Energy Slaves: every American has somewhere between 200 and 8,000 energy slaves


Preface.  To give you an idea of what energy slaves are, consider what it would take to use human power to provide these:

An Olympic bicycling medalist pedals to power a 700 W toaster over 1 minute going 50 kilometers per hour, heartbeat 174, at the end generating 0.021 kWh to produce 1 piece of toast: How much energy does it take to toast a single slice of Bread? Olympic Cyclist Vs. Toaster: Can He Power It?

80 cyclists to power one man’s 3 minute 8.5 kW electric shower Human Power Shower – Bang goes the theory – BBC One

Mitrache, V. 2020. Watch what 20 minutes of pedal-charging do to a Tesla Model X’s Range.

After 20 minutes, nine professional cyclists were only able to convert 1.6 miles (2 km) of range to a Tesla Model X.  That’s 1 km per 10 minutes per 9 cyclists.  To fill up the 100 kWh Model X’s battery completely would have taken the nine cyclists about 80 hours.

Slav, I. 2019. Why Powering A City With Bicycles Is Impossible.

[Bicycling to power your TV isn’t free electricity, you need to eat food to do that which probably costs more than your electricity]

Many people have taken a crack at estimating how much muscle power the energy contained within oil represents.  Although there are different results, they all show how powerful oil is and how angry our descendants will be that we wasted it driving around in 4,000 pound cars for pleasure as they’re sawing wood and heaving hundred-pound sacks of grain onto horse-drawn wagons.

As I was writing my book “When Trucks Stop Running”, I came up with this (but didn’t include it since there are too many numbers):   A class 8 truck can carry 50,000 pounds of goods 500 miles in one day. This would take 1,250 people carrying 40-pound backpacks walking 16 miles a day for 31 days. If the people ate 2,000 kcal of raw food a day, they’d burn 77.5 million kcal (and even more energy if the food is cooked). The truck needs 31 times less energy: at 7 mpg, that’s 71 gallons of diesel containing 35,000 kcal per gallon. Trucks carried over 13.182 billion tons of goods, equal to 329 million people each carrying 40 pound packs.

Wiki definition: An Energy Slave is that quantity of energy (ability to do work) which, when used to construct and drive non-human infrastructure (machines, roads, power grids, fuel, draft animals, wind-driven pumps, etc.) replaces a unit of human labor (actual work). An energy slave does the work of a person, through the consumption of energy in the non-human infrastructure.

Below are nine estimates of how many energy slaves we have.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Nate Hagens & D. J. White. 2017. GDP, Jobs, and Fossil Largesse.

[excerpts, be sure to read the entire article at the link above because it explains not just energy slaves but the whole situation we’re in, the psychology, economics, and more]

One barrel of oil contains about 1700 kWh of work potential.46 Compared to an average human work day where 0.6kWh is generated, one barrel of oil, currently costing under than $50 to global citizens, contains about 10.5 years of human labor equivalence (4.5 years after conversion losses).47

GDP – what nations aspire to – is a measure of finished goods and services generated in an economy. It is strongly correlated with energy use, and given that almost 90% of our primary energy use is fossil fuels, with their combustion.48

Outside of nuclear and hydro, ~99.5% of ‘labor’ in human economies is done by oil, coal and natural gas (measured by joules of output). Due to this cheap embodied labor residing in fossil carbon compounds, the average human being in 2016 enjoys 14x the goods and services as the average human being in the year 1800. (the average American=> 49x).

The common political mantra that higher GDP creates social benefits by lifting all boats has become suspect since the 2008 recession and ‘recovery.’ For the first time in the history of the USA, we now have more bartenders and waitresses than manufacturing jobs.50 In order to maximize dollar profits, it often makes more sense for corporations to mechanize and hire ‘fossil slaves’ than to hire ‘real workers.’ Real income peaked in the USA around 1970 for the bottom 50% of wage earners.51

…at 2016 USA wage rates, moving from $20 per barrel (the long-run average cost for oil), to $150 per barrel, the army of energy slaves declines from 22,000 per barrel to under 3,000 – meaning the economy shrinks and therefore much more work needs to be accomplished via efficiency improvements, real humans, or making do with less.

Thing is, the energy slaves will soon be going away forever. In the last 30 years we’ve burned a third of all fossil energy that has been used since it was discovered thousands of years ago.58 Since your authors have been alive, humans have used more energy than in the entire 300,000 year history of homo sapiens.59 We are just now passing through the all-time peak of liquid hydrocarbon availability, which is the chief driver of our economies

we’re heading back into times – either gradually or suddenly, but inexorably – in which human labor makes up an increasing percentage of the total energy we have available. One day human (and perhaps animal) labor will again be the majority of the work done in human societies – just like it is in an anthill.

