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The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude

by Andrew Nikiforuk

Andrew Nikiforuk has written extensively on the oil industry; he won the 2002 Governor General’s Literary Award for Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig’s War Against Big Oil. With his new book, Nikiforuk adds a robustly researched and smoothly written overview of the many challenges confronting our devotion to fossil fuels, particularly the increasing economic and environmental costs of oil production and consumption. He has also, not incidentally, packed his book with some interesting material on the history of slavery. Unfortunately, his strenuous effort to connect the two subjects – beyond employing them in an otherwise interesting and illuminating analogy – ultimately drags down his argument.

The analogy: the energy derived from fossil fuels and the machines that require them is equivalent to the productive power of billions of slaves. The productivity of the U.S. economy now based on fossil fuels, Nikiforuk contends, would require the work of 84 billion slaves to achieve. On its own this is a fascinating insight that tells us a good deal about the economic influence of those who own oil wells and factories, as well as how radically our lives would change should the oil run out. Unfortunately he stretches the analogy to suggest a moral equivalency between the practice of human slavery and our modern use of “energy slaves” (cars, toasters, factories, etc.).

This shift, from an illustration of the enormous power of industrialization to an argument that machines are inherently immoral, is entirely unconvincing. There may be many reasons to condemn the burning of fossil fuels, but its similarity to slavery – the act of treating another human being as mere property – is not one of them. This problem afflicts the book in myriad ways, including Nikiforuk’s inconsistency in the application of the term “slave”: in the author’s conception, machines are slaves, individuals are slaves to large energy companies, and U.S. presidents are slaves to oil-rich countries.

If readers are able to look past this false equivalency, they may be able to glean value from The Energy of Slaves. For this reviewer, Nikiforuk asks too much.