A Free-Market Energy Blog

Where Good Is Bad: ‘The Energy of Slaves’ (Oil as ‘servitude’?)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- November 16, 2017

“To many of us, our current spending of fossil fuels appears as morally correct as did human slavery to the Romans or the Atlantic slave trade to seventeenth-century British businessmen.”

– Andrew Nikiforuk, The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude (Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2012), p. xi.

A ran across a 2012 book by Andrew Nikiforuk, The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude, sponsored by the David Suzuki Foundation and published by Greystone Books.

In it, I encountered a unique (okay, strange) application of Malthusianism to energy. And I found the author taking the present author head on. I like that, good or bad.

The thesis of Nikiforuk’s book is that yes, fossil fuels (and oil in particular) has greatly enabled mankind in a multitude of tasks. BUT … this is not good but bad! Why? Because it is an unsustainable bad habit ….

In Nikiforuk’s words (p. xii):

Both Aristotle and Plato described slavery as necessary and expedient. We regard our new hydrocarbon servants with the same pragmatism. To many of us, our current spending of fossil fuels appears as morally correct as did human slavery to the Romans or the Atlantic slave trade to seventeenth-century British businessmen.

Criticism of Economists–and Bradley (me)

In Chapter 8, “The Economist’s Delusion,” Nikiforuk (strangely) begins with a F. A. Hayek quotation on the knowledge problem and then criticizes economists for not recognizing how prosperity and modern life is the (artificial, in his view) result of plentiful oil.

In his words (p. 131): “Oil has powered an unprecedented set of illusions: that exponential growth is normal; that self-interest is always rational; and that capital is disconnected from material resources.” Capitalism itself is “a system that justifies the use of high-energy technologies” (p. 135).

It is as if capitalism (really industrialism) got lucky because of the mineral (dense) energies. To which I respond: we are lucky, and returning to the energy poverty of renewables is to throw our good fortune away. This is the major theme of a book coauthored by Kathleen Hartnett White (the current nominee for the Council of Environmental Quality), Fueling Freedom: Exposing the Mad War on Energy (2016).

In fact, White’s book (with Stephen Moore) is the very antithesis of Nikiforuk’s The Energy of Slaves.

Nikiforuk then turns to me. He states (pp. 144–145):

Many of these ‘pseudoscientific absurdities,’ as the philosopher Jacques Ellul has called them, are recycled today on MasterResource, an economics blog started by Robert L. Bradley Jr. and partly funded by ExxonMobil.

Bradley, a former Enron associate and libertarian who in 2004 coauthored Energy: The Master Resource, claims that the world’s material progress is “the result of advances in energy technology made by people living in freedom” and so will continue unerringly. The real enemies to growth, Bradley claims, are not doom-sounding depletionists but rather Big Government ‘statism’ and environmental philosophies tha set limits on drilling in parts and oceans and on public lands.

“While the prices of individual fuels may rise,” writes Bradley,

there is little reason to believe that energy per se will grow less abundant and more costly. The lesson of history is that in free societies, individuals produce more energy than they consume.

Resources, adds the ever-optimistic Bradley,

lie not in what can be seen but in what can be envisioned. They are limited only by the boundaries of our minds and by the physical universe.

Bradley, does, however, acknowledge the importance of inanimate slaves. Thanks to hydrocarbons, the proportion of industrial world performed by human hands in the United States has fallen over the last hundred years from 90 percent to 8 percent. This blessed emancipation has given each American the fossil-fuel equivalent of about three hundred slaves, and Bradley predicts that the number of virtual slaves will only grow.

“It is hard to overstate the significance of this trend. It means not just more creature comforts but a fundamental change in the human condition,” he writes. “If we take the current population of the United States as being about 280 million people then the country as a whole has an equivalent of 8.4 billion energy slaves.”

