Sometimes I write about obscure things that are hilarious only to myself, and this is absolutely one of those times.
This story begins with Mark Perry, who writes on economics for the American Enterprise Institute. Longtime readers know that I frequently disagree with Perry's energy