Earth Hour: We will Never Give up our Energy Slaves

One of the good things about the Peak Oil movement is to highlight just how much work and benefit fossil fuels have actually done for us. It has been calculated for example that a barrel of oil is equivalent to something around 25,000 hours of human-muscle power or manual labour; at 60 barrles of oil consumption per year, the average American has anything then from 60-450 “energy slaves” working around the clock for them, providing lighting, heating, food, transport and entertainment, not to mention health care and art and other cultural exploits.

This reality of modern life was brought home most effectively in a TV show a couple of years ago in which, unbeknownst to the residents, a family house was run for a week literally by a gym full of pedal-powered dynamos- including the “Human Power Shower”:

What is odd then is how this emancipation from drudgery that fossil fuels have given us is often decried as more of a curse than a blessing. Peak oil guru Richard Heinberg for example quotes Nikiforuk’s new book (which I have not read) The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude:

The energy in oil effectively replaces human labor; as a result, each North American enjoys the services of roughly 150 “energy slaves.” But, according to Nikiforuk, that means that burning oil makes us slave masters—and slave masters all tend to mimic the same attitudes and behaviors, including contempt, arrogance, and impunity. As power addicts, we become both less sociable and easier to manipulate.

This would seem to be a classic example of retro-romantic thinking- the conviction that things are not perfect now so they must have been much better in the past- thinly disguised as concern about “dependency” on or even “addiction” to oil and technology, which is apparently a much bigger worry than the vaguaries of nature that under “normal” times would cut us down in our prime and steal our children by the sack-full; a kind of miserabalist negative thinking, where nothing good can come of progress, which is sure to end badly, perhaps even worse than if we had not bothered in the first place.

Peak oil of course is all about the problems that will face us if we “run out” of these energy slaves- and is often explained in rhetorical language as if to say, how stupid we humans are! we think we are improving our lives by exploiting these non-renewable resources but it will be all the worse for us in the long run! We should have just stayed in the caves! In fact, however counter-intuitive it may seem, human ingenuity and continuing advances in science and technology mean that we are running into resources rather than running out.

Add in an unhealthy dose of guilt about having it better than many who do not yet benefit from the stupendous gains of the last couple of centuries and you have…

Earth Hour. That is tonight, 8.30-9.30 pm when we are supposed to turn the lights off for an hour in what has become according to Andy Ridley, CEO & Co-Founder of Earth Hour, the world’s largest mass-participation event, with 7000 cities and 152 countries involved around the world.

“We didnt start this to turn the lights off, but to do something much much bigger.” says Ridley at the Earth Hour Global Media Launch last month, but I wonder if he was even dimly aware of the irony in his next sentence:

We wanted this to be about hope, not about fear… the digital revolution has meant that we are undoubtedly the first generation in history that has the power to connect behind a common purpose, the empowerment of communities…

The digital revolution powered by…. the very fossil fuels that are causing global warming and environmental destruction that Earth Hour is supposedly campaigning against.

More than that, as Lomborg points out, turning the lights out for an hour will do nothing to reduce CO2 emissions, and if you light candles instead – or drive any distance to Earth Hour events -you will in fact cause more pollution.

Tom Zeller disagrees: why does Lomborg takes pot-shots at a “relatively benign awareness campaign like Earth Hour?” Precisely because it has indeed grown so large and influential and really does give out the wrong message- that the changes being called for in the name of solving climate change will be benign fun things like going to a fire-juggling event, or that we really should be feeling guilty about deriving better lives from the use of fossil fuels.

So I will not be participating in Earth Hour, or driving to the local event. As someone who lives off-grid on solar pv, turning out the lights would be quite redundant: in this sunless country and in this year of apparently never-ending winter, the solar panels do very little in any case and I will in fact be running a petrol generator to finish writing this and cook my dinner. (Not for much longer- I have applied for a grid connection and will soon be joining 21st century with a secure power supply.)

Instead, we should be celebrating human ingenuity and working together to ensure abundant power and electricity become available for the rest of the planet’s 1.3 billion. The Earth Hour people would do well to mull over the lessons of the peak-oilers as they sit by candle-light tonight, but be careful to draw the opposite conclusions: we will never give up our energy slaves, it is they that banished real slavery, not to mention the slavery of women in the home, and these are gains that we really should not trivialize and that we should ensure above all else are never reversed.

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10 Comments

  1. Many thousands of UK households, mostly in Northern Ireland, have been experiencing a special extended edition of Earth Hour this year, due to power cuts caused by the wintry conditions – a bitter irony that I fear will be completely lost on the event’s promoters.

    Reply
  2. Why join the grid, Graham? Just have those cyclists power your house instead. There, now that’s the life, pedaling one’s buns away, going nowhere.

    Reply
  3. Very interesting. I’ve often considered that the first oil well discovered in 1859 was just before the American Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery. Although not really connected by human rights or work load or anything else it is interesting that slaves at that time were such an important part of the South and in today’s world we still have an analogy of that slave period through our extraction of oil. It’s hard to totally understand how oil is our slave nowadays and that we have maximized to the hilt. Thanks to oil more human beings are richer today than all of civilization has ever experienced. Thanks.

    Reply
  4. Mikeb

     /  April 1, 2013

    You say,

    >>Peak oil of course is all about the problems that will face us if we “run out” of these energy slaves- and is often explained in rhetorical language as if to say, how stupid we humans are! we think we are improving our lives by exploiting these non-renewable resources but it will be all the worse for us in the long run! We should have just stayed in the caves!<<

    I've known about this since a geology class in 1981, and I've re-studied it recently. I don't know of any academic or geologist who puts it this way.

    I'm disappointed to see you using such a straw man argument.

    Reply
    • So how would geologists explain it then? 1981 was a long time ago…. but mainly I was referring to how peak oil/environmentalist activists do indeed, continuously, explain the peak oil problem, and our “dependency” on fossil fuels- so no it is not a straw-man argument at all, this is exactly the attitude of most activists, for climate as well as depletion reasons.

      Reply

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