And this will happen in the context of a more used-up natural world. Rather than being able to catch dinner by throwing a hook in the nearby ocean, the nearest healthy schools of fish may be ten thousand miles away in Antarctica, and hard to get to without dirt-cheap energy slaves to make giant refrigerated ships to pursue and move them around for us. The copper mines will be mostly used up. The inorganic phosphate deposits we used to make fertilizer, mostly gone. And so on.

Or rather than “gone,” let’s use the more accurate term energetically remote. That is, there will still be loads of “stuff” underground, but it won’t be the very pure ores of yesteryear. It’ll be stuff that requires digging up a huge amount of rock for a tiny amount of whatever we’re after. Because we always use the best stuff first. Yet we’ll be going after worse and worse ore with fewer and fewer slaves.

So, right as our energy slaves are about to start going away forever, leaving 7-10 billion humans without the things they have come to take for granted, our nations have decided the answer is to make more babies! Yep, to raise GDP you need more demand for toys, diapers, teachers, etc… more jobs, because more jobs means more transactions which means more GDP! More GDP means “growth” so growth is good! China has just reversed its 1-child policy, which prevented massive starvations and slowed the horrendous assault on China’s environment.60 Many other nations, such as Japan, Germany, and Sweden, are now offering bonuses for getting pregnant. In Denmark advertising firms are encouraging couples to have more babies for the good of the economy via sexy commercials.61

Paradoxically, as traditional drivers of GDP growth – development of virgin land, credit expansion, low cost fossil fuels, and groundbreaking innovation- wane in their impact, there may be renewed incentives proposed not to shrink our population as ecology would advise, but instead to grow it! Currently we are having (as a species) over 120 million babies per year.62 This works out to over 335,000 human babies born every day – compared to a total extant population of all the other Great Apes (bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas) of about ~200,000!63 Since ‘demand” is considered a quasi-magical force in current economic theory, babies are considered to be good for business (yet children brought into the world now for GDP reasons will face some real challenges in their lives.

Ugo Bardi. 2017. Why do we need jobs if we can have slaves working for us? Cassandra’s legacy.  Below are excerpts (paraphrased) from this post you can find here.

Energy slaves do what human slaves and domestic animals once did, only faster and cheaper. Today instead of 500 human slaves, every American has 500 fossil-fueled energy slaves working 24/7 for them, every day of the year. These energy slaves don’t complain, don’t sleep, and don’t need to be fed, but they do leave behind a lot of waste (climate change). But they’re invisible, we think about them as much as we do the nitrogen we breathe in — 78% of air.

The slaves have also made shipping nearly free, so any actual human labor we need can be hired in the cheapest places on earth (under essentially slave labor conditions), and shipped to us by planes, trains, ships and trucks for next to nothing. The average dinner travels over 1400 miles to get to your plate in USA.

But the energy slaves will soon be going away forever.  We are just now passing through the all-time peak of liquid hydrocarbon availability. Every year from now on, we’ll have fewer fossil energy slaves, until we’re back to the times centuries ago when biomass, and human and animal muscle made up the energy we had available.

Worse yet, here are just of the problems that will happen in a used-up natural world:

  • Rather than being able to catch dinner by throwing a hook in the nearby ocean, the nearest healthy schools of fish may be 10,000 miles away in Antarctica
  • The copper mines will be mostly used up.
  • The inorganic phosphate deposits essential to grow food that we put in fertilizer (not to mention the natural gas) will be mostly gone.

Sure, not gone entirely, but it may as well be since resources will be so energetically far away, the pure ores of yesterday will be mostly used up, because we used the best stuff up. And we’ll have far fewer energy slaves to help us get the poor remainders.

Our financial systems require growth, yet in the future we won’t be able to grow, we’ll be shrinking. Think about it, money is just bits and bytes or paper, a claim on future energy and resources as gold once was.  Each year we need growth in a household/city/state/nation/world to service and pay off monetary loans that were created previously. No serious government or institutional body has plans for anything other than continued growth into the future. Growth requires resource access and affordability but starts first with population.

