptic on climate change, if such people genuinely exist, this book might still grip you: just pay attention to the consumption of fossil fuels, and the certainty that we'll run out of accessible fossil fuels eventually, and you'll be hooked as firmly as was this anthropogenic climate change believer.

I'm uncomfortable, I should say, by Nikiforuk's equation of human slavery and technological innovation: enslaving a human is not the same as burning a barrel of oil. I appreciate that from an energy perspective, it makes little difference whether the energy consumed is the captive force of a person or the composted carbon of an ancient marsh, but the enslaved person would beg to differ. And I can't just leave that be. Don't get me wrong, I'm not as fussed as some ("For this reviewer, Nikiforuk asks too much"), or the fascinating and insightful Alanna Mitchell, who strangely remarks of Nikiforuk that "His brain is like a bacon slicer," whatever that means, but I'm bothered.

What bothers me more, though, vastly more, is the profligate waste of the planet's accumulated energy store. Or as OPEC founder Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso once said, "We are drowning in the devil's excrement" (p.181).

Nikiforuk's "slavery" metaphor gets stretched to breaking, often, and other metaphors and descriptors might have been safer and more effective and less unproductively distracting, but overall the book's point is shatteringly clear. The Energy of Slaves is a provocative, essential work, even if you may have to persuade yourself to let ride the central conceit (slavery = fossil fuels).

Or if you'd prefer, there's always Nadeah's fun cover of "Mercedes Benz." There's always a reason to just live better, or wish you could. Anybody want to buy me a new car?


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