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The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude by Andrew Nikiforuk
Greystone Books Vancouver/Toronto/Berkeley 2012

This is an important book that brings together a number of ideas that help explain where we are and what's likely to come. It also offers a ray of hope.

Nikiforuk argues that real wealth is best measured on energy, and that all societies are shaped by the kind and quantity of energy that is available to them. Rich and dominant societies are founded on abundant sources of energy, but energy abundance almost always leads to a concentration of control and to venality and corruption, culminating today in corrupt petrostates, including many US and Canadian states and provinces and increasingly our nations as a whole.

He explores the futility of the quest for endless energy growth and concludes with a plea for a return to simplicity and a paean to its pleasures and virtues.

What follows is a brief synopsis of some (but far from all) of the ideas in the book. I have listed all the chapters even when I took no notes from them. Numbers in square brackets refer top page numbers in the book.

1. The Energy of Slaves

Before: oil, civilization ran on a two cycle engine: the energy of solar-fed crops in the energy of slaves. [3]

The Roman Empire was based on the energy of slaves. While the Roman Empire was growing it waged endless wars of conquest that brought it hundreds of thousands of slaves from the Mediterranean and Africa. "With large supplies of slaves flooding the marketplace, the average Roman paid no domestic taxes. Stolen gold and a tax on slaves even kept the state running. But soon the Empire ran out of easy geography to annex and encountered increasingly belligerent slaves (the Germans and the Celts). As a consequence the Empire's energy returns and economic surpluses gradually dwindled. Guarding borders and provisioning a large army depleted state coffers." [10]

The European empires were also based on the energy of slaves. "[B]y the 17th century the British were easily dominating the [slave] business. As many as 90 wind-powered slave ships carried 35,000 slaves across the Atlantic in the late 1750s alone.With millions of imported slaves, the Europeans mined gold and established vast sugar, indigo, rice, coffee, tobacco, and cotton plantations. The concept of free labour made as much sense to the rich and powerful in the Age of Empire as renewable energy and reduced energy consumption do to elites today." [11-12]

2. Slaves to Energy

3. The Oil Pioneer

Modern industrial societies are built on the energy of oil. John D Rockefeller "established a new business model for the country's economy. Business was no longer about making a living. It was about making a killing, and the surplus capital created by oil made that possible." [34]

"Rockefeller introduced an abiding code of secrecy into the industry. "And he committed his firm to the outright destruction of all competitors. Rockefeller's monopolistic tools included espionage, bribery, bullying, blackmail, sabotage, and drawbacks. By controlling costs for tankers, barrels, and other parts of the business, he systematically undercut the competition. Whenever independent refiners refused to sell, Standard drop the price in the marketplace to create a 'good sweating'." [35]

"By 1920, oil had saturated every aspect of American life."[43] Geologists began to worry about the depletion of oil fields and urge the US government to encourage oil companies to acquire foreign sources of supply wherever available.[44] Thus the American Empire was born.

As well as foreign policy, oil also changed the American landscape. With the growth of the car culture, Southern California provided the template for suburban sprawl. Oil-based companies - General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone Tire and others - bought and destroyed trolley and electric railroad systems in cities all over the US. "In 1949, they were convicted of criminal conspiracy, and their ringleader, General Motors Treasurer, HC Grossman, was fined one dollar. [46]

In the 1950s President Eisenhower, impressed by Hitler's idea of a national superhighway system, began construction of the US interstate highway system. Meanwhile, returned veterans flocked to cookie-cutter suburbs. Herbert Gans a sociologist who shilled for the Levittown (the archetypal suburban development) dismissed the disappearance of farmland near big cities as "irrelevant now that food is produced on huge industrialized farms, and the destruction of raw land and private upper class golf courses seems a small price to pay for extending the benefits of suburban life to more people."

In 1957 Admiral Hyman Rickover urged a gathering of doctors "to consider soberly their responsibilities to 'our descendents - those who will ring out the Fossil Fuel Age.' Responsible living, he said, meant energy conservation, excellent education for all citizens, a new culture of self-denial, and higher taxes to fund a larger, more complex United States. The alternative was doubt, indecision, chaos, and collapse." [57]

4. The New Servitude

Oil contains a fantastic amount of energy. One person on a bicycle or treadmill would need 3.8 years of constant effort, with no breaks, to produce the amount of energy contained in one barrel of oil. "Given that the average North American now consumes 23.6 barrels of oil a year, every citizen employs about 89 virtual slaves. A family of five commands nearly 500 slaves. A nation of 300 million controls an incredible phalanx of 27 billion largely mechanical and oil fed workers." [65] A US Midwest grain farmer sitting in a giant air-conditioned vehicle can produce in two hours the amount of grain that the best Roman farmer took 350 hours to produce. [66]

But Nikiforuk argues that the owners of mechanical slaves have themselves become enslaved to their servants. In 1974, Ivan Illich calculated that the full annual cost of car ownership, including insurance payments, hospital visits, traffic tickets, road congestion, and the like, was the equivalent of 1600 hours. Since the typical male drove only 7500 miles per year that worked out to 4.7 miles an hour, the speed of a very brisk walk. [67]