So, right as our energy slaves are about to start going away forever, leaving 7-10 billion humans without the things they have come to take for granted, our nations have decided the answer is to make more babies! Yep, to raise GDP you need more demand for toys, diapers, teachers, etc… more jobs, because more jobs means more transactions which means more GDP! More GDP means “growth” so growth is good! China has just reversed its 1-child policy, which prevented massive starvation’s and slowed the horrendous assault on China’s environment. Many other nations, such as Japan, Germany, and Sweden, are now offering bonuses for getting pregnant. In Denmark advertising firms are encouraging couples to have more babies for the good of the economy via sexy commercials

MAY 14, 1957. Rear Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, U.S. Navy. Energy Resources and Our Future. Scientific Assembly of the Minnesota State Medical Association

With high energy consumption goes a high standard of living. Thus the enormous fossil energy which we in this country control feeds machines which make each of us master of an army of mechanical slaves. Man’s muscle power is rated at 35 watts continuously, or one-twentieth horsepower. Machines therefore furnish every American industrial worker with energy equivalent to that of 244 men, while at least 2,000 men push his automobile along the road, and his family is supplied with 33 faithful household helpers. Each locomotive engineer controls energy equivalent to that of 100,000 men; each jet pilot of 700,000 men. Truly, the humblest American enjoys the services of more slaves than were once owned by the richest nobles, and lives better than most ancient kings. In retrospect, and despite wars, revolutions, and disasters, the hundred years just gone by may well seem like a Golden Age.

R. Buckminster Fuller  et al., “Document 1: Inventory of World Resources, Human Trends and Needs,” in World Design Science Decade 1965–1975 (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University, 1965–1967), pages 29–30.

“Energy Slave” was first used by R. Buckminster Fuller in the caption of an illustration for the cover of the February 1940 issue of Fortune Magazine, entitled “World Energy”. Alfred Ubbelohde also coined the term, apparently independently, in his 1955 book, “Man and Energy”, but the term did not come to be widely used until the 1960s, and is generally credited to Fuller.

The enormous gulf between high-energy and low-energy societies was dramatized by Buckminster Fuller when he proposed the unit of an “energy-slave,” based on the average output of a hard-working man doing 150,000 foot-pounds of work per day and working 250 days per year. In low-energy societies, the nonhuman energy slaves are typically horses, oxen, windmills, and riverboats. Using Fuller’s unit, the average American at the end of the century had more than 8,000 energy-slaves at his or her disposal. Moreover, Fuller pointed out, “energy-slaves, although doing only the foot-pounds of humans, are enormously more effective because they can work under conditions intolerable to man, e.g., 5,000° F, no sleep, ten-thousandths of an inch tolerance, one million times magnification, 400,000 pounds per square inch pressure, 186,000 miles per second alacrity and so forth.”

Walter Youngquist. Geodestinies: The Inevitable Control of Earth Resources over Nations. Page 22.

The measure ‘energy slave’ comes from estimations of how much manpower equivalent you can get from burning a material in terms of energy.  A person power (PP), or 1 energy slave, equals .25 horsepower = 186 watts = 635 Btu/Hr.   Therefore, 300 Energy Slaves = 1/10 lb Uranium, 4700 lbs natural gas, 5150 lbs coal and 8,000 lbs petroleum.

Tad Patzek Powering the World: Offshore Oil & Gas Production 2012.

In one day an average U.S. resident consumes 4.2 gallons of oil equivalent, or a 1/10 of a barrel:

  • An average U.S. resident develops 100 W of power per 24-hour day
  • Let’s assume that he/she can work for 8 hours/day at 200 W on average
  • Then, 4.2 gallons of petroleum is equivalent to 0.1 × 6.1 x 109 / 200 / 3600 / 8 = 106 days of labor

We would have to work hard for over 100 days to make up for what we consume as hydrocarbons in 1 day. One year of gorging on hydrocarbons is equal to 1 century of hard human labor.

In France (which has a lower level of energy use than the United States) each citizen has 500 energy slaves according to How much of a slave master am I?

Alexander, Samuel. January 15, 2012. Peak Oil, Energy Descent, and the Fate of Consumerism. University of Melbourne – Office for Environmental Programs.

Energy Slaves as the Invisible Foundation of Consumer Lifestyles

We could begin by noting, rather bluntly, that the world currently consumes around 89 million barrels of oil per day. This mind-boggling figure, which aggregates conventional and non-conventional oil, becomes all the more astonishing when we bear in mind the incredible energy density of oil. David Hughes, one of Canada’s premier energy analysts, has recently done the math (Nikiforik). He concludes that there is approximately six gigajoules six billion joules in one barrel of oil, or about 1,700 kilowatt hours. Multiply that by today’s oil consumption of 89 million barrels per day and this represents the consumption throughout equivalent of about 14,000 years of fossilized sunshine every day (Hughes). These figures may not mean very much to those readers unfamiliar to thinking in terms of energy, so it can be helpful to convert them into terms of human labor, which can prove more comprehensible. Hughes has done this calculation also (Nikiforik), and concludes that a healthy human being peddling quickly on a bicycle can produce enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb or 360,000 joules an hour). If this person works eight hours a day, five days a week, Hughes calculates that it would take roughly 8.6 years of human labor to produce the energy stored in one barrel of oil. Let us pause for a moment and reflect on this astounding conclusion. One barrel of oil is the equivalent of 8.6 years of human labor, and the world today consumers 89 million barrels of oil, everyday.

