I was really looking forward to reading this book for two reasons. The first is that I really enjoyed his last one on the Tar Sands. (I tell ya, even if it wasn’t as good as it was, I still would have bought it to support this courageous Albertan dissident.) The second reason was that, with all my reading on the end of oil and climate change, the idea that we are using the energy of coal and oil in the same way we used the energy of slaves popped into my head one day last summer with all the power of a Koestlerian bisociative Ah-Ha! Sadly, my little moment of realization had all the originality of a paint-by-numbers board, as the book amply proves.
First off, let me say that this is one of the best books on the subject of oil, specifically and energy, generally, that has come out in the past decade. While too many climate and energy writers are content to spew page after page of well-researched stats and facts without ever spending any brain power on what they mean (other than predicting mayhem), Mr. Nikiforuk actually took the time to put two and two together and draw conclusions well-worth writing a book about. In other words, the man has a working brain, not just a library card.
I do have a couple of nit picks though. The most glaring is his lack of metaphorical focus. Even in the title vs the subtitle, (The Energy of Slaves, Oil and the New Servitude) he cannot make up his mind whether we are using oil as we would a slave or we are slaves serving the great God Oil. In the first chapter, I found this not only annoying but confusing, as he throws a third type of pepper in the pot: not only are we slaves to oil and oil is our slave, but the engines we have built to run on oil are also our slaves. While all three of these things are worth writing about, they really deserve their own sections or chapters. Or at the very least, their own terms to differentiate them.
I had a laugh over his idea that the biggest difference between American capitalism and Soviet Communism is that one thinks the surplus wealth created from fossil fuel energy should go to the investor while or the other thinks it should be distributed to the people. Without that surplus, it’s a non-issue. It really illustrates how big the stakes are in this carbon-fuelled world we live in. The Cold War, with it’s Bay of Pigs and nuclear stand-offs, is but one example of how the lives of billions of people rest in the palm of the oil giants. Without this great wealth, most of the planet’s seven billion would never have existed. And when we spend all that carbon capital, it’s not going to be pretty.
If you’re at all interested in a bird’s-eye view of the human energy predicament, circa 2012, get this book. It’s rare I would want to read a non-fiction book like this again, but a second reading has already made it onto my do-to list.