In 1969, Buckminster Fuller asked a petroleum geologist to figure out what it cost Mother Nature to make 1 gallon of petroleum, including the cost of photosynthesis as well as the slow cooking by heat and pressure into crude over millions of years. He estimated the price at more than $1 million per gallon. That meant that each American burned through $300 million worth of natural capital every year. Jeffrey Dukes, an ecologist, calculated that in 1997 US coal and petroleum consumption amounted to 97 million billion pounds of carbon, a number that translates into more than 400 times all the plant matter that grows in the world in a year. [69]

The First Principle of Energy Consumption is that the wealthiest people use the most energy. "Human and petrol-based slave systems share other similarities. In the human slave world, scarcity bred respectful use; cheap abundance fostered contemptuous waste… Over time, the concentration of energy required to consistently deliver... creature comforts constructs social pyramids that crumble when slaves - or petroleum - get too expensive… [A]ny dominant energy system thrives on its own inertia and creates a cognitive dissonance that causes good and often very smart people to rationalize shocking behaviour… Just like slavery numbed Brazil, oil-based machines have locked decision-making and thwarted innovation in the United States… Last but not least every energy system creates its own startling dependencies and unpredictable dynamics.' If you put a chain around the neck of the slave,' Ralph Waldo Emerson once remarked,' the other end fastens itself around your own.'" [70]

"One of the remarkable characteristics of slaveholders as a class of people is their indebtedness… The average North American... must pay rising fuel bills to sustain an army of 89 energy slaves..." [71]

In Debt: the First 5000 Years [which is a very interesting book] David Graeber notes that people often sold themselves to pay their debts in ancient times. He doesn't think Americans behave much differently. 'The great social evil in antiquity, the thing that Sharia law and medieval canon law were trying to ensure never happened again, was the scenario in which a family gets so deep in debt that they are forced to sell themselves, or sell their children, into slavery,' says Graeber. North Americans now live on credit to support their own energy slaves and to buy largely unnecessary goods created by other energy slaves. 'You have a population all of whom are in debt, and who are essentially renting themselves to employers to do jobs that they almost certainly wouldn't want to do otherwise, to be able to pay those debts. If Aristotle were magically transported to the US he would conclude that most of the American population is enslaved, because for him the distinction between selling yourself in renting yourself is at best a legalism… We managed to take a situation which most people in the ancient world would've recognized as a form of slavery and turned it into the definition of freedom." [71-72]

5. The Unsettling of Agriculture

Oil has also taken over agriculture, driving people off the land and into cities, and replacing family farms with vast industrial factory farms. These agricultural factories are very efficient in terms of human labour and yield per acre but only at the cost of massive and unsustainable energy inputs. In the 1960s, the food system made up 12 percent of the nation's energy budget; in 2007, it gobbled up 16 percent. Raw food now travels an average of 1,500 miles. [84 - 86].

Petroleum-based farming has put more power into fewer hands. Three firms now control the entire US meatpacking business. Four firms manufacture 60 percent of the nation's chicken in factories. One company, Monsanto, controls most of the world sales of corn and soybean seed. Four firms control most of the dairy processing in the United States. Walmart has monopolized 30 to 50 percent of all US retail food sales. [87]

Standardization, another petroleum trait, has turned farming into highly socialized and fragile monocultures. [87] It has also vastly increased the waste of food. 27 percent of edible fruits, vegetables, oils, and dairy products in North America spoil in transport, rot in the fridge, age in a grocery store, or get thrown out at home. In England food waste may be as high as 50 percent. The amount of energy lost through rotting or uneaten food it accounts for 2 percent of annual oil and electricity spending in the United States. [88-89]

Factory farming has done something even more unprecedented: it has fattened the poor most of all. Modern grains are much higher in carbohydrates than previous grain varieties, and too many carbohydrates affect insulin production in the body the way fertilizers impact the nitrogen cycle. Carbohydrate consumption has made insulin levels go haywire. "Every culture in the world that has adopted US style farming practices and processed foods has also grown big and unhealthy. Some critics call a phenomenon 'peak health.'" Wherever aboriginal populations have returned to traditional diets low in carbohydrates, people have not only lost weight but who shed such health problems as diabetes. [90-92]

The industrial food system, which enslaves nearly 90% of all cultivable global land to the production of grains for export, has provoked a growing rebellion around the world. As oil prices increase, many peasants and small farmers are abandoning the so-called green revolution for old-fashioned husbandry. In the United States, the sustainable farm movement is challenged Big Ag by cultivating smaller and more diverse plots with natural manures and fewer machines. [94]

No one knows for certain what the future will bring but Cuba has given us a glimpse of the possibilities. The USSR once provided Cuba with 90 percent of its oil and nearly 60% of its food, but the Soviet state fell in 1991 and the US embargoed the island. The two events left Cuba with no fuel for its tractors and no fertilizer or pesticides for sugar and tobacco crops. The calorie intake of the average Cuban dropped from a healthy 2,600 a day to a lean 1,000. Thousands went blind from malnutrition, while pregnant women suffered and anemia. [95-96]

"In response the Cuban state turned to small farmers and entrepreneurial small urban plots to fill the food gap. Today, 81,000 acres of these urban plots employ thousands of people. A typical 1.7 acre lot might employ 25 people full-time.' What happened in Cuba was remarkable,' says Laura Enriquez, a US sociologist. 'The Cubans went for food security and part of that was prioritizing small farms.' With no petroleum-based fertilizers or pesticides at hand, the Cubans created 170 compost centers where wriggling worms now make 9,300 tons of soil year. The country also set up centers to make natural pesticides… Oxen replaced tractors, and people raised rabbits and chickens on rooftops. In short order, the small enterprises ended the food crisis, providing a rich stream of organic spinach, onions, chrives, garlic, and tomatoes. Historian J.R. McNeill says that about 80 billion hominids have lived and died on the earth over the last 4 million years. 28 percent of those hominid-years were lived after 1750; 20 percent since 1900; and 13% after 1950. Although the 20th century accounts for only 0.00025 of human history it has hosted about a fifth of all human-years. [101]