This type of analysis gave rise to the notion of ‘energy slaves’, a term coined by American energy philosopher, Buckminster Fuller, in 1944 (Armaroli). The purpose behind the energy slave concept is to understand how much human labor would be required, hypothetically, to sustain a certain action, lifestyle, or culture in the absence of the highly concentrated fossil-fuel energies available today. For example, it would take 11 energy slaves peddling madly simply to power an ordinary toaster. When this concept is applied to modern consumer societies as a whole, the results are eye opening, to say the least. Given that the average North American currently consumes over 24 barrels of oil per year, the average inhabitant in that region of the world would require at least 204 energy slaves to sustain their lifestyles (Nikiforik). The average Australian would require 130 energy slaves; the average Western European around 110 energy slaves. As if these figures were not confronting enough, in the absence of oil the global economy in its entirety would need approximately 66 billion energy slaves to sustain itself in its current form.

Whatever way one looks at this analysis, these are astonishing figures, representing a spectacular amount of energy that obviously far exceeds what was at the disposal of Monarchs,
aristocrats, and slave owners in previous eras. When we also bear in mind how cheap oil has been in the past, this analysis gets more remarkable still. Even at today’s price of around $100 per barrel, which historically is extremely high, this is really a very cheap form of energy. One only needs to imagine offering someone $100 for 8.6 years of labor to realize that even today’s so-called expensive oil is still amazingly cheap. Western–style consumer lifestyles, it can be seen, being so energy intensive, are utterly dependent on a cheap and abundant supply of energy, and in ways that are not always obvious. We often fail to see how central energy is to our lives because it is invisible, only its consequences are visible.

Armaroli, Nicola et al. 2011, Energy for a Sustainable World Ch 3.

Hughes, David. 2010. Peak Energy and its Implications for the City of Edmonton. City of Edmonton, Canada

Nikiforik, Andrew. May 5, 2011.  ‘You and Your Slaves’ The Tyee.

Ron Patterson, author of the Peak Oil Barrel blog, wrote this in August of 2002:

Fossil fuel brought on the advent of the energy slave. With fossil fuels, we could move hundreds of times as much freight, hundreds of times faster. We invented the cotton gin and spinning machines. We invented the loom with the flying shuttle, and were able to produce hundreds of times as much fabric in a fraction of the time. The sewing was invented and we could manufacture clothes in a fraction of the time it once took. Even shoe manufacturing was the benefactor of the energy slave. We could manufacture shoes in a fraction of the time it once took us, and the last cobbler eventually died.

Everything we possess, including the roof over our head was produced with the aid of energy slaves. But nowhere have these energy slaves made more impact than in food production. Huge tractors pull sixteen pan plows where a horse once pulled one, and very slowly at that. Grain, once thrashed by hand is now thrashed by machine. Automatic cotton and corn pickers can do in one day what it once took a hundred farm hands weeks to do. Ammonium nitrate fertilizer and genetically modified seeds has enabled us to push food production even higher. Now one farmer can produce the food a hundred farmers once produced and on one quarter of the land. And, not the least important, we now have refrigeration with which we can preserve the food we grow until the next crop comes in. Also food can be preserved with pressure canning. This is also an art that has been taken over by large companies with the aid of energy slaves.

But when the energy slaves die, all that will be gone. And there is no going back because we do not possess the skills that our ancestors had. But that is not the half of it, you haven’t heard nothing yet. Our numbers are six times greater than they were in the pre-petroleum days. We are, for the most part, crowded into cities far away from any source of food that we may glean from nature.

Shiela Newman, author of the outstanding We Can Do Better blog, wrote in 2003:

The hypothesis I have made here is that without fossil energy ‘slaves’ we will go back to human slavery.  At first glance this may seem fanciful, but I think that that response to this theory would reflect an implicit assumption by many people concerned about fossil fuel depletion. They believe there will be apocalypse and die-off; they are worried, and believe that civilization will dissolve through resource war and economic collapse. They think people will be enslaved either by shifting, marauding gangs in unstable fragments of nation states, or whatever societies might emerge when Peak Oil is something that is receding into the past, in perhaps 40 years from now.

Before the commercial harnessing of fossil fuel, both human population growth and imperial expansion depended exclusively on the output of human slaves, beasts of burden, biomass and other natural sources of energy available, such as wind and water power.  In many parts of the world today commercial energy consumption per capita is still just a few dozen kilograms per year.   Compared with the speed that humans are able to proliferate and expand their influence under the aegis of fossil fuels, former, natural processes of human use of the biosphere were necessarily low energy and very slow. In the advanced nations the elements of coercion, abduction and bondage necessary to pre-fossil fuel societies, particularly with regard to human slavery, are subjectively and objectively seen as cruel.

