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The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitudeby Andrew Nikiforuk
Synopses & Reviews
Ancient civilizations routinely relied on shackled human muscle. It took the energy of slaves to plant crops, clothe emperors, and build cities. In the early nineteenth century, the slave trade became one of the most profitable enterprises on the planet. Economists described the system as necessary for progress. Slaveholders viewed religious critics as hostilely as oil companies now regard environmentalists. Yet the abolition movement that triumphed in the 1850s had an invisible ally: coal and oil. As the world's most portable and versatile workers, fossil fuels dramatically replenished slavery's ranks with combustion engines and other labour-saving tools. Since then, oil has changed the course of human life on a global scale, transforming politics, economics, science, agriculture, gender, and even our concept of happiness. But as bestselling author Andrew Nikiforuk argues in this provocative new book, we still behave like slaveholders in the way we use energy, and that urgently needs to change.
Cheap oil transformed the United States from a resilient republic into a global petroleum evangelical, then a sickly addict. Oil turned local farms into giant factories, replacing humans with machines and animals with petroleum-based fertilizers. It transformed landscapes by concentrating half the world's citizens into mushrooming megacities. Modern economics owes its unrealistic models to fossil fuels. Petro dollars have created Big Science and a new religious faith in technology. On the global stage, petroleum has fueled a demographic explosion, turning 1 billion people into 7 billion in just a hundred years. Oil has been the Viagra of the species.
Many North Americans and Europeans today enjoy lifestyles as extravagant as those of Caribbean plantation owners. Like slaveholders, we feel entitled to surplus energy and rationalize inequality, even barbarity, to get it. But endless growth is an illusion, and now that half of the world's oil has been burned, our energy slaves are becoming more expensive by the day. Even renewable forms of energy, if suffused with an industrial mindset, could destroy more than they save. What we need, Nikiforuk argues, is a radical new emancipation movement that ends our master-and-slave approach to energy. The fate of Japan, an oil-importing nation, reveals graphically what it will cost us to keep ignoring the pivotal challenge we face: how to use energy on a moral, just, and truly human scale.
By the winner of the Rachel Carson Environment Book Award
Ancient civilizations relied on shackled human muscle. It took the energy of slaves to plant crops, clothe emperors, and build cities. Nineteenth-century slaveholders viewed critics as hostilely as oil companies and governments now regard environmentalists. Yet the abolition movement had an invisible ally: coal and oil. As the world's most versatile workers, fossil fuels replenished slavery's ranks with combustion engines and other labor-saving tools. Since then, cheap oil has transformed politics, economics, science, agriculture, and even our concept of happiness. Many North Americans today live as extravagantly as Caribbean plantation owners. We feel entitled to surplus energy and rationalize inequality, even barbarity, to get it. But endless growth is an illusion.
What we need, Andrew Nikiforuk argues in this provocative new book, is a radical emancipation movement that ends our master-and-slave approach to energy. We must learn to use energy on a moral, just, and truly human scale.
About the Author
Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning Canadian journalist who has written about education, economics, and the environment for the last two decades. His books include Pandemonium; Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig's War against Oil, which won the Governor General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction; The Fourth Horseman; and Tar Sands, which won the Rachel Carson Environment Book Award and became a national bestseller.
His most recent book, Empire of the Beetle, was nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction and selected as a top book of the year by both The Globe and Mail and Amazon.ca. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.
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