Rafe Mair reviews Nikiforuk’s ‘theories be damned’ look at our fossil fuel servitude. Nikiforuk’s latest takes on energy theorist ‘delusions.’
By Rafe Mair. The name Andrew Nikiforuk is, of course, well known on these pages. His book, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, is a seminal work on the issue of the tar sands, or as the industry and governments would prefer, oil sands. I would go so far as to say that one cannot begin to discuss this issue intelligently (there’s a novel idea!) without having read that book.
Originally published 30/03/13, on TheTyee.ca
His latest, The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude, would I thought by reading the dust jacket be just another of those dumbed-down screeds so popular when complicated issues are discussed.
We learn from its opening chapters that 19th century black slaves produced most of the energy consumed in that era. I bought the book — yes, no reviewer’s copy to seduce this easily-seduced senior — not wanting to. I suspected little streams of kiddy talk making up a river to match the famous song “Ol’ Man River” from the Broadway musical Show Boat, which would then be run by fossil fuels and so on.
Looked at through the Nikiforuk prism, whether intentionally or not, we see the musical is about slavery times, but when you listen to Paul Robeson or William Warfield sing the song through modern ears you can see that “Ol’ Man River” is not only a cri de coeur from a slave but more a snapshot of a way of life — which mercifully would end for black people, leaving the question, what now?
I shelled out the bucks because I’m a great fan of Nikiforuk and knew I would have to find out what he was up to by reading the book. I was not disappointed — indeed as happens with most good books, I wondered why I hadn’t thought of all this myself.
The energy burden
Why hadn’t I seen the obvious? That the world has always depended on energy, and it’s only in comparatively recent days that most of this energy came from slaves or lessees of farms and peasants who farmed for His Lordship. They were the engines of farming, before engines were invented to take their place.
Can a book written so seamlessly still show seams?
This one does, as it moves into the oil age and says au revoir to agriculture. Nikiforuk makes it look seamless because history books and economists have largely missed his point — these are real people, real farms, real cultures and real civilizations involved here. By exposing the seams, Nikiforuk tells the real story of energy to date.
The chapter called “The Economist’s Delusion” is one of his best. It discusses the phenomenon of how we use theories about which we know little if anything to support our politics and codify our ignorance with: “I’m a Keyenesian, myself,” to “John Kenneth Galbraith said it best,” to “Milton Friedman had it right.” The chapter that follows, “Peak Science,” again calls out theories by experts grounded not in societal concerns but the alienated blackboards of education.
If this book were to be reduced to a sentence, it would say: “Theories be damned, let’s find out what really happened and what continues to happen today.”
Cut through spin (quickly)
If the book ended here it would be worth the $30, but Nikiforuk’s pièce de résistance is his chapter (and verse) about what can happen to a country, Japan, which builds an economy on imported oil and nuclear power, and then by natural disaster combined with foolishness moves steadily towards the poor house.
The strength of the book is that it delivers messages that can be readily absorbed by people like me, whose eyes roll heavenwards when economists and scientists spin their messages.
And for those of us with brief attention spans, it’s short.
By writing like this, Andrew Nikiforuk proves that he knows what he’s talking about and must be listened to.
The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude
Greystone Books (2012)