Source – thestar.com
– “…Everything in modern life is congested—our politics, our trade, our professions and cities have one thing in common: they are all congested. There is no elbow-room anywhere . . . There can be but one path of escape, and that is backwards.”
– Arthur Penty , Guilds and the Social Crisis , 1919″
Andrew Nikiforuk denounces the Energy of Slaves
Every oil company and petrostate today whistles a patriarchal tune. The American Petroleum Institute says the world needs more energy because oil drives “the American dream” and gives people the freedom to move anywhere, anytime. For Rex Tillerson, chairman and ceo of Exxon Mobil Corporation, the recipe for global prosperity is simple: “We must produce more energy from all available and commercially viable resources.”
Pipeline builders echo that the world is “clamouring for more energy.” With religious fervor, Shell executives swear that they will “produce more energy for a world with more people” so that millions can climb up “the energy ladder.”
These self-serving arguments from the world’s petroleum brokers are based on a singular falsehood: that more energy translates into better living. Decades of human slavery peddled the same lies. Eighteenth-century Liverpool and Bristol slave traders contended that trafficking in human energy was “the best traffic the kingdom hath”; the world needed more slaves to end global drudgery and provide the necessities of life.
One 1749 pro-slavery pamphlet declared that “the most approved Judges of the Commercial Interest of these Kingdoms” had deemed slavery “most beneficial” because it employed ships and seamen. Slaves, the pamphlet said, were “the daily bread of the most considerable of our British Manufactures.”
A popular American defense of slavery argued that “the products of labor feed and clothe the world, and thus conduce to the welfare and happiness of mankind. Coerced labor is better than no labor.” Every dominant energy system, from human slavery to nuclear power, has regarded itself as the master resource and has defended its reign with combustible rhetoric and the call for more.
Yet none of these arguments are rational, moral, or equitable. And despite the claims that high energy spending will give us all better lives, happiness research yields some startling insights into the nature of energy consumption. North Americans now use up to 50 barrels a person a year equivalent in oil, petroleum, atoms, and electricity. (Direct oil spending amounts to 23 barrels per person.)
Americans, says University of Manitoba energy expert Vaclav Smil, “have been living beyond their means, wasting energy in their houses and cars and amassing energy-intensive throwaway products on credit.” Smil believes that good health and political cheer, if not happiness itself, can be achieved on much less.
Smil, who calls himself an incorrigible interdisciplinarian, has written more than 30 books and 400 scientific articles on energy, population, and natural resources. Even the billionaire Bill Gates finds his work illuminating.
“Rising energy and material consumption,” says Smil, “is not a viable option on a planet that has a naturally limited capacity to absorb the environmental byproduct of this ratcheting process.” Like the 18th-century abolitionists, Smil considers unfettered demand and consumption a deeply moral issue.
Smil refers often in his writings to a U.S. insurance statistician and demographer by the name of Alfred Lotka. Lotka was the first to observe that all living species tend to maximize available energy for more successful living. A coral reef, for instance, does a much better job at converting solar energy into diverse forms of life than a desert does. A hardwood forest will grow ever more leafy and dense as it ages to secure more available sunlight.
“In the struggle for existence, the advantage must go to those organisms whose energy-capturing devices are most efficient in directing available energies into channels favorable to the preservation of the species,” wrote Lotka.
Ten thousand years ago, a hunter-gatherer collected the energy equivalent of 1.5 barrels of oil a year from plants and animals. Chinese peasants upped the ante in 100 B.C. with wood and coal to secure a fortune of three barrels of oil equivalent per capita a year. That harvest didn’t change much until the Industrial Revolution.
But by 1880, coal and steam slaves had exploded the amount of energy available to the average person to the equivalent of 15 barrels of oil. A hundred years later, Europeans gorged on 26 barrels per person annually. Americans wanted more, and they got it. With 40 per cent of their energy coming from oil and another 25 per cent from natural gas and coal, they burn through 50 more barrels per capita annually.
Given that the United States consumes twice as much energy as the richest European nations, Smil poses an impolite question: What does it get back in return? “Are Americans twice as rich as the French? Are they twice as educated as the Germans? Do they live twice as long as the Swedes? Are they twice as happy as the Danes or twice as safe as the Dutch?”
The answer is a profound no. On quality of life indicators such as child mortality and educational achievement, the United States doesn’t even rank in the top 10. Americans have much higher rates of obesity, suicide, murder, and incarceration than do Europeans and the Japanese. Moreover, American literacy and numeracy rates are in steep decline.