Humans capture 40 percent of the Earth's plant-energy flow for food production and 35 percent of all biological productivity in the ocean. We have also dammed, diverted, or monopolized 65 percent of the world's freshwater runoff. [107] On average each human has an ecological footprint of 5.4 acres; high-energy Americans average 24 acres, people in Madagascar only 1.2. In an equitable world, everyone would be entitled to 4.4 acres. Only Cuba occupies that spot. If we wanted to live sustainably like Cubans we would need to reduce our numbers by 20 percent to 5 billion. Only 1 billion of us could live sustainably like Americans. [109]

7. The Urban Fire

8. The Economist's Delusion

Nassem Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, warned that University economics textbooks were as unreliable and inaccurate as 15th-century medical treatises. Earlier cultures feared debt and valued the importance of redundancy ( having two bakers in the community), praised inefficiency (the source of quality), and appreciated robustness (waste not, want not). He says a modern economist would find it inefficient to carry two lungs and two kidneys since we do not need them all the time. [151]

In the first half of the 20th century oil was cheap. By 1960 the real price of oil had fallen to a level that was one third of its value in 1900, but the real price rose eightfold from 1972 to 2010, while US production fell by 43 percent. Even with energy and capital intensive shale oil from North Dakota, US well production is 25 percent below 1970 levels. As oil prices rise and become more volatile citizens will spend more dollars buying fewer mechanical slaves. [156]

9. Peak Science

Fossil fuels have powered scientific innovation but just like gasoline in cars a lot of the energy consumed has been wasted producing heat and other byproducts rather than forward progress. After the initial, largely coal-powered spurt in the 19th century, fundamental scientific progress has slowed dramatically. A vast amount of scientific research has been squandered in finding better ways for humans to kill each other, and the technological advances of the 20th century have also led to immense concentration of power in the hands of big governments and big corporations. [158-162]

French social critic Jacques Ellul points out that technology has a highly ambivalent record. The discovery of penicillin does not compensate for the devastation of Hiroshima by nuclear technology, or the destruction of the Niger Delta by scientific oil-drilling practices. Computers provide many conveniences but also make it possible for corporations, charlatans, and governments to monitor people 24 hours a day. A typical car requires less fuel to build it than it consumes during its lifetime on the road; the semiconductor industry requires 800 pounds of fossil fuels to make 1 pound of microchips. And "Each new extreme oil technique, from oil sands to oil shale, seems to cost more, takes longer to develop, and typically exceeds predicted costs, only to deliver less volume and even lower energy returns." Diminishing returns in science are now quantifiable. Fraud and plagiarism in scientific literature is on the increase. In the field of health, US life expectancy grew from 47 to 68 years between 1919 and 1950 and during that time, industry and government spent less than $300 million a year on health research. Between 1950 and today, life expectancy increased only nine years, yet in 2005 alone the US spent nearly $30 billion on health and science research while pharmaceutical companies spent another $30 billion. [164-170]

Canada and Norway have invested billions of dollars in carbon capture and storage (CCS) without producing a viable method for doing it. At best, CCS is extremely energy intensive. Nikiforuk concludes that CCS embodies the classic thinking of Big Science: it offers an energy solution that requires even more energy in an already high-energy society. It would be far more economical and effective to reduce emissions than to try to sequester them. But just as ancient Rome supported slavery, Big Science champions tools that strengthen its energy and power monopolies. [171-174]

10. The Petrostate

Perhaps the most devastating part of Nikiforuk's book is his chapter on the Petrostate. The oil industry is the most profitable enterprise on the planet. Every year it extracts more than $2.3 trillion worth of oil and gas from the ground. It represents not only the largest flow of energy but also the single greatest transfer of wealth. Together with "an oily cult of Divine Providence", the petrostate has divided the United States, as well as the world's nations, into three uneasy categories: Masters, traders, and slaves. [179]

The term petrostate was coined by political scientist Terry Lynn Karl. Her research shows that resource-poor countries generally perform better than commodity-rich ones, because scarcity breeds innovation and resilience, while oil-opulence fosters waste, corruption, consumption, and the demise of public services. [181]

In the 1930s, Canadian economist Harold Innis observed that one-crop economies such as Canada's fur or forestry trades tend to monopolize the interests and behaviour of the state. Karl took things further. She found that black gold concentrates wealth and power in the hands of a few elites. Once oil accounts for 30 percent of a nations exports, the money petrolizes the place the same way human slavery changed Rome, Brazil, and the US South. [182]

All Petrostates display similar traits including poor statecraft, ineffectual tax regimes, political extremism, and long periods of authoritarian rule. There are very few exceptions, the most notable being Norway [and Libya] but even it is not entirely immune. [182]

In petrostates such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Texas, Wyoming, Alaska, and Alberta citizens pay little or no direct income or sales tax. Their citizens demonstrate startling apathy and indifference to political affairs and a disconcerting loyalty to their petro-Masters. This type of tax structure minimizes the opportunity for citizens to protest against their government because they simply haven't paid for anything. Wherever petroleum pays government's bills, governments serve oil's development and ultimately stop representing their citizens. [183] [Under Christie Clark, BC is clearly hurtling down that road.]

