Earlier this year (2014) I wrote a critique of the best-selling book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.”  I made the case that the decline in direct violence (war and crime) was accompanied by an increase in indirect violence (ecological destruction, labor exploitation, colonialism etc.) which arose from industrialization and the use of energy resources, and I faulted Pinker for glossing over this aspect of his subject.
The use of fossil fuels, and later nuclear energy, created a new form of slavery that degraded the masters’ spiritual well-being and social relations. It was a change that put the future in peril and increased human misery by damaging ecosystems and forcing millions of people to earn their living by the dictates of the extractive industries and the technological bureaucracies of nation states obsessed with security and control.
Since writing that essay, I have found, unsurprisingly, other writers who have covered this ground before. In “The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude,”  Andrew Nikiforuk provides an excellent discussion of the authors of the 19th and 20th centuries who decried the effects of the new servitude of machinery, yet these earlier critiques of energy have been largely forgotten in present times, even by people who are very active in the contemporary battle against climate change.
Nikiforuk began with a brief history of slavery in Rome and in the early Industrial Revolution. The new servitude is a continuation of the same problem in a new form, one which suggests the necessary energy transition will be as contentious as the emancipation struggles of the past. If we get it wrong, our way of life may collapse like Rome’s, which never gave up its addiction to slavery. The empire just kept trying to acquire more slaves until the unquenchable demand led to decline and invasion from the regions that once supplied the slaves.
19th century America provides the most well-known example of an emancipation struggle, and the record shows that nothing was given up without a long, vicious fight. Progress was imperfect and incremental, achieved through flawed work-around solutions like the Emancipation Proclamation. Living conditions and relations between the former masters and slaves were hardly improved by the legal changes that ended slavery. No one had answers for how the freed were supposed to survive and live as equals in their new circumstances, but those who wanted slavery to end knew that society had to make a blind leap into an uncertain future. They just pushed through the necessary changes and left it to future generations to figure out the rest of it.
We can expect something similar as a disordered (in a good sense of the word) global patchwork of innovative confederations emerges in the emancipation struggle now underway, each one undergoing its own series of blunders, conflicts, political compromises and bold leaps into the unknown. No one will be able to say with certainty, “This will work. This is the answer,” but we do nonetheless know that the devolution to a low-energy society is necessary. It’s a leap of faith that has to be made.
If Nikiforuk’s theory about energy slaves seems strange, readers should note that he has merely presented an overview of numerous philosophers, sociologists, economists and scientist of the industrial age who have covered this topic before (listed below).
Others who wrote about the new servitude
Bernard Beaudreau, Wendell Berry, Jacques Ellul, Buckminster Fuller, Mohandas Gandhi, Ivan Illich, John Ise, Leopold Kohr, James Kuntsler, Lars Lerup, Alasdair MacIntyre, J.R. McNeill, Donella Meadows, Robert Putnam, Francois Quesnay, Hyman Rickover, John Ruskin, Eduard Sacher, E.F. Schumacher, Vaclav Smil, Frederick Soddy, Pitirim Sorokin, Joseph Tainter, Alfred René Ubbelohde, Thorstein Veblen, and Graham Zebel
Many of these writers lived during the time of transition, when the effects of new energy sources were more obvious to those who could see what was being traded away for the new comforts. Nowadays, their views are likely to seem peculiar because modern people have no knowledge of a time when their machine slaves were not available to them. We are unfamiliar with the hardships and benefits of life before machines, so it is hard to understand what people were griping about when they decried the wastefulness of families going for joyrides on Sundays.
Scholars of slavery note that the relationship leaves both the master and the slave chained to each other, which is not to say the two suffer equally. The slave suffers much more, and in more obvious ways. For the master, the loss of freedom that comes with the dependency on slaves, and the pernicious effects of the arrangement, take longer to become apparent. When the slaves are machines, the impact on the masters is no different. In addition to the creation of a gross dependency that makes the master lazy, unhealthy, dumb and unskilled in basic survival skills, the use of energy resources creates environmental damage and new social relationships, the worst of which is the miserable servitude required to extract energy resources.
It’s important to note here that the exploitation of energy resources has harmful impacts even if anthropogenic global warming isn’t a concern. There are still many good reasons to favor a less energy-intensive lifestyle. Firstly, doing so is good for the soul, and secondly, there will be fewer tailings ponds, oil spills and deaths from lung disease, and less mercury finding its way into the ocean food chain—to mention just a few of the benefits.
To elucidate this point, Nikiforuk described all the ways that the petro-state erodes democracy and freedom. Just about every state, province and nation that has been afflicted with the resource curse suffers in the same way. Petro-states are more corrupt, and their influence tends to go beyond the immediate interests of the industry to promoting retrograde social policies like religious fundamentalism, whether it is in the US or Saudi Arabia. Petro-states buy off their citizens with cheap fuel, low (or no) taxes, and, in some cases, provide imported slaves (the “guest workers” of Qatar, for example) so that their citizens don’t have to have contact even with their machine slaves.
