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Why Our 21st Century Slave Society Can't Last

We're the slave masters of energy-driven gadgets that replace human labor. But don't count on it sticking around.

"A low-energy policy allows for a wide choice of lifestyles and cultures. If, on the other hand, a society opts for high energy consumption, its social relations must be dictated by technocracy and will be equally degrading whether labeled capitalist or socialist." -- Radical Catholic Theologian Ivan Illich

In 2009 a British family living in a four-bedroom house became the subject of a subversive energy experiment about modern slavery.

While the foursome flicked on gadgets one Sunday with the abandon of Roman patricians, an army of volunteers (The Human Power Station) furiously pedalled 100 bicycles next door to generate the needed energy.

The unsuspecting family, of course, had no idea they had been unplugged from a power grid fueled largely by fossil fuels.

At the end of the day the slave masters literally dropped their jaws when a BBC television crew introduced them to the exhausted slaves that boiled their tea. (Get this: it took 24 peddlers to heat the oven and 11 cyclists to make two slices of toast.)

At the end of the experiment many of the cyclists collapsed. Several couldn't walk for days. The peddlers actually consumed more energy in food than they generated by peddling.

The experiment crudely illustrated the global state of North American energy consumption (just imagine an empty yet well-lit house powered by 100 hungry cyclists). It also convinced one of the experiment's designers, Tom Siddall of Electric Pedals, that "volunteer slavery" (hordes of sweating cyclists) or old fashioned shackled labour will power the future. "I have no doubt that slavery will return as the world's energy resources get increasingly scarce."

Oil removes the toil

Now most people don't regard oil, say, as an energy slave or a liquid replacement for human muscle, but they probably should. Thanks to petroleum, every North American now behaves, thinks and often looks like an obese and overbearing 19th century slave owner.

Oil slaves, of course, are more portable and versatile than human muscle and now order our world. They grow and deliver food; transport friends and goods; and energize fields and cities. Every laptop computer arrives impregnated with 240 kilograms of oil. Like any good slave, oil removes the toil.

How many slaves for you?

How many energy slaves does a typical Canadian have at his or her disposal? Dave Hughes, perhaps Canada's premier energy analyst and the nation's former coal specialist at Natural Resources Canada, has done the math and we are not an emancipated people.

Hughes calculates that one barrel of crude (non-renewable sunshine captured in plants over the past 500 million years or so) contains approximately six gigajoules (six billion joules) or about 1,700 kilowatts of energy.

Now a healthy individual can pump out enough juice to light a 100-watt bulb or (360,000 joules) an hour. With weekends and holidays off and a sensible eight-hour day, Hughes figures that it might takes one person 8.6 years on a bicycle (or treadmill) to produce the energy now stored in one barrel of oil.

(Of course we could work those slaves 12 hours a day, seven days a week with no holidays, argues Hughes. In that case a barrel is equivalent to 3.8 years of human labor. But this columnist favours a more humane treatment.)

Given that the average Canadian now consumes 24.7 barrels of oil a year with scarcely a blink of the eye, every citizen employs about 204 virtual slaves. That's a spectacular amount of power for any mortal to wield and much more than any Roman or Egyptian household ever commanded. Or five times more than average 19th century U.S. plantation owners.

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