Nikiforuk generally stated my view–and with not too much sarcasm. But just a few clarifications:

  • Am I really guilty of ‘pseudoscientific absurdities’–or do I just have a different view of the world informed by both theory and history?
  • My optimistic view that progress “will continue unerringly” misses the crucial insight (from Julian Simon) that problems occur, even major ones, but that these problems propel the improvement process. [Also, though Nikiforuk quotes Hayek, he does not differentiate Austrian (real-world) economics from neoclassical and Keynesian.]
  • I proudly acknowledge how modern energy makes more life possible and easier. Bravo fossil fuels!

Conclusion

I emailed Mr. Nikiforuk to check on his views five years out from the above book. (In the meantime, almost predictably, he declared war on hydraulic fracturing with the book Slick Water: Fracking and One Insider’s Stand Against the World’s Most Powerful Industry [Greystone Books: 2015]).

I wrote:

I have recently obtained and read your 2012 book, The Energy of Slaves. And I am glad that you considered my views.

I feel vindicated by the events since 2012 on the increasing abundance of energy minerals, the fossil fuels in particular. I think it is clear that fossil fuels will remain dominant for many decades, if not centuries, for great consumer benefit.

I do not understand your ‘slavery’ argument in light of humans being able to make their lives easier. I love my lifestyle and try to help others reach their potential too. It is civilized to live in abundance—hellish to live in poverty.

I am also quite happy to see a world with more people living longer lives, although statism (Venezuela being one example) can have us live like wild animals. I believe you saw (in 2012) energy plenty as temporary, leading to a great crash….  But the supply is clearly there, and ‘human ingenuity’ does not appear to show diminishing returns.

I asked two questions:

Is your argument that man-made climate change is not only negative but catastrophically so?   I know that Paul Ehrlich and others switched from resource (non)availability to climate change as the (new) argument.

And what, policy-wise, do you suggest as far as government intervention, even a deviation away from democracy to achieve your goals?

I will report on his response if and when it receive it.

7 Comments


  1. Charles G Battig  

    I owe an epiphany to Mr. Nikiforuk…I now realize that we humans are slaves to plants as we are inhaling the oxygen they produce just to sustain our unjust existence. Vegetarians are particularly at fault for promoting the eating this limited resource.

    Reply

  2. John W. Garrett  

    Sir:
    You are admirably polite and civil.

    I, on the other hand, would have been far less polite and civil. I don’t suffer fools gladly.

    Reply

  3. Ed Secor  

    The term “Capitalism” is a derisive term coined (I believe) by Karl Marx, to promote his own economic concept, Socialism. It was so named to hint that capital, not people, make economic decisions, and must therefore be bad somehow.

    I prefer the term “free market economics” which makes clear that people are free to make their own economic decisions with a minimum of influence or direction from society’s elites. People can thus, freely and individually, react to changing conditions in their own best interests rather than be forced to conform to a rigid (and ultimately person-unfriendly) system that succeeds only in the minds of the anointed. These socialist ideas require the public’s unwilling conformance to fascist theory, and are much closer to actual slavery than is free market economics.

    Mr. Bradley, keep up the good work.

    Reply

  4. Wayne Lusvardi  

    I am never surprised with how the political Left twists and inverts reality. Nikiforuk’s thesis that fossil fuels is tantamount to “slavery” reminds me of George Orwell’s quote:

    George Orwell — ‘War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.’

    Reply

  5. rbradley  

    Update: I have emailed author Nikiforuk twice and have not received a response.

    Reply

  6. Deep Ecology Applied to Hydraulic Fracturing (Nikiforuk goes strange, again) - Master Resource  

    […] year, I profiled the peculiar views of Andrew Nikiforuk, author of The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New […]

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  7. "The Ideology of Fossil Fuels" (Deep Ecology/Malthusian/ Postmodern/Totalitarian Thought Today) - Master Resource  

    […] thought. Lim’s take is a step beyond even that of the deep ecologist Andrew Nikiforuk, who stated in The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude […]

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