The ease and comfort bought with oil brings passivity and obliterates the will for individual agency in political life. Henry Miller might have been one of the first to see what was happening when he came back to America in 1939 and wrote a book called “The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.” 
Dependence on energy complicates political participation in other ways. It requires greater centralization, standardization, complexity and concentration of power as resources become scarcer and the search for them becomes more desperate. People lose physical and mental strength, and the basic skills to make their own shelter and clothing, to gather and grow food, and to form communal bonds.
Citizens are left with little choice but to be consumers, cubicle drones and organization men and women. One can drop out and go back to the land, but the land is likely to be fracked, contaminated or claimed by state bureaucracies and corporate title. There is, essentially, no space left for individuals who want to go off the grid and establish innovative ways of rejecting the energy–intensive lifestyle. The dropout is on his own with no direction home.
Nikiforuk also covered the problem of technological solutionism and the naïve and limited view of engineers, technocrats and economists. The former two always see problems as having technical solutions, but the solutions become ever more complex, costly and elusive.
The sociologist Jacques Ellul was stunned by the narrow thinking he saw among scientists when he wrote, “When these technocrats talk about democracy, ecology, culture, the Third World, or politics, they are touchingly simplistic or annoyingly ignorant.” 
Each problem has only one answer: more technology. I would add that F. Scott Fitzgerald touched on this point when he wrote we are “borne back ceaselessly into the past” and forever separated from the “orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” 
Standard views in economics imagine that wealth expands by increasing financial capital and the exchange of goods, yet economists who focus on energy inputs see that economic growth depends on having access to energy supplies with a high EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested), an observation that was made in the 18th century by a neglected French contemporary of Adam Smith, Francois Quesnay, and later by other economists such as Frederick Soddy and Eduard Sacher.
The economic contraction of recent years is the outward sign that economic growth has stalled because we have entered the era of extreme energy, “the process whereby energy extraction methods grow more intense over time, as easier-to-extract resources are depleted.” 
The easily exploited resources are gone. The pursuit of the dregs has led to the use of more complex and dangerous techniques to get sources with less EROEI, the kind exemplified by the Alberta Tar/Oil Sands where the oil gives only an EROEI of 5 or 6,  far below the world average of 20, which itself is down from about 30 one century ago. 
A good way to understand why technical fixes won’t succeed is to rethink the standard view of food supply and population growth. A common perception is that limiting future population growth and increasing human welfare depend on expanding the food supply and delivering energy to the poorer regions of the world. However, the record shows that population grew very slowly before the Industrial Revolution, but grew exponentially afterwards. One hundred years ago the global population was a little over a billion. Now it is seven billion. Obviously, the use of hydrocarbon energy to produce fertilizer, and other technologies dependent on energy inputs, created the situation—it enabled the population to grow to seven billion.
People who hope for a technical fix to population growth imagine that a breakthrough in fusion energy, or a rapid expansion of nuclear energy, could deliver clean and consequence-free energy to meet all of humanity’s “needs” (a term that is assumed to be definable), in a world where everyone lives a First-World life style, with low birth rates emerging naturally with higher affluence. Yet there is no reason to believe that unlimited energy supplies would not lead to more population growth and greater environmental impacts. It would be a dystopia rather than a utopia in which we would come to resemble the vegetative blobs depicted so effectively in the children’s film “Wall-E,” or also in the crude satirical film “Idiocracy.”
The quest to meet all energy “needs” is as spiritually empty as the wish to never work or suffer. As we face the environmental and social consequences of extreme energy, those who thrive will be the ones who fight for emancipation, those who can accept the old precepts which all the great religions teach. Be humble. Walk softly. Accept life’s limitations and the inevitability of suffering.
Those who are trying to create a social system of low energy intensity have recognized these limits, but they are scoffed at by the techno-optimists whose false concept of helping the poor is to expand nuclear energy and fracking to four corners of the world. I’ve made my bet on who will someday be having the last laugh; if only doing so didn’t go against the aforementioned precept of staying humble.
- Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking Adult, 2011).
- Andrew Nikiforuk, The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude (Greystone Books, 2012).
- Henry Miller. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare(New Directions Publishing, 1945).
- Jacques Ellul, The Technological Bluff (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), p. 29.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925).
- “What is Extreme Energy?” The Extreme Energy Initiative. Accessed August 9, 2014. http://extremeenergy.org/about/what-is-extreme-energy-2/
- Adam R. Brandt, Jacob Englander and Sharad Bharadwaj, “The energy efficiency of oil sands extraction: Energy return ratios from 1970 to 2010.” Energy 55, no. (June 15, 2013): 693–702. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544213002776
- Andrew Nikiforuk, 210.
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