During booms, oil states spend like gamblers, but quickly become miserly when oil prices fall. They make so much money from oil that corruption is rife. Oily nation-states devote a huge share of the petro pie to their military - anywhere from 20 to 36 percent of their budget, 2 to 10 times as much as non-petrostates. [184]

Another characteristic shared by petrostates is the "Dutch disease." It starts with a hollowing out of the economy by devaluing manufacturing and agriculture. Next comes the employment of vast armies of foreign workers to do the dirty work. A full blown petrostate grows nothing and imports everything. [185]

From Texas to Mexico, Iran, and Iraq, from Indonesia and Venezuela to Texas, Alabama, and Alberta, oil money allows political parties, tribes, and families to concentrate power, buy loyalty, and marginalize dissidents. From Nigeria to England, oil fosters pirate capitalism, vacuous acquisition, and an obsession with celebrity. [186-187]

Norway remains the great exception, ironically thanks largely to an Iraqi oil executive, Farouk Al-Kasim, who moved to Norway and set up and headed an independent regulator that mandated moderate oil development and cleaner extraction standards. Unlike other petrostates that typically squandered their wealth on corruption and foolish extravagance, Norway kept the country going largely on domestic taxes and used oil revenues to creat a pension fund for the day when the country runs out of oil. Yet even in Norway the publicly owned oil company Statoil has subverted the wise policy of moderate development, draining all of Norway's largest oilfields when prices were low. [188-189]

Petrostates tend to be strongly patriarchal. They consolidate their political power by bribing citizens with cheap oil. [190]

Religious and political extremism are frequent features of petrostates, not only in the Middle East where Saudi Arabia's petro dollars emboldened the once obscure fundamentalist Wahabist sect to create Al Quaeda, but also in the US where oil magnates have bankrolled both fundamentalist religious enterprises and extreme right wing political organizations like the John Birch Society and the Tea Party, and also Senator Joe. McCarthy. They have been strong supporters of economic libertarianism and of a brand of religious fundamentalism that claims that God gave man dominion over nature and established government only for very limited purposes such as providing for the common defense. [194-198]

Ten percent of global GDP now flows to the oil sector, which provides highly specialized jobs for less than 0.1 percent of the world's population [199]

With few exceptions (notably Norway) oil exporters spend very little on science research and education. [200]

11. The Surplus Devolution

A net excess of energy is what enables social and cultural progress. This has been recognized for centuries, but was quantified by Charles Hall in the 1980s when he came up with the formula for energy return on investment (EROI). It says that EROI equals energy gained, divided by the energy required to get that energy. A high EROI means that a species or a society has a large surplus to use for discretionary spending like science, education, and play. An EROI of less than one means a net loss of energy.

Both the petroleum industry and fisheries have experienced rapidly declining EROIs since 1900, but fisheries mine the current energy of sunshine while oil exhausts ancient capital, accumulated over millions of years.

Hall estimates that it took only one barrel of oil to find 1,200 more barrels in 1919. Today the ratio is just 1 to 5. The energy return from producing oil has also dropped. One barrel of oil put 24 barrels in a pipeline in 1954; today the yield is just 11. The oceans once made salmon for free, but now it takes 5 pounds of oil to fatten a single pound of farmed salmon. [204-212]

Cheap oil with returns greater than 20 EROI built modern civilization, big science, and even bigger government. Charles Hall estimates that business as usual today probably requires an EROI of at least five, perhaps as much as 10. [212]

An energy return of 10 is a significant number. Most hunter-gatherers lived on surpluses greater than that. With plummeting EROI, you already see economic constriction in the US. 46 of 50 states are broke. Universities are broke. There has been little or no increase in GDP, and no increase in energy use for six years. [214]

EROI also provides a reality check on renewable energy. Today the EROI of petroleum produced by algae is less than one. Ethanol yields a slightly positive EROI -- until you take account of climate change, soil erosion, and the rising price of food; then it go...


Tar sands and shale oil perform worse than many renewables. In 2003, the industry used 2 million horsepower in its hydraulic fracturing operations. By 2011, it will need 11 million horsepower - the amount of power generated by eight large US nuclear power plants. The EROI for shale gas is still high, about 80, but it is dropping fast. Tar sands bitumen delivers an EROI ranging from 3-to 5. [215-216]

Hall concludes that the current rates of energy consumption per capita are in no way sustainable in the long run. At best, renewable energies may only cushion the decline. [218]

12. Oil and Happiness

Manitoba energy expert Vaclav Smil asks whether oil brings happiness, and answer is a resounding "no". The United States consumes twice as much energy as the richest European nations, but ranks low in child mortality and educational achievement, and high in rates of obesity, suicide, murder, and incarceration. American literacy and numeracy rates are in steep decline, and research consistently shows that Americans are less happy today than they were 50 years ago. [222]

Smil concludes that once consumption levels reach seven barrels of oil equivalent per capita a year not much happiness is gained by burning more energy, and consumption above 17 barrels yields rapidly diminishing returns. [223]

High-energy consumption nourishes highly narcissistic cultures. Many Americans consistently reject taxation that might serve future generations or the current good of their communities. [223-224]

Really large scale use of wind and solar power would disrupt global ecosystems. There is just no way that we can sustain long-term growth in energy consumption. There is only one proper solution: "a radical decentralization and relocalizing of energy spending, combined with a systematic reduction of the number of inanimate slaves in our households and places of work."

