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“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
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.
For the rest of this article, please go to the Toronto Star website: http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/article/1246822–andrew-nikiforuk-denounces-the-energy-of-slaves