And research continues to show that Americans are less happy today than they were 50 years ago. The majority of U.S. citizens now say they detest the accelerated nature of their labor alongside inanimate slaves. All of the research, in fact, shows that happiness consists in the very things traditionally denied to slaves: healthy children, close friends, a loving spouse, good health, and rewarding work.
According to Vaclav Smil, 10 million U.S. households boast an income of $100,000 a year. With these dollars, the residents typically consume 40 per cent more energy in heating, air conditioning, and electrical slaves than do people making $15,000 a year. The fuel efficiency of the mechanical slaves parked in their heated garages did not improve by even a gallon between 1986 and 2006. The richest world cohort in human history jets about the globe to shop, travel, or kill boredom. “The energy cost of their extensive air travel alone may prorate to more refined fuel per month than most families use in their cars per year,” says Smil.
But this massive consumption of energy shouldn’t be confused with quality of life. After looking at a variety of indicators, Smil made a surprising discovery: once individual consumption levels had reached seven barrels of oil equivalent a year, not much happiness was gained by burning more energy.
In fact, energy consumption above 17 barrels yielded rapidly diminishing returns. Low infant mortality, a healthy diet, high life expectancy, and decent housing, say Smil, can all be achieved with energy spending three times less than what the average North American now throws away.
“Insofar as political freedoms are concerned,” he adds, “they have little to do with any increases of energy above the existential minima [1.5 barrels a day]; indeed some of the world’s most repressive societies have high or even very high energy consumption.”
Low-energy cultures have always understood these truths. Before oil fundamentally reengineered the American character, Thomas Paine, one of the nation’s radical founders, noted, “’tis dearness only that gives everything its value.” Excessive energy use has alienated the United States from the very ideals championed so elegantly by Paine:
“When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend. Because I am the friend of its happiness; when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government.” No American could believably make such a boast today.
High energy consumption nourishes highly narcissistic cultures. Since the 1970s, when domestic oil production peaked in the United States, the country has refused to recognize any real change in its energy fortunes. As noted by the essayist Daniel Altman, self-obsessed Americans tend to do what they want regardless of the consequences for other people. Some believe that they are entitled to superhuman wealth even when the country’s dwindling oil supplies deliver nothing but debt. Many Americans consistently reject taxation that might serve future generations or the current good of their communities.
Explains Altman, “In recent decades Americans have encountered far more inequality and far less social mobility than their parents. But narcissism leads these same Americans to reject redistributive tax systems.”
Given his findings, and the fact that it would take five times more energy than the current global supply to extend these profligate energy habits to the rest of the world, Vaclav Smil proposes something other than this “utterly impossible option.” He wrote that “we had plenty to gain earlier as we were moving along the energy escalator — but now the affluent world is within the realm of limited to grossly diminished returns.” The libertarian pursuit of more and more energy must be replaced with a more ethical and conservative imperative: limiting consumption . . .
The rising unhappiness of Americans over the last century has been well documented by a number of scholars. In his famous study Bowling Alone , political scientist Robert Putnam noted that mobility and obsession with material things had come with a high civic price. Based on 500,000 interviews, Putman found that Americans had lost the value of friendship (what oil-funded academics call “social capital”) and conviviality.
They rarely talked to neighbors or attended public meetings, and they belonged to fewer social clubs. They locked their doors and signed fewer petitions. They invited friends and relatives over for dinner less often. They spent more time glued to screens or alone in their cars, commuting. Based on Putnam’s data, collected between 1975 and 1998, the places with the lowest “social capital” ratings included the petrostates of Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana . . .
All energy issues are moral ones. The Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis grasped this fundamental truth with a gentle fierceness. In The Abolition of Man , Lewis wrote, “Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.”
Lewis compared the modern fascination with power to an Irish folktale: when a fellow discovered that a certain kind of woodstove reduced his fuel bill by half, he ordered a second stove, in order to warm his house with no fuel at all. “It is the magician’s bargain: give up our soul, get power in return. But once our souls, that is, our selves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls.”
The pursuit of right livelihood now leads all thinking people in one direction only: the consumption of less oil and less industrially packaged energy. In chasing happiness with energy, we have lost it. Emancipation will not proceed in a manner that is predictable, rational, or linear. It may begin, however, with a meditation on the words of Leo Tolstoy: “Energy rests upon love; and come as it will, there’s no forcing it.”
Calgary-based Andrew Nikiforuk is the author of numerous award-winning books. (GREYSTONE BOOKS)
From The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude , © 2012, by Andrew Nikiforuk. Published by Greystone Books: an imprint of D&M Publishers, and David Suzuki Foundation. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.