In 1974 Ivan Illich argued that high-energy consumption degraded human relationships as inevitably as it destroyed watersheds, mountains, and forests. As societies consume more energy, and have more energy slaves to support, they become more complex and totalitarian. The more a society consumes the less equity it possesses. We must move from a culture of high-energy spending to one of low-energy living. [227-229]

Around 1940, sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, who survived both czarist and Bolshevik oppression before escaping to the United States, wrote that civilizations generally pulsated between two distinct poles - ideational cultures dominated by spiritual enlightenment and sensate cultures that sought power and enjoyment. He also observed that high-energy cultures characterized by rapid technological and scientific advances tended to be more warlike. Each of the two polar systems propagates the seeds of its own destruction by suppressing an important aspect of reality, and is eventually replaced by a new order in which the opposite culture prevails. A change in the availability of energy marks each change. [229-231]

The rising unhappiness of Americans over the last century has been well documented by a number of observers. Earl Cook, a Texas A&M geologist, described the "myths that bind high-energy societies and blind their citizens"; i.e. "that the market economy allocates even scarce resources more beneficially than government can; that the growth state is necessary for social well-being; that technology is exempt from the laws of diminishing returns; that both government and the press inform the citizens so that he exercises his franchise in a more intelligent fashion; and that although man may not live by bread alone, he makes decisions as if you did." "To end the up upheaval, revolutions and wars that had marked the ascent of high-energy consumption," Cook wrote, "we must abandon efficiency of production as a social goal and replace it by efficiency of consumption. We need to favour measures of quality of achievement over measures of quantity. And we must stop confusing momentum with progress and growth with goodness." [231-235]

"All energy issues are moral ones… The pursuit of right livelihood now leads all thinking people in one direction only: the consumption of less oil and less industrially packaged energy. In chasing happiness with energy, we have lost it." [235]

13. Japan and the Fragility Of the Petroleum Age

Oil transformed Japan's traditionally ascetic culture to one of hyper consumerism, swelled its population, changed its diet from fish, rice and vegetables to imported meat, fat, and grains. After the global oil shocks of 1971, Japan went nuclear but even before Fukushima, a series of nuclear accidents demonstrated the futility of that path. Japan's GDP shrank, nearly 40 percent of its population is unemployed, and the consumer culture has subsided. But the changes have also spurred innovation. Engineer and inventor Yasuyuki Fujimura has started a popular and growing non-electric movement and he himself has invented some 1,000 household tools that don't require electricity.


After the fall of the Roman Empire new flows of energy slowly recharged rural Europe… Unlike Rome's slaveholder elites, who had put material pursuits first, the new low-energy communities resolutely heralded a simple life… Benedict of Nursia, the son of a wealthy Roman family, founded what would become the Benedictine order.

"Benedict not only created a new community based on prayer, learning, and human labour but wrote a Constitution for religious orders [that] prized equality, chastity, service, and sharing.

For centuries Benedictines served God by living and working in communities that provided there own sovereign energy. Self-reliance was paramount. They "devoted most of their energy surpluses to the arts… The monks worked only five hours a day with their hands. They spent the remainder praying, reading, copying manuscripts, perfecting crafts, or conversing. Each monk worked in a variety of ever-changing tasks and shared the fruits of these labours. In old age, monks received good care and other privileges."

"The Benedictine monasteries flourished for a long time... Communities grew their own food, and often sold the surplus at less than market prices, to discourage greed. They shared crop knowledge and medicines with local peasants. They welcomed visitors and cared for the sick. Every monk took turns cooking and serving food at the dinner table. They read aloud to each other. They painted shrines, made glass, enameled chalices, and produced organ pipes. All in all they behaved like the best of the world's agrarian families."

"Beginning in the 10th century, the Benedictines and other orders helped to spread the use of water mills across Europe and England. But as owners of water mills and their energy surpluses, the monasteries eventually amassed much status and authority... and a surplus of coin." By the 12th century they were much criticized for avarice and greed, and "Protestants went so far as to portray monks as evil creatures shat out by devils."

"The rise and fall of the Benedictines reads like any energy fable. In the early, prayerful work, the monks used energy with grace and balance. They demonstrated that scarcity did not mean poverty; that abundance did not mean affluence; that progress did not mean momentum; that goodness did not mean growth. They prized quality of achievement and did not overvalue efficiency. With loving hands, they showed that a revolution in mind and heart could transform the wasteful energy orgies of the Roman Empire into a life that was lean and rewarding."

Today "a haphazard and improbable emancipation movement has begun to take shape. Around the world, families and groups of individuals are walking away in ever-growing numbers from petroleum and the inanimate slave culture of frantic consumption. They are exchanging quantity for quality and relearning the practical arts. Those seeking liberty eat slowly, travel locally, plant gardens, work ethically, build communities, share tools, and eschew bigness in economic and political life. Above all, they are learning what it means to live within their means, with grace. Like the Greeks long before them, these new abolitionists have come to understand that the indiscriminate spending of energy is mere Promethean hubris. Unqualified power diminishes life, the only true wealth we share. By burying the chains we can find a new livelihood and an old freedom."

