As the oilsands continue to expand — clearing forest, digging earth and pooling effluent — there’s more than just nature that is being shunted aside. According to journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, we’re also burying debates about what it all means in the process. And so, in his new book, The Energy of Slaves, he revives some old ideas that remain fresh and takes them to an exhaustively researched new starting point.
“If there’s any place in Canada where we should be having wide-open debates about energy — its character, its nature and its development — it should be here,” he says over coffee in Calgary. “And what happens when anybody raises even a question about the pace and scale of development in the tarsands? ‘Oh well you’re fucking Greenpeace, or you’re this or you’re that.’”
Peppering his conversation with expletives, it would be easy to paint Nikiforuk as an angry ideologue, but that’s simply not the case, in person or in print. His latest book takes us from the use of slaves in building society to the present-day use of energy slaves, slurping up oil and gas in order to give us a level of societal opulence never before seen. The arc is presented matter-of-factly and helps to illustrate the gooey bind we find ourselves in.
“We’re locked into high energy living, which is really high carbon spending too,” he says. “We have all these freakin’ slaves, we’ve become fat and lazy and extremely comfortable, and like the slave holders of old, we don’t even want to have a discussion about this.”
Nikiforuk blames this silence on the fact that Big Oil dominates the conversation, but he also acknowledges that the comforts afforded by oil and its mechanical slaves are a balm for people not wanting to address the inevitability of change. He calls the oil age “a hell of a joyride.”
From a historical arc, Nikiforuk takes us on a journey through our increasingly complex world, from the politics of the petro state (Alberta is textbook in this definition, save for the military spending), to the absurdities of economics, to Japan’s energy crisis and what it means for the rest of the industrialized world.
These are not new ideas, at least not all of them. There are astute observations about the dangers of mechanical slaves and the new capitalism that date back to the 19th century, but Nikiforuk has skilfully weaved these old ideas into the contemporary sphere in an attempt to create a concise metaphor for a larger discussion about where we need to go.
His logic is sharpest when he focuses on the rate of energy returns and the changes that have occurred in efficiency since the early days of oil. Our rates of return are diminishing and the high returns that led to our complex world of luxuries are gone.
“We can argue and rail against the tarsands in terms of carbon emission and pollution, but the thing that’s going to get us there are how poor those damn returns are,” he says.
“Big Oil can make a lot of money off that, but civilization can’t run on this shit for long. It is not providing the surplus. We haven’t had that conversation at all.”
Those waiting for the big sales pitch on renewables from Nikiforuk will have to hold their breath a while longer. Although he thinks that we need to invest heavily in cleaner forms of energy, he doesn’t see it as a panacea. He says that if we do renewables the same way we’ve done oil and gas, “we’re going to be really fucked.”
“They thought the transition would be glistening windmills and solar panels in their front yard, when in fact the transition begins with an economic dislocation and disruption,” he says. “The same way the industrial revolution began.
“Unfortunately I think going down the energy ladder might be a lot harder than it was climbing up the energy ladder.”
So, the book and the author aren’t the most optimistic, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Yes there will be shocks, but there is only one conclusion to be drawn, according to Nikiforuk: we have to use less energy and give up some of our slaves.
“That doesn’t mean that everything will be bad,” he says. “I mean, I think relocalizing food production, I think that’s a good thing; getting more people involved in agriculture and farming, that’s a good thing; reducing the complexity of having to deal with so many mechanical, digital, electrical slaves in your life, I think most people are going to welcome that and, in many ways, are looking for that, because they can no longer cope with the complexity of machines in their lives.”