“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.”
“Many of these ‘pseudoscientific absurdities’ … are recycled today on MasterResource ….”
– Andrew Nikiforuk, The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude (Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2012), pp. xi, 144.
Several years ago I 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.
This Labor Day weekend, when we celebrate Energy Appreciation (aka Labor Not) Day, I remembered a very strange policy arguing that what was good was really bad.
The book’s theme is a peculiar application of Malthusianism to energy. And its author found the time to take 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, an addiction, that cannot end well.
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 begins with a F. A. Hayek quotation on the knowledge problem (?) before criticizing economists for not recognizing how prosperity and modern life is a mirage predicated on the artificial plenty of petroleum.
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 a thin layer of mineral (dense) energies. To which I respond: we are ‘lucky’ in a way that the prior history of mankind was not because of the institutions of private property, voluntary exchange, and the rule of law–capitalism proper.
It took capitalist institutions and incentives to develop machinery and the energies to run them. Returning to the energy poverty of renewables is to throw our good fortune away. Read, for example, Stephen Moore and Kathleen Hartnett White, Fueling Freedom: Exposing the Mad War on Energy (2016).
Nikiforuk then turns to me (pp. 144–45):
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 did generally state 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?
- ExxonMobil never funded MasterResource. So does this mean that we are right without such a ‘conflict’?
- 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.
- I proudly acknowledge how modern energy makes more life possible and every day easier. Bravo fossil fuels!
I have periodically emailed Mr. Nikiforuk to check on his views since the publication of the above book:
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?
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September 4, 2020 at 01:10AM