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"What is greatest in human beings is what makes them equal to everybody else. Everything else that deviates higher or lower from what is common to all human beings makes us less. If we know this, we can develop a deep respect for every human being." Bert Hellinger



About this article:

I don't often post articles to the LEV Members' list. It is generally discouraged as the list is intended for Eco-Village business.

In the case of this article, I'm sending it because it outlines the full spectrum of presently available technologies and explains why it is that one portion of that spectrum will be available for the grandchildren while the others will be unreliable. It can be looked at as design criteria for what we aim to build.

Concern for the driveway:

While I'm at it, please note that with the rapid snow melt, the driveway here is very soft. If you are coming to the gatherings Saturday or Sunday, if possible, please park on the road and walk in.

Looking forward to seeing you if you can make it.

Yours, Mike N.

The Four Industrial Revolutions

by John Michael Greer

The Archdruid Report

April 09, 2014

Last week’s post on the vacuous catchphrases that so often substitute for thought in today’s America referenced only a few examples of the species under discussion. It might someday be educational, or at least entertaining, to write a sequel to H.L. Mencken’s The American Credo, bringing his choice collection of thoughtstoppers up to date with the latest fashionable examples; still, that enticing prospect will have to wait for some later opportunity.

What I’d like to do this week is talk about another popular credo, one that plays a very large role in blinding people nowadays to the shape of the future looming up ahead of us all just now. In an interesting display of synchronicity, it came up in a conversation I had while last week’s essay was still being written. A friend and I were talking about the myth of progress, the facile and popular conviction that all human history follows an ever-ascending arc from the caves to the stars; my friend noted how disappointed he’d been with a book about the future that backed away from tomorrow’s challenges into the shelter of a comforting thoughtstopper: "Technology will always be with us."

Let’s take a moment to follow the advice I gave in last week’s post and think about what, if anything, that actually means. Taken in the most literal sense, it’s true but trivial. Toolmaking is one of our species’ core evolutionary strategies, and so it’s a safe bet that human beings will have some variety of technology or other as long as our species survives. That requirement could just as easily be satisfied, though, by a flint hand axe as by a laptop computer—and a flint hand axe is presumably not what people who use that particular thoughtstopper have in mind.

Perhaps we might rephrase the credo, then, as "modern technology will always be with us." That’s also true in a trivial sense, and false in another, equally trivial sense. In the first sense, every generation has its own modern technology; the latest up-to-date flint hand axes were, if you’ll pardon the pun, cutting-edge technology in the time of the Neanderthals. In the second sense, much of every generation’s modern technology goes away promptly with that generation; whichever way the future goes, much of what counts as modern technology today will soon be no more modern and cutting-edge than eight-track tape players or Victorian magic-lantern projectors. That’s as true if we get a future of continued progress as it is if we get a future of regression and decline.

Perhaps our author means something like "some technology at least as complex as what we have now, and fulfilling most of the same functions, will always be with us." This is less trivial but it’s quite simply false, as historical parallels show clearly enough. Much of the technology of the Roman era, from wheel-thrown pottery to central heating, was lost in most of the western Empire and had to be brought in from elsewhere centuries later. In the dark ages that followed the fall of Mycenean Greece, even so simple a trick as the art of writing was lost, while the history of Chinese technology before the modern era is a cycle in which many discoveries made during the heyday of each great dynasty were lost in the dark age that followed its decline and fall, and had to be rediscovered when stability and prosperity returned. For people living in each of these dark ages, technology comparable to what had been in use before the dark age started was emphatically not always with them.

For that matter, who is the "us" that we’re discussing here? Many people right now have no access to the technologies that middle-class Americans take for granted. For all the good that modern technology does them, today’s rural subsistence farmers, laborers in sweatshop factories, and the like might as well be living in some earlier era. I suspect our author is not thinking about such people, though, and the credo thus might be phrased as "some technology at least as complex as what middle-class people in the industrial world have now, providing the same services they have come to expect, will always be available to people of that same class." Depending on how you define social classes, that’s either true but trivial—if "being middle class" equals "having access to the technology todays middle classes have," no middle class people will ever be deprived of such a technology because, by definition, there will be no middle class people once the technology stops being available—or nontrivial but clearly false—plenty of people who think of themselves as middle class Americans right now are losing access to a great deal of technology as economic contraction deprives them of their jobs and incomes and launches them on new careers of downward mobility and radical impoverishment.

Well before the analysis got this far, of course, anyone who’s likely to mutter the credo "Technology will always be with us" will have jumped up and yelled, "Oh for heaven’s sake, you know perfectly well what I mean when I use that word! You know, technology!"—or words to that effect. Now of course I do know exactly what the word means in that context: it’s a vague abstraction with no real conceptual meaning at all, but an ample supply of raw emotional force. Like other thoughtstoppers of the same kind, it serves as a verbal bludgeon to prevent people from talking or even thinking about the brittle, fractious, ambivalent realities that shape our lives these days. Still, let’s go a little further with the process of analysis, because it leads somewhere that’s far from trivial.

Keep asking a believer in the credo we’re discussing the sort of annoying questions I’ve suggested above, and sooner or later you’re likely to get a redefinition that goes something like this: "The coming of the industrial revolution was a major watershed in human history, and no future society of any importance will ever again be deprived of the possibilities opened up by that revolution." Whether or not that turns out to be true is a question nobody today can answer, but it’s a claim worth considering, because history shows that enduring shifts of this kind do happen from time to time. The agricultural revolution of c. 9000 BCE and the urban revolution of c. 3500 BCE were both decisive changes in human history. Even though there were plenty of nonagricultural societies after the first, and plenty of nonurban societies after the second, the possibilities opened up by each revolution were always options thereafter, when and where ecological and social circumstances permitted.

