A Dark Dystopia

This petro-history paints modern humans as helpless captives to our own high-tech servants

As luck would have it, just as I finished reading Andrew Nikiforuk’s new book, The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude, my copy of The New York Times arrived and, with it, salvation. There on the front page was an article explaining that in two states, it is legal for doctors to prescribe lethal doses of barbiturates for those wishing to commit suicide. Aha, I thought, a glimmer of hope.

All of which is to say that Nikiforuk’s latest book is a remorselessly tragic tale of our species’ stupidity, profligacy, ignorance and greed. Here, Nikiforuk asks a question he says few have bothered to ask since oil gushers began spewing forth their black gold: who is being served by all the wealth that oil has made?

His answer is sobering. He contends that modern humans have become slaves to oil, that our entire civilization now bends itself to serve oil rather than oil serving us. Every facet of life has been disfigured and pathologically corrupted, including agriculture, the family, economies, industry, science, health, politics, geopolitics, the military and cities.

And with oil becoming more expensive, dirtier to produce and rarer, our civilization will become more and more mutilated as oil wrestles to keep power, pretending that it can continue the vast energy (aka financial) surpluses of years past. The logical outcome is that unless we drastically reduce our use of energy of all kinds, civilization will falter on an unprecedented scale. And even if we go cold turkey on all the cheap and easy oil that has been the problem until now, there will never be enough renewable energy to keep us going at the levels of energy squandering we have gotten used to. The reader is left fearing that the only solution is to revert to a world run on human muscle and solar power and hope a few of our seven billion will make it through the cataclysm to come. Bottom line: if you have got a plot of land where you can grow your own food, hold on tight and learn to hoe.

Nikiforuk is a renowned Canadian investigative reporter, winner of America’s Rachel Carson Award for his recent book, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, and twice shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction, which he won in 2002 for his work on the late Alberta farmer and iconoclast Wiebo Ludwig. His brain is like a bacon slicer and he has applied it to, at different times, education, pandemics, beetles, bitumen, saboteurs, the economy and water policy. An impeccable, wide-ranging researcher and prolific writer, his canon shows a rather touching small-c conservative bent: things used to be better, modern civilization has fatally messed up multiple times and the future will only be bright if we revert to the good old ways.

In The Energy of Slaves, this theme comes through with Nikiforuk’s use of the word “respect.” For example, in his chapter savaging the growth of cities (“By any definition,” he writes, “the modern city has become a human feedlot”), he writes that before industrialization, cities were trim and useful. They were “good,” unlike today. “Good cities lived in respectful balance with the countryside,” he writes. “Industrial machinery destroyed that balance with cheap things, cheap transportation, and even cheaper standards,” he writes, quoting the agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry. The book is an unremitting, furious howl cataloguing the loss of the respect we humans once had for ourselves and each other back in those halcyon days of the Middle Ages, say, before massive energy surpluses wrecked everything.

In Nikiforuk’s Dantean dystopia, a special circle of hell is reserved for economists. With the promulgation of neoliberal philosophies, these practitioners of the “dismal science” have asserted that money and markets, supply and demand, trade and production are all that is important, conveniently forgetting that all of it, every penny, relies on energy. Of course, that is why a tool such as a carbon tax will never take off.

“In insisting that labor, markets, and technology make the world go round, neoclassical economists have ignored the primary source of all wealth: energy. They have disregarded several thermodynamic laws and abused much math. They have also mistaken the creation and exchange of money for the production of real wealth … A once distinguished moral philosophy has degenerated into a bogus science whose experts offer predictions more inaccurate than daily weather forecasts,” Nikiforuk says.

And it is not just that, as a result of all this jiggery-pokery, we have become slaves to oil. We have become slave owners ourselves, blindly running our civilizations, not to mention our households, on the backs of machines and systems that depend on oil. One researcher reckons that every North American family has the energy equivalent of 400 human slaves running gadgets ranging from iPods to cars to furnaces to lawn mowers, and we are buckling under the complexity of keeping them going, Nikiforuk reports. Because we are blind to the truth of that situation, we have adopted the classic mindset of unthinking slave owners, not caring about the consequences of our ownership, just needing the slaves to perform.

So we are both slave owners and slaves. Bear with me. When it comes to food, we are “slave-like” industrial food consumers, unthinkingly eating whatever the industrial-agricultural complex pushes next, unaware that food production is founded on oil-based fertilizers, oil-based transportation, oil-based harvesting and planting machines. As workers, we are slaves because our labour is feeding the oil machine. America is a laughable buffoon of a slave to Middle East sheiks who control oil supply. Citizens of developed countries are pathetic economic slaves to rising energy prices and the flow of capital to oil-producing states. Albertans, who have money from the oil sands, hire more temporary foreign workers per capita than Americans, and are therefore more literal slave owners. “People with oil can afford slaves,” Nikiforuk asserts, describing Albertans.

And the dividends that we modern humans are supposed to have reaped from this state of affairs? Sure, we live longer, but we are not happy; we stow our elderly in institutions instead of taking care of them; we have little leisure, rotten food, masses of debt and dreadful living conditions. Democracy is in its death throes as governments kowtow to oil and stop protecting the interests of their citizens. We are, according to one study Nikiforuk quotes, even being betrayed by scientists, who, captive to the “petrostate,” are failing to match the technological advances of their colleagues in the brave era before 1873, despite all the cash thrown at them.

To quote Bob Dylan: “Ain’t no use jivin’, ain’t no use jokin’, everything’s broken.”