Modern democracy, which by definition depends on the freeing of  human slaves, and which many have accepted as the ‘inevitable’ or even ‘final’ ethical evolution  of man, that enlightened  ape, in fact probably depends less on spontaneous moral perfectionism than on large flows of cheap fossil energy and ubiquitous fossil energy slaves.  The corollary of this is that when we no longer have oil-based economies  we will probably no longer have democracy.  The slide towards plutocracy, totalitarianism, imperialism and fascist organisational frameworks, which some see as consequences or as part of the global imposition of economic rationalism, may well be a sign that democracy is already eroding.

Human institutions must react and respond to changing economic circumstances, and therefore to changing regimes of energy-economic conditions.   Access or lack of access to commercially useful fossil fuels most certainly affected the date and type, speed and nature of Industrial Revolution and urbanization experienced by various nations and economies. Beginning with coal in England in the late 17th century, production increases of even this single source of fossil energy soon led to fast industrialization and urbanization, and almost straight-line, upward growth of population, with lesser but similar effects through Western Europe later. European anglophone colonization was a direct consequence, with permanent immigration from non-English speaking Europe more of a secondary phenomena.  Results of this include the cultural, economic and constitutional frameworks of the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other countries still existing today.  In direct contrast the slower growing, less fossil energy dependent Arab and Muslim Empires retained many features of feudalism, including human slavery.

In 1492 Christopher Columbus left a cruel feudal, pre-fossil fuel society that depended on wood, wind, water  and the bio-energy of horses and human slaves for another cruel feudal pre-fossil fuel society with a different, and even less energy-intensive technology mix.

The Europe that produced Columbus was plague-ridden and in the grip of the “Little Ice-Age”. Population growth was very low, perhaps no more than 0.05% per year, and there were many fallbacks, that is years of population decline. Technologically well-matched Christians and Moors had been entwined for centuries, in North Africa and the Near East, in medieval battle using horses, some armour, low-technology artillery and by today’s standards simple biological and chemical weapons.

Things were very different in Central America. The Spanish quickly enslaved the Aztecs, who lacked guns, horses or sophisticated armour and were decimated by European diseases.  The economist Kondratiev estimated that perhaps about 50,000 tons of gold, and 450,000 tons of silver were transferred from conquered South America to Europe in the period of 1550-1600, starting the oldest and most-powerful of his ‘economic waves’.  Despite, or even because of this, Spanish colonial society and the metropole or European Spanish society, did not surge ahead.   Attempts to draw migrants from European Spain to its colonies were weak, hesitant and very ineffective. No rush to migrate occurred. In the South American colonies however, pre-fossil energy feudal society merged bloodily with pre-fossil fuel, non-European feudal societies and produced another, and similar feudal society. Hispaniola is mainly remembered for its cruelty, slavery and genocide, carried out in major part in the name of religion and with the help of priests. As Indian slaves succumbed to siphilis, smallpox, manhunts and the other ravages of this manifestation of medieval Christian messianism, they were replaced by African slaves.

Hispanic America then became locked in a time-warp, populated by near-serfs in semi-feudal agricultural societies, ideologically bolstered by a mix of primitive Catholicism, animism and non Christian myths and beliefs. Attempts to explain this failure to develop democracy and a competitive economy like that of the US in a period of under 200 years following colonisation include Spanish colonialism’s genocide, prevalence of tropical diseases, the climate factor, and the medieval, non-growth, or anti-growth ethic in which there is no work ethic, nor incitement to accumulate wealth by members of society outside the nobility and the church. Often overlooked, however, is that the Spanish motherland at that time also lacked a fossil fuel economy, and the technology, population pressure, and growth ethic which all stem from explosive economic and demographic growth.

Continental Europe left Hispanic America behind. From the 14th century plague and other sicknesses receded and Muslim settlers were progressively driven back from the heartlands of Western Europe. Glaciers made their final retreat revealing excellent new soils; agricultural and artisanal technologies improved.  From 1550 to 1820 the populations of Spain and other western European countries grew between 50% and 80%.  Medieval Christian society faced political challenge from religious reform such as the Protestant movement, from scientific inquiry dating from the Renaissance, and from collectivist and communal, pre-communist ideas embodied by the French revolution . As a direct consequence previous socio-religious reins on, and limits to ‘progress’, including the pursuit of wealth and personal consumption, were modified, but not to the degree they were across the Channel and the Atlantic.

The English Protestants who displaced the Indians of North America from about 1620 came from a different world to medieval Spanish colonists in South America, and they were not government sponsored. Their desire to establish a haven of religious freedom, to practice their fundamentalist beliefs, helped commit the pilgrims to permanent settlement. Having no way back they were condemned to succeed where others had failed.