Some 5500 years passed between the agricultural revolution and the urban revolution, and since it’s been right around 5500 years since the urban revolution began, a case could probably be made that we were due for another. Still, let’s take a closer look at the putative third revolution. What exactly was the industrial revolution? What changed, and what future awaits those changes?

That’s a far more subtle question than it might seem at first glance, because the cascade of changes that fit under the very broad label "the industrial revolution" weren’t all of a piece. I’d like to suggest, in fact, that there was not one industrial revolution, but four of them—or, more precisely, three and a half. Lewis Mumford’s important 1934 study Technics and Civilization identified three of those revolutions, though the labels he used for them—the eotechnic, paleotechnic, and neotechnic phases—shoved them into a linear scheme of progress that distorts many of their key features. Instead, I propose to borrow the same habit people use when they talk about the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions, and name the revolutions after individuals who played crucial roles in making them happen.

First of all, then—corresponding to Mumford’s eotechnic phase—is the Baconian revolution, which got under way around 1600. It takes its name from Francis Bacon, who was the first significant European thinker to propose that what he called natural philosophy and we call science ought to be reoriented away from the abstract contemplation of the cosmos, and toward making practical improvements in the technologies of the time. Such improvements were already under way, carried out by a new class of "mechanicks" who had begun to learn by experience that building a faster ship, a sturdier plow, a better spinning wheel, or the like could be a quick route to prosperity, and encouraged by governments eager to cash in new inventions for the more valued coinage of national wealth and military victory.

The Baconian revolution, like those that followed it, brought with it a specific suite of technologies. Square-rigged ships capable of long deepwater voyages revolutionized international trade and naval warfare; canals and canal boats had a similar impact on domestic transport systems. New information and communication media—newspapers, magazines, and public libraries—were crucial elements of the Baconian technological suite, which also encompassed major improvements in agriculture and in metal and glass manufacture, and significant developments in the use of wind and water power, as well as the first factories using division of labor to allow mass production.

The second revolution—corresponding to Mumford’s paleotechnic phase—was the Wattean revolution, which got started around 1780. This takes its name, of course, from James Watt, whose redesign of the steam engine turned it from a convenience for the mining industry to the throbbing heart of a wholly new technological regime, replacing renewable energy sources with concentrated fossil fuel energy and putting that latter to work in every economically viable setting. The steamship was the new vehicle of international trade, the railroad the corresponding domestic transport system; electricity came in with steam, and so did the telegraph, the major new communications technology of the era, while mass production of steel via the Bessemer process had a massive impact across the economic sphere.

The third revolution—corresponding to Mumford’s neotechnic phase—was the Ottonian revolution, which took off around 1890. I’ve named this revolution after Nikolaus Otto, who invented the four-cycle internal combustion engine in 1876 and kickstarted the process that turned petroleum from a source of lamp fuel to the resource that brought the industrial age to its zenith. In the Ottonian era, international trade shifted to diesel-powered ships, supplemented later on by air travel; the domestic transport system was the automobile; the rise of vacuum-state electronics made radio (including television, which is simply an application of radio technology) the major new communications technology; and the industrial use of organic chemistry, turning petroleum and other fossil fuels into feedstocks for plastics, gave the Ottonian era its most distinctive materials.

The fourth, partial revolution, which hadn’t yet begun when Mumford wrote his book, was the Fermian revolution, which can be dated quite precisely to 1942 and is named after Enrico Fermi, the designer and builder of the first successful nuclear reactor. The keynote of the Fermian era was the application of subatomic physics, not only in nuclear power but also in solid-state electronic devices such as the transistor and the photovoltaic cell. In the middle years of the 20th century, a great many people took it for granted that the Fermian revolution would follow the same trajectory as its Wattean and Ottonian predecessors: nuclear power would replace diesel power in freighters, electricity would elbow aside gasoline as the power source for domestic transport, and nucleonics would become as important as electronics as a core element in new technologies yet unimagined.

Unfortunately for those expectations, nuclear power turned out to be a technical triumph but an economic flop. Claims that nuclear power would make electricity too cheap to meter ran face first into the hard fact that no nation anywhere has been able to have a nuclear power industry without huge and ongoing government subsidies, while nuclear-powered ships were relegated to the navies of very rich nations, which didn’t have to turn a profit and so could afford to ignore the higher construction and operating costs. Nucleonics turned out to have certain applications, but nothing like as many or as lucrative as the giddy forecasts of 1950 suggested. Solid state electronics, on the other hand, turned out to be economically viable, at least in a world with ample fossil fuel supplies, and made the computer and the era’s distinctive communications medium, the internet, economically viable propositions.

The Wattean, Ottonian, and Fermian revolutions thus had a core theme in common. Each of them relied on a previously untapped energy resource—coal, petroleum, and uranium, respectively—and set out to build a suite of technologies to exploit that resource and the forms of energy it made available. The scientific and engineering know-how that was required to manage each power source then became the key toolkit for the technological suite that unfolded from it; from the coal furnace, the Bessemer process for making steel was a logical extension, just as the knowledge of hydrocarbon chemistry needed for petroleum refining became the basis for plastics and the chemical industry, and the same revolution in physics that made nuclear fission reactors possible also launched solid state electronics—it’s not often remembered, for example, that Albert Einstein got his Nobel prize for understanding the process that makes PV cells work, not for the theory of relativity.

