Ewart Author challenges conventional thinking about our resources

Ewart Author challenges conventional thinking about our resources by Stephen Ewart, August 31, 2012, Calgary Herald
Andrew Nikiforuk may be the most-loathed man in the Canadian oilpatch. The award-winning environmentalist author cannot be easily dismissed – a problem for his critics – and his latest book, The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude, should only add to his standing as an informed and insightful observer of today’s hydro-carbon society. Nikiforuk takes on a far more ambitious subject than his critically acclaimed previous efforts as he delves into the age-old links between society and energy and how this productive/ destructive relationship has brought the world – for better or worse – to where it is today. Nikiforuk’s previous books include Tar Sands, which won the Rachel Car-son Environmental Award in the United States, and Saboteurs: Weibo Ludwig’s War against Oil, which won Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award. Neither won him many friends in the oilpatch. “I wouldn’t say the MOST loathed -,” Nikiforuk says, with an emphatic laugh, to the suggestion about his standing within Calgary’s business elites. “I’m not terribly well appreciated, but there are some people in the industry who say ‘Look we’ve got to listen to the guy whether we agree with him or not because if you look back at his record as a reporter he’s been more right than wrong.'” He  definitely gets its more right than wrong with The Energy of Slaves. Those inclined to assume the eco-author would deliver a predictable anti-oil diatribe have another think coming. The Energy of Slaves, in bookstores Saturday, focuses on society’s global addiction to energy over time. “This is not an angry book,” Nikiforuk said during an interview while taking a break from his “day-job” at a small Italian grocery store in Calgary’s Bridgeland community. “This is a philosophical book. I’m trying to figure out a whole bunch of things.”

He cites the 19th century American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson to make his overriding theme: “If you put a chain around the neck of a slave, the other end fastens itself around your own.”

He doesn’t always paint a pretty picture. Note the grim end of the slave era with the U.S Civil War: “The conflict, which killed 400,000 people and cost $40 billion, proved that energy transitions do not come cheaply.” The book is a highly readable synopsis of historical figures and radical thinkers who raised concern over energy and, especially, the farreaching impact of the rapid adoption of fossil fuels and the multitude of labour-saving devices they made possible in the last 150 years. Here is how Henry Adams, the early 20th century American historian, described the changes brought about by the hydrocarbon age: “Prosperity never before imagined, power yet wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, had made the would irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable and afraid.” The First World War soon followed.

Nobody chronicles human history in less than 300 pages but Nikiforuk does a good job of carving out a place in the discussion by examining the roll of what he calls surplus energy and how it has altered society. … Nikiforuk reveals how “pistons and the forceful properties of steam” were known to the ancient Greeks but slavery persisted for another 1,700 years because the profits meant slave owners didn’t pursue alternative technology.

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