The real starter motor for North American colonialism was the fossil ‘forest’ of English coal.   In Malthus’s Britain, coal brought forth not only hydrocarbon energy slaves, but fueled a population explosion in the 19th century, to which colonial pillage brought a steady crop of African slaves. Happily for this experiment, however, virtually limitless amounts of land had suddenly become available to soak up demographic oversupply, and this ‘window of opportunity’ soon created endless tales of opening up new territory and building infrastructures where nothing had previously existed.  Capital, however, remained scarce, while land and labor were in extravagant abundance.

Access to the Americas, with dispossession and genocide of indigenous peoples took the land potentially available to Europeans from about 24 acres to 120 acres per capita (an approximate 5-fold increase). The European ‘footprint’ therefore expanded radically and indelibly – unlike its earlier, shadow overlay in South America. The California, Alaska and other smaller gold rushes (1847-1900)  provided nearly instant wealth and attracted yet more people to North America.  Mineral wealth and new technology, like steam-power and electricity were to make for a brilliant 19th century, beneath the soot, tar and grime-daubed cities of the emerging American empire.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Islam had been pushed back out of Europe mostly to arid and relatively unproductive territories, where, to this day, in several of its states, it still keeps slaves.

The rise in fossil energy slaves coincided with the abolition of human slavery in the US under Abraham Lincoln.  As well as the use of beasts of burden, reliance on coerced human energy had required  the institution of a social class entirely denied the rights of ordinary citizens and treated like domestic animals.  As more efficient fuel sources came to provide fossil slaves instead of live ones, humans had enough to spare to become apparently comparatively more generous and gentle.  Although a social hierarchy was maintained, human rights and material circumstances improved. Slavery was soon to be abolished in North America.

By the time of the discovery of oil in the North America in 1850, and its first commercial production in 1859, coal had already contributed to a huge population explosion.  Energy slaves were fueling population growth at around 3% per annum.  Combined with the economic growth enabled by coal and now oil, and driven by rapid population growth there was thus fast-rising demand for jobs, which assisted in turn the slavery abolition movement, dating between 1810 and 1863 (the end of the civil war) when all slaves became free by law in the US.  Emancipation of slaves was one of the purposes of the civil war.  Another was the establishment of democracy, according to the definition that is attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “… government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” .

Despite two major depressions, in the 1890s and the 1930s, the US generally remained on a steep upward track in prosperity curve, driven by and favoring more population growth. The curve of increasing fossil energy consumption perfectly tracks those for economic output, population growth, urbanization and any other index of growth or progress that one can choose.

In the thirty years after the Second World War, the peoples of the first world became richer and freer than they ever had been before, even if they engaged in many and bloody liberation wars – which somehow failed to liberate – in what was to be called the Third World. The cheap resource supplier nations could not help but notice that they remained outside the charmed circle of fossil-powered wealth, however. The Third World contained, and contains the Islamic resource of petroleum. The Third World, including its Muslim nations, and from the Bandung Conference of 1955, demanded that it should derive more benefit from this and other mineral and agricultural commodities, hitherto supplied to the first world economic frameworks dating from colonial times.

So the coal-based industrial revolution that had given rise to the British Empire had been refueled in the 20th century with pilgrim oil and Muslim oil, and had then roared forward again, despite ‘peripheral’ opposition.  Arguably it reached its apotheosis in the Space Race between the two putative master races of the US and the Soviet Union, when it seemed that men, accompanied by beautiful and fertile women, would almost certainly soon travel to the stars and colonize their planets. This was a necessary escape clause for a species that was fast outgrowing its petri-dish. It was an attempt – a rather pathetic attempt – to identify a new and limitless horizon for the old notion of endless territorial expansion. It was perhaps a ‘shadow in the gene’, the same instinct that makes all animals expand into available territory, that  had brought the first waves of humans from Africa to Europe, and from Asia to Australasia during the last ice-age, and had continued with modern migration from Europe to the Americas and Australia.

Unfortunately or not, fossil fuel civilization began to falter in the second half of the twentieth century. One sign that it was coming to an end was that former colonial populations, many of them Muslim,  sought sovereignty over natural resources.  The third world revolt heralded by the formation of OPEC was contained finally, but still hit the first world hard, giving rise to the 1973 oil shock. The different reactions of  continental Western European societies, compared to those of English speaking settler societies (e.g. USA, Canada and Australia) to Oil Shock from the 1970s provides an outline image to how these societies will react when the Age of Oil disappears.