Regular readers of this blog will probably already have grasped the core implication of this common theme. The core technologies of the Wattean, Ottonian, and Fermian eras all depend on access to large amounts of specific nonrenewable resources. Fermian technology, for example, demands fissible material for its reactors and rare earth elements for its electronics, among many other things; Ottonian technology demands petroleum and natural gas, and some other resources; Wattean technology demands coal and iron ore. It’s sometimes possible to substitute one set of materials for another—say, to process coal into liquid fuel—but there’s always a major economic cost involved, even if there’s an ample and inexpensive supply of the other resource that isn’t needed for some other purpose.

In today’s world, by contrast, the resources needed for all three technological suites are being used at breakneck rates and thus are either already facing depletion or will do so in the near future. When coal has already been mined so heavily that sulfurous, low-energy brown coal—the kind that miners in the 19th century used to discard as waste—has become the standard fuel for coal-fired power plants, for example, it’s a bit late to talk about a coal-to-liquids program to replace any serious fraction of the world’s petroleum consumption: the attempt to do so would send coal prices soaring to economy-wrecking heights. Richard Heinberg has pointed out in his useful book Peak Everything, for that matter, that a great deal of the coal still remaining in the ground will take more energy to extract than it will produce when burnt, making it an energy sink rather than an energy source.

Thus we can expect very large elements of Wattean, Ottonian, and Fermian technologies to stop being economically viable in the years ahead, as depletion drives up resource costs and the knock-on effects of the resulting economic contraction force down demand. That doesn’t mean that every aspect of those technological suites will go away, to be sure. It’s not at all unusual, in the wake of a fallen civilization, to find "orphan technologies" that once functioned as parts of a coherent technological suite, still doing their jobs long after the rest of the suite has fallen out of use. Just as Roman aqueducts kept bringing water to cities in the post-Roman dark ages whose inhabitants had neither the resources nor the knowledge to build anything of the kind, it’s quite likely that (say) hydroelectric facilities in certain locations will stay in use for centuries to come, powering whatever electrical equipment can maintained or built from local resources, even if the people who tend the dams and use the electricity have long since lost the capacity to build turbines, generators, or dams at all.

Yet there’s another issue involved, because the first of the four industrial revolutions I’ve discussed in this essay—the Baconian revolution—was not dependent on nonrenewable resources. The suite of technologies that unfolded from Francis Bacon’s original project used the same energy sources that everyone in the world’s urban-agricultural societies had been using for more than three thousand years: human and animal muscle, wind, water, and heat from burning biomass. Unlike the revolutions that followed it, to put the same issue in a different but equally relevant way, the Baconian revolution worked within the limits of the energy budget the Earth receives each year from the Sun, instead of drawing down stored sunlight from the Earth’s store of fossil carbon or its much more limited store of fissible isotopes. The Baconian era simply used that annual solar budget in a more systematic way than previous societies managed, by directing the considerable intellectual skills of the natural philosophers of the day toward practical ends.

Because of their dependence on nonrenewable resources, the three later revolutions were guaranteed all along to be transitory phases. The Baconian revolution need not be, and I think that there’s a noticeable chance that it will not be. By that I mean, to begin with, that the core intellectual leap that made the Baconian revolution possible—the scientific method—is sufficiently widespread at this point that with a little help, it may well get through the decline and fall of our civilization and become part of the standard toolkit of future civilizations, in much the same way that classical logic survived the wreck of Rome to be taken up by successor civilizations across the breadth of the Old World.

Still, that’s not all I mean to imply here. The specific technological suite that developed in the wake of the Baconian revolution will still be viable in a post-fossil fuel world, wherever the ecological and social circumstances will permit it to exist at all. Deepwater maritime shipping, canal-borne transport across nations and subcontinents, mass production of goods using the division of labor as an organizing principle, extensive use of wind and water power, and widespread literacy and information exchange involving print media, libraries, postal services, and the like, are all options available to societies in the deindustrial world. So are certain other technologies that evolved in the post-Baconian era, but fit neatly within the Baconian model: solar thermal technologies, for example, and those forms of electronics that can be economically manufactured and powered with the limited supplies of concentrated energy a sustainable society will have on hand.

I’ve suggested in previous posts here, and in my book The Ecotechnic Future, that our current industrial society may turn out to be merely the first, most wasteful, and least durable of what might best be called "technic societies"—that is, human societies that get a large fraction of their total energy supply from sources other than human and animal muscle, and support complex technological suites on that basis. The technologies of the Baconian era, I propose, offer a glimpse of what an emerging ecotechnic society might look like in practice—and a sense of the foundations on which the more complex ecotechnic societies of the future will build.

When the book mentioned at the beginning of this essay claimed that "technology will always be with us," it’s a safe bet that the author wasn’t thinking of tall ships, canal boats, solar greenhouses, and a low-power global radio net, much less the further advances along the same lines that might well be possible in a post-fossil fuel world. Still, it’s crucial to get outside the delusion that the future must either be a flashier version of the present or a smoldering wasteland full of bleached bones, and start to confront the wider and frankly more interesting possibilities that await our descendants.

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18 MAR 2014under development > click to empower

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