The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude by Andrew Nikiforuk (Greystone and the David Suzuki Foundation, 282 pages, $29.95, hard cover).


“All energy issues are moral ones.” So declares investigative journalist Andrew Nikiforuk in his latest salvo against the culture of petroleum. And he is right.

Nikiforuk, whose book Tar Sands won the Rachel Carson Book Award and became a national bestseller, is one of the most public and best informed critics of Canada’s fossil fuel addiction, and all the social and ecological despoliation that goes with it.

In The Energy of Slaves he weaves a yarn about the transition from slave labour to fossil fuels in the 19th century, suggesting that enslaved people yielded their place and industrial power to enslaved resources. Moreover, as a globalized society we have become shackled to a petroleum-based economy that diminishes both our planetary health and the human spirit.

While the first part of Nikiforuk’s argument is a bit incongruous — equating slaves to carbon-based fuels is both logically and morally murky — the second part concerning our addiction to oil and its moral consequences is argued forcefully and well.

For Nikiforuk, unfettered demand for cheap oil is quintessentially a moral issue. Ecological side-effects of its extraction and consumption — from contaminated watersheds to species extinction and climate change — demand an abolition movement on an international scale.

Nikiforuk quotes University of Manitoba energy expert Vaclav Smil regarding America’s profligate use of oil. In light of the fact that the United States eats up twice as much oil as the wealthiest European nations, Smil asks whether Americans are therefore twice as happy as the Danes or twice as rich as the French? Are they twice as educated as the Germans, or twice as secure as the Dutch? For both Smil and Nikiforuk, the answers constitute one big fat no.

In terms of child mortality and educational achievement, the United States falls way behind its European counterparts. It has significantly higher rates of obesity, suicide, murder and incarceration. Moreover, studies reveal Americans are less happy now than they were a half-century ago, despite their oil-consuming lifestyle.

In short, consuming more oil does not necessarily lead to a better life.

Interestingly, Nikiforuk turns to St. Benedict for one antidote to an oil-consuming free-for-all. Benedict not only created a new community based on prayer, learning and labour, but codified this in his Rule so that future Benedictine communities might flourish. They still do flourish by ensuring the common purpose of monks and nuns is more important than the things they consume as individuals. Nikiforuk appeals to a 1,500-year-old morally and religiously grounded movement to address our current oil-drenched malaise.

For Nikiforuk, taking a cue from philosopher Alasdair McIntyre, the world awaits more Benedicts to create loving and flourishing communities, celebrating the spiritual richness and dignity of non-mechanized, non-oil-based work — a way of life that values civility and spiritual maturity.

Curiously, Nikiforuk, while appealing to a Christian moral argument, does not mention Bishop Luc Bouchard, the former bishop of St. Paul, Alta., which included the oil sands. In a  prophetic 2009 pastoral letter, Bouchard carefully summarized the history and social and ecological effects of the oil sands. The bishop saw this oil development running counter to both Catholic social teaching and the message of the Gospel.

“I am forced to conclude that the integrity of creation in the Athabasca oil sands is clearly being sacrificed for economic gain. The proposed future development of the oil sands constitutes a serious moral problem. Environmentalists and members of First Nations and Métis communities who are challenging government and industry to adequately safeguard the air, water and boreal forest eco-systems of the Athabasca oil sands region present a very strong moral argument, which I support,” Bouchard wrote in 2009. “The present pace and scale of development in the Athabasca oil sands cannot be morally justified. Active steps to alleviate this environmental damage must be undertaken.”

If, as St. Benedict claimed, to work is to pray, perhaps to work for ecological integrity and the breaking of our petroleum chains is one of the most poignant types of prayer we can offer at this critical time in our careening planet’s history.

(Scharper is a religion and ecology professor at the University of Toronto.)

Published in Book News