In 1971 the USA’s domestic oil production peaked.  Soon after, in 1973, the world’s major known oil reserves were commandeered by ‘indigenous upstarts’ through OPEC. The fortunes of Islam were turning once again. The fossil energy rich Future Eaters of the Americas and Oceania briefly glimpsed their apocalypse and blinked, but the countries of the first world rallied. Firstly using ‘petrodollar recycling’, conferences on International Solidarity and the recognition of Palestine, before reverting to type with Gulf War 1 of 1991 and preparation for Gulf War 2 of 2003, the First World has proven its inability to contemplate the Age of Oil’s demise. Brave words in the 1973-75 period, to the effect that ‘We can consume less – we are not addicted”, have disappeared. Since the liberation of Kuwait and its restoration to full sovereignty and oil output, syrupy speeches have given way to smart missiles and dumb propaganda.

In 1999 the average North American was using the equivalent in petroleum energy of 174 human slaves working an eight hour day every single day. The situation was however always a little different in Western Europe, where fossil fuel had never seemed so assured, and where fossil fuel civilization was a recent overlay, rather than the inventor of that society.  France, notably, was fossil energy poor.  After the first world war, both France and England had gone out of their way to locate and secure oil assets overseas in their colonies.  Unlike the US, Canada, and Australia, the French and other non-English speaking Western Europeans, cut off from their imported oil supplies, had struggled through oil shortages during World War Two.  Oil sources in Romania  came under attack early.  In 1942 Hitler’s army made for the Baku oilfields in southern Russia.  During the last days of that war, as General Patton pursued the German forces across France, a carpet of US oil-bearing pipeline had unrolled magically behind him, at the rate of up to 50 miles a day, constructed by teams from Texas.

The fate of the European allied forces had finally depended, worryingly, on the late entry of US oil powered forces.  But would the US always remain a friend?  What would the friendship cost?  And would the US always have oil to spare?  Then there had been a short dress rehearsal when the Suez Canal crisis (1956) threatened supply and the prospect of war in the Middle East.   Unlike the UK, European countries had few colonial stakes in oil bearing territories, most of which had become independent. In September 1973 Algeria, France’s last former colony, nationalized French oil companies . Israel and Palestine were quite some distance from the US and Australia, but frighteningly close to Western Europe and the threat of nuclear war during Yom Kippur was all too present in 1973. # France and other EU countries still pursue a defensive oil economics policy, acquiring assets but selling the bulk to countries overseas, whilst attempting to maximise self-sufficiency at home by developing and extending the capacity of nuclear, hydro and even renewable energy sources. Increasingly in Europe – and to this the English can agree – national opinion seeks zero net immigration from outside the EEC. Constant migrant inflow to the US is a cornerstone of US economic policy. In Europe, demographic policy since 1974 and demographic trajectories  indicate fast-falling total populations by 2050   Of course, relative to Peak Oil, this will be not be enough and will come too late – but is not the perfect opposite of sanity, which is the US position.

We see here then, the formation of at least two different first world geopolitical blocs on the question of energy resources.  The result will be a continuing divergence in policies on oil economics and energy policy, industrial and economic goals, population targets, social security policy, and systems of land development and urban planning.

Geopolitically, in the Euro-Asiatic region, new ‘land bridges’ are forming as the shrunken Russian Federation retreats from inherited, untenable frontiers in Southern Muslim republics of the former USSR. Due uniquely to oil, the US has leaped into this region – establishing its first beach head in Afghanistan – but forces are gathering to dispute it this foothold.  Across the narrow Mediterranean Europe is bonding, forming economic then strategic alliances with Muslim countries, as every day shown by European stances on the Israel-Palestine war or ‘conflict’. No greater contrast exists than that of European public opinion regarding Israel, and that of the USA. Cheap energy and air travel, and mass communications have enabled people from everywhere on earth to pour into the US, or to understand its way of life, full of wonders like Disneyland, self-flushing toilets, and cappuccinos in giant disposable plastic cups.  America itself, apart from its ruling elites, is now an ethnic mix, and in world terms a demographic superpower –only numerically outclassed by China and India. The difference is that America flatly rejects any limit on personal energy consumption; its lifestyle in the words of  G.W. Bush “is non negotiable”, while the Euro-Asians can not only negotiate but strategically ally with their land bridge neighbors, rivals, migrants and clients.

As a direct consequence the USA can only be intransigent, strident and aggressive – while Europeans, perhaps with the memory of failed colonization in South America and other places, have no such certainty, and must retreat to renouncement, to conciliation, to intrigue, to manipulation of and alliances with third world armed forces against the US. Naturally US oil policy has become a basis for war and conquest. Naturally European enthusiasm for a ‘remake’ of Gulf War 1 has been weak – lamentable to America, to a retreating America that becomes more alien and hostile each day as it beats the war drum, promising yet more conquest, and human blood to assuage its oil hunger. This has been noted by the Muslim world – by a culture at least as old as that of Europe.

