First aired on The Current (12/10/12)
North American society runs on oil. Cheap oil. Thanks to oil, we've made great industrial, economic and technological advances. But we've also gone to war over it, harmed the environment with it and compromised future generations because of it. Calgary author Andrew Nikiforuk believes that our oil dependency is a lot like slavery and is morally, ethically and philosophically questionable. He argues that it needs to stop, and he explains why in his new book, The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude.
Nikiforuk knows this isn't going to be easy: oil is everywhere. "Oil is embedded in just about everything we purchase and buy," he told The Current guest host Jim Brown. Nikiforuk cites the fact that 85 per cent of all our energy is currently derived from oil. It takes oil to mow your lawn, drive to work, and keep your family clean and fed. Oil encouraged the industrialization of agriculture, made urban sprawl possible and even changed global economics and politics thanks to exponential linear growth. "Oil has allowed us to think about economics as though energy doesn't matter," he said. "We're now learning that's a critical mistake."
So how is using oil like having slaves? Nikiforuk argues that both systems are about energy and equity: we captured and controlled something in order to create energy to subsidize our own lifestyles. "Slavery, first and foremost, was an energy institution," he said. "Shackling human muscle was about getting work done." And slaves "were socially dead" to their owners. "They did not have a life outside of slavery," and did not have rights or freedoms. While slavery was eventually abolished, Nikiforuk argues that our attitudes about energy and entitlement haven't changed. We simply transferred them to another energy source -- hydrocarbons -- and the consequences of our cavalier attitudes to another entity -- the environment. "What slavery really demonstrated was that we don't really know how to use energy wisely and that we can be incredibly abusive and barbaric."
Our reliance on oil and the machines it runs also has other effects. Like the slave owners in ancient Greece and Rome, Nikiforuk sees us getting a little too comfortable and a little too complacent in our position of power. "When you've got a lot of slaves at your command, you tend to get a little bit fat. You tend to get a little bit lazy. You tend to get a little incompetent because there's not much that you do for yourself any more. You get all these slaves to do it [for you]," he said. He sees the same thing happening today, thanks to our increasing roster of oil-fuelled machines that clean us, feed us, entertain us and transport us.
Nikiforuk isn't the only person to recognize that our dependency on oil is a problem: oil-centred issues like renewable energies and the industrialization of India and China are subjects of conversation internationally. But he's one of the few who argues that the only way to abolish this new kind of slavery is to drastically reduce our energy consumption. Renewable sources of energy, like wind power, solar power and geothermal power, are only part of the solution, he says. Building them will cost energy and once they are built, they aren't as reliable as hydrocarbons. "We tend to think that every solution to our problems can be solved by deploying more high-energy technologies," Nikiforuk said. It doesn't take into consideration the financial, social and moral costs of building new energy sources. Each kind of energy source comes with its own set of problems and simply replacing one energy source with another doesn't address the deep moral and philosophical problems at the root of it all. "We really need to start asking ourselves 'How much energy do we really need?'"
Using less oil is about environmental vitality and economic stability. But it's also about personal prosperity. We don't need an endless supply of energy to be happy, Nikiforuk argues. We just need more self-awareness and social awareness. "By addressing these fundamental issues of how much energy we use and how much we're entitled to and by embracing the idea that we can actually be much happier by employing less and by getting rid of some of the energy slaves in our lives we can be much more vital and productive people."