Our Slaves

by: Posted on: November 23, 2012

Photo: Book: THE ENERGY OF SLAVES Oil and the New Servitude, by Andrew Nikiforuk

Andrew Nikiforuk is the author of THE ENERGY OF SLAVES Oil and the New Servitude and an award-winning Canadian journalist who has written about education, economics, and the environment for the past two decades.

Editor’s Note: If slavery is something we claim to be repulsed by, why are abolitionists so hard to come by? This is a questionnaire with Andrew.


What is an energy slave?

Energy slaves perform work for us in our homes and offices. Some are mechanical and do heavy lifting. Others transport us and carry us around. Cars, of course, are our most favorite energy slaves. Other energy slaves include digital gadgets that perform all sorts of mental or entertainment activities. (The first industrial revolution was about the mechanization of muscle; the second has focused on the mechanization of mental work.)

The majority of these inanimate slaves are fueled by hydrocarbons or in the case of digital slaves, embedded with oil. The average US citizen employs approximately 89 slaves fed largely by petroleum everyday. The rich employ many more slaves than that. Forty years ago the average North American employed but 30 slaves. The exceptionality and power of North America depends on the deployment of energy slaves. With cheap fuels the system worked but now that hydrocarbons are becoming more extreme and expensive, the system is crumbling.

Does the existence of slavery require the violation of natural rights? If so, what rights are being violated by our energy slave-dependent economy?

Slavery, in any form, creates a number of moral and philosophical problems. How many slaves is one entitled too and how should one treat them? And how does slavery change the emotional and spiritual household of the master? Energy slaves raise similar questions about scale, morality and rights. How many energy slaves should we be able to employ and what are the limits? To what extent should households go into debt to buy more energy slaves? How do energy slaves affect social equity? And what have we given up to be comforted by energy slaves in an ever increasingly complex and authoritarian society designed more for energy slaves than people?

What learning opportunity did America let slip away after it abolished domestic human slavery? Why was this opportunity not seized?

When the United States abolished slavery and married oil in the 19th century, the nation turned its back on its origins. The founders of the United States imagined a nation that was self-sufficient, self-employed, resilient yet highly communal. Oil made possible a highly materialistic and individualistic culture instead.

After emancipation the US did not find meaningful employment for freed slaves (it would not even give them land) and the rapid deployment of machines in urban workplaces deprived most white men of meaningful work too.

Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that when a man puts a shackle around the neck of slave, he puts one around his own neck too.

That’s the sort of conversation that America lost. Cheap energy erases all sorts of opportunities and memories. It is a drug.

Who are the Abolitionists of today?

Abolitionists today are largely greens and most environmental types don’t really understand that. Many argue for a reduction in energy spending as well as limits on CO2 emissions. Such policies really mean using fewer energy slaves. And this explains why Big Oil truly dislikes the environmental movement. They fear what it could become with faith-based leadership.

As you quote Albert Camus, “freedom is the concern of the oppressed”. Why should we all be concerned with energy slaves’ freedom?

We have become slaves to an energy system largely run by Big Oil that cares little about freedom or purposeful human work. Governments, in turn, have become slaves to oil revenue or oil debt.

Modern citizens are really slaves to the fossil fuel system and we need to become more and more concerned about the evolution of political oppression in complex societies running out of cheap oil.

Questioning this dominant energy system has become as dangerous and inflammatory as challenging slavery in the 18th century.


One Response to “Our Slaves”

  • That's a cveler answer to a tricky question
    by: Wilmaon: Saturday 16th of February 2013

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Articles On Ideas

Ideas: Lessons learned, perspectives, advice and more by and for organizers working toward a more democratic society.