Sep 162012
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 Andrew Nikiforuk's new book uses a loaded term but others have used it too.

by Penney Kome

Alberta author and environmentalist Andrew Nikiforuk’s new book, The Energy of Slaves, suggests that we measure our energy use in units of what might be called  “slave power”.  He  starts from the premise that machines now do the chores that societies such as the Romans and the US Southern plantations required slaves to do — and dubs those machines, “slaves”.  

The notion that we privileged Westerners are all closet slaveholders is deliberately shocking.

Nikiforuk appeals to conscience and to reason, citing 1800's slaveholders who divested themselves of human chattel in order to be self-sufficient and live a clean life.  He calculates how many hours a human would have to walk or ride a treadmill to equal the energy in a barrel of oil (3.8 years) and multiplies by 23.6 barrels a year (the North American individual average) to conclude that “every citizen employs about 89 virtual slaves.”   

Many other environmentalists have compared pollution, or climate change, to human slavery, because of the stolen lifespan. For example, if air pollution decreases human longevity by an average of a year or two — up to ten years in dense areas such as London — this may be considered a sort of slavery. Corporations save money by leaving filth in the air, and the rest of us pay the costs in reduced life expectancies.    

Many other environmentalists have compared pollution, or climate change, to human slavery, because of the stolen lifespan.

Some environmentalists want to put a price on carbon emissions as a step towards controlling them — perhaps some day listing them as hazardous. Through treaties identifying dangerous products, the world recognizes that some products cost too much in human life to be allowed on the open market — again, because of the stolen lifespan.

“Justifying asbestos trade is akin to justifying slave trade,” the Toxic Watch Alliance of India declared. “It does not behoove civilized countries like Canada and UK to endanger the lives of defenseless citizens and workers in developing country like India by exposing them to the carcinogenic fibers of white asbestos.”

[Canada regained a little global credibility on September 14, when federal Energy Minister Christian Paradis announced that Canada will finally stop subsidizing and promoting asbestos mining and sales. Canada will also drop its objection and allow chrysotile (white asbestos) to be listed as a hazardous material under the Rotterdam Convention. An estimated 107,000 people around the world die each year from asbestos-related disease — some in mining asbestos, others in handling it for their jobs, still others by unwitting inhalation.


The Harperites’ abrupt policy reversal followed new Quebec Premier Pauline Marois’ announcement that she will forbid chrysotile exploitation in Quebec. The provincial government will cancel the federal government’s $58 million loan (promised by Jean Chretien’s Liberal government) to re-open the Jeffrey asbestos mine. Paradis said the federal government will supply up to $50 million to the region to develop other local industries.] 


Similarly, the term “slavery” is more than a metaphor for the workforce building much of the Western world’s computer and telecom technology. The New York Times reported last January  (“In China, Human Costs Built Into iPad” by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza) that Apple workers in China work 12 hours a day, six days a week — for $22 a day. The article emphasized that many other computer brands commission products from similar local factories.        

Wrote Duhigg and Barboza, “Shifts ran 24 hours a day, and the factory was always bright. At any moment, there were thousands of workers standing on assembly lines or sitting in backless chairs, crouching next to large machinery, or jogging between loading bays. Some workers’ legs swelled so much they waddled. ‘It’s hard to stand all day,’ said Zhao Sheng, a plant worker…. “

After the gadgets leave the factory, and once they’re in our hands, Westerners too have been called slaves to the new 24-hour workplace. So blogged time management expert Francis Wade

“A participant in one of my time management workshops recently shared that her corporate culture has evolved to the point where a manager who owns a Blackberry is expected to respond to email within the hour.” he wrote.  “In a few of those instances in which she took too long to respond, the results was an email to her boss’s boss with a complaint.

“This made me wonder… What happens when an employee receives the “gift” of a Blackberry or iPhone from their company? What unspoken expectations are delivered along with the smartphone? …

“…Most companies… are invading what used to be their employees’ private moments with a ‘play or else' mentality. Nights, mornings, weekends, holidays and vacations are now fair game in an increasing number of companies, and the recession has only given companies a fresh reason to turn up the pressure on the lucky survivors of the most recent layoff….”

In The Energy of Slaves (his fifth book since 2002), Andrew Nikiforuk argues that the route to human happiness lies in releasing the mechanical slaves — like the Blackberry — and abjuring the high-energy lifestyle, which places so much power and social control in the hands of petroleum and nuclear engineers. He cites Catholic theologians GK Chesteron and especially Ivan Illich’s conclusion that “high energy consumption degraded human relationships as inevitably as it destroyed watersheds, mountains and forest. Societies that overindulge in energy consumption, [Illich] warned, ultimately lost their freedom, their resilience, and their independence.”

In some ways, The Energy of Slaves picks up where Nikiforuk’s next-to-last book left off. Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of the Continent argued that Alberta has become a “petro-state”, a jurisdiction run by and for oil interests — and that Canada is becoming one too. With The Energy of Slaves, he brings the question of governance down to the individual and household. The book is bound to be controversial — challenging people to re-evaluate how much their comfort costs themselves and the earth — but with luck it should spark an important conversation.

The Energy of Slaves, Douglas & McIntyre, 2012 (Greystone Books, David Suzuki Foundation)


About Penney Kome

Penney Kome is an award-winning author and journalist who has published six books with major publishers. She is also the Editor of Straight Goods. She is co-editor with Patrick Crean of Peace: A Dream Unfolding (1986, Sierra Club Books). She started marching against the atomic bomb when the placards were taller than she was, and she emigrated from the US to Canada in protest against the war in Vietnam.

© Copyright 2012 Penney Kome, All rights Reserved. Written For:

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