Understandably, the oil-rich Islamic nations of the Middle East deeply resent the controlling economic hand of the non-muslim world, and America’s leading role as both banker and war-monger.  Just like the USA, their demographic explosions are artificially maintained by oil income, pending a catastrophic decline which will almost  certainly come after Peak Oil. In the short-term, those glorious days of petrodollar recycling of the 1970s must seem like something from the Persian Nights tales of legend, to populations of which 50% were born after 1970, many of which have recently known increasing poverty and humiliation. America’s ‘uncontrollable’ demographic growth is through the floodgate of immigration, which daily adds to the imperative to seek more energy by dominating geoeconomics, and Islam’s fertility has spawned populations of young men and women with nowhere to go and nothing to lose.

September the 11th 2001 was the day that Islam focused the world’s attention on the dissatisfaction of its peoples when a suite of suicide pilots caused US planes to ram the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon in an epic that most people had only expected to see in old Japanese movies involving King Kong and a giant turtle.

As for the outcome; be it international war, unexpected alliances, civil war or implosion of States, we can be fairly sure that if war does break out between the US and the Islamic oil empire, it will not be the final conflict, since many other nations and tribes wait in the wings, preparing to seize power or to scavenge.  But further down the track the question of how to go on living without abundant fossil energy will arise for all those who survive in the short-term.  It seems inevitable that human slavery –  which has never actually disappeared from the world – will at the very least expand its tragic role in the panoply of ‘energy solutions’ that will remain to be tested by the first world in the decades after the decline of the petroleum interval. 

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2 Responses to Energy Slaves: every American has somewhere between 200 and 8,000 energy slaves

  1. Praveen says:

    The cartoonist Stuart Mcmillen has a nice comic on the concept of Energy Slaves. It features Buckminster Fuller:

    There is a comic on Peak Oil too on his site.

  2. WattsSteam says:

    Shiela Newman’s 2003 Islamic Oil Empire vs One-Player Chess Fakery – an improvised hypothesis

    – There is no oil left in the Middle East today as it was back in the 1920s or 2003
    – After more than 70 years of intensive extraction, the oil in the Middle East is now almost gone (The US has burned around a third of all its oil reserves in the course of WWII alone – for a comparison)
    – The Americans and the Europeans hate to hear that – more than ex oil-rich Arabs
    – Since Carter in the 1970s (actually, since Winston Churchill back in 1913), the US and Europe have been worrying, talking and working on the Middle East more than their homelands
    – Likely, two points were unconsciously concerning them the most;
    – If the Middle East runs out of oil and drops dead, where else they wage oil-run cyclical wars every ten years or so – needed for revitalising world Economics, easing the constraints of geography, keeping their unions relevant and central to the rest of a globalised world, and
    – What a working tag-price would be that they put on the last barrels of oil supplies, upstream and downstream, arbitrary – as oil finally approaches it last days – sooner or later?
    – Fast-forward to 2020 and a hypothetical solution might be modelled this way:
    – After a choreographed Reqa and Mosul-style war between Russia, Saudi, Turkey and Iran, starting over and inside Iraq, the remaining Middle East and Russia oil can be given to few warlords, who relinquish oil – price-less, at $0 p/b to the world energy black market, in deals the warlords cannot reject. The upstream problem solved
    – Let localised civil wars be everywhere else, too, so the downstream tag-price also becomes price-less – $0. After these manoeuvres, oil wouldn’t be selling at any outlet for money – but rather by other metrics. Now the downstream problem also solved.

    In this pandemic, oil is now fluctuating around much lower prices. All the remaining oil in the Middle East can be acquired by paying for it upfront, peacefully, without a single bullet being shot. Why a war?

    It is noteworthy that when oil is depleted to scarcity, the current oil-run global system cannot wage a One-Player Chess Fakery-war on itself over oil and expects to emerge victorious – regardless of the outcome of that fakery ‘war’.

    The oil burned in running the war will exceed the amount of oil necessary for the continuation of the globalised system – in one piece, intact and as-is.

    Who wins?

    There is no need for Shiela Newman’s-hypothesised Islamic Oil Empire – an Empire that has depleted all its own oil even before it started to exist.

    Or is there?

    Probably not in the form of an Empire but in the form of an OPEM (Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Militias & Warlords)?

    Above scenario is invalid, too – owing to its big unpatriotic element of self-destruction – exercised by parties on themselves – as if they are sacrificing their own people and geopolitical entities while shooting in the dark at the laws of physics – for nothing.

    From now on, humans will know that finite resources have been and will always be priceless, literally – by definition and the laws of physics.