About halfway through The Energy of Slaves, the whole slavery argument fell apart for me. I started to wonder who the heck is the ultimate slave owner, because, by definition, if we are all slaves, someone must be profiting at the top of the heap. Is it the head of Exxon or Shell or BP? Well, those companies are publicly traded, and probably millions of us hold shares in them through mutual funds and other scams. So, are we the ultimate slave owners of ourselves?

I remember doing research in Paramaribo, Suriname, where slaves were shipped in from Africa centuries ago to work the Dutch-owned sugar cane plantations. Its museum on the history of slavery features unimaginably massive, corroded iron hooks used for hanging up slaves who had escaped and, alas, been caught. They haunt my imagination still. The well-used and carefully executed instruments of physical mutilation, the stories of unending rape, desperate escape, psychological torment, bloody slaughter, anguished separation from family and home, imprisonment and back-breaking labour make my situation here in my comfy home in Toronto with my compliant iPod slave feel like a bit of a soft go, slavery-wise.

Which is not to say that Nikiforuk’s basic analysis is incorrect. Just that it is not as one-sided, as paranoic, or as clearly demarcated as he makes it seem. I fear that just as our society is disfigured by dependence on cheap oil, his analysis is disfigured by rage. Can you really believe that modern cities are simple human feedlots? It seems to me that there is more here than that. I look around and see art, joy, neighbourhoods, bookstores, communities, families, gardens, thriving local businesses and parks. Plus, for the record, people who live in modern industrialized cities use less carbon per person that people who live on farms. Just saying.

And sure, we are in thrall to the industrial agricultural machine with its Frankenfoods and big tractors. But there is a surge of people kicking up against this. Look to Europe. Look to Canada’s organic food revolution, locavore lust and farmers’ markets. It may not be the mainstream, but it is apparent and growing. And while neoclassical economics may not take the cost of energy into account, some modern economists do. Australia, not to mention British Columbia, has a carbon tax. The European Union has made huge advances in putting a value on carbon dioxide and China is pouring money into renewable technologies. There is movement. Is it enough? Not a chance. But it is not the bleakness of nothing. The threads Nikiforuk so carefully untangles here do not all run in the same direction.

And science? Nikiforuk dismisses the invention of computers out of hand, as well as virtually every scientific advance of the past century. But that downplays the immense amounts of information and connectivity that are available now compared to just a few years ago. With information and connectivity come possibilities for change, one could argue.

And this oily system we are working for did not spring up out of malice aforethought to blight civilization. We, all of us and our ancestors before us, helped give it birth and are supporting it with some level of buy-in. It is not sheer blindness and ignorance and lack of control. We play a role that most of us at least partly understand. Some of what has gone on since those idyllic Middle Ages—and, by the way, were they, really? I mean, feudalism?—strikes me as humans just bumbling along being humans, messy, greedy, unfair and occasionally filled with grace. No grand plan. Armchair psychology, here: I think it is the immorality of that lack of foresight and our inability to shift course now that really enrages Nikiforuk. It is the American historian Barbara Tuchman’s march of folly unfolding in real time and, as he knows, it will be dire.

There is a slavery argument here that Nikiforuk does not explore and that I find compelling. You could look at who will be most affected by the pollution from our rampant use of fossil fuels since about 1750. The pollution in this case is carbon dioxide and, as it collects in the atmosphere, it is destabilizing planetary systems including climate and ocean chemistry. The developed world has been by far the biggest contributor to the increase in carbon concentrations in the atmosphere and ocean over time. In absolute terms, the United States is the biggest contributor, with 27.2 percent of emissions from 1751 to 2008, according to the NASA climate scientist James Hansen. On a per capita basis, the highest contributor over those years is the United Kingdom, because it has been industrialized for so long and was such a fervent user of coal. In that per person reckoning, the U.S. comes in at second place, followed by Germany at third and little old Canada at fourth in the world, such fossil gluttons we are.

And while drought in the U.S. this year and its ferociously odd weather patterns tell us that the U.S. is feeling the effects of climate change, Americans’ pain lags far behind that of, say, Bangladeshis’, who have been putting up with catastrophic floods for years, or of the residents of the Horn of Africa, whose perishing drought can be linked directly to climate change alterations from the warming seas. Neither Bangladeshis nor Sudanese, nor Ethiopians nor Kenyans, Eritreans, Djiboutians or Ugandans figure large in the tally of total carbon emissions over time.

The reality is that our developed-world lifestyles are built on the backs of people who are losing livelihoods, homes and lives as a result of carbon pollution. To me, that says these historically big emitters who have contributed the most to the extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should be first in line in reducing emissions and ultimately getting some of that ancient carbon out of the atmospheric system. The UK and Germany have taken that stance to heart. The fact that here in Canada and in the U.S. we have not is cynical. That here in Canada we are actually obstructing the actions of countries that want to reduce the planet’s carbon load—as we did in Durban in December at the climate talks—is a moral outrage. But it is potentially fixable at the polling booth.

So, is it time for the lethal barbiturates? In the last few pages of his ghastly recitation, Nikiforuk gives a tiny nod to hope. A “haphazard and improbable emancipation movement has begun to take shape,” he says. People all over the world are walking away from petroleum and writing a new moral narrative that helps them live within their means without squandering energy. “By burying the chains, we can find a new livelihood and an old freedom,” he writes in the book’s final line.

I devoutly want that to be true. But I am a lapsed medieval scholar and wonder whether there really was an old freedom. And after Nikiforuk has excoriated us unmercifully for the better part of 300 pages for our sins, questioned whether we even have the moral fibre to reform, and then reminded us that no new form of energy will save us down the road anyway, I remain unconvinced that he believes in our redemption. Knowledge is power, they say. But hope is more powerful, more transformative, and it is in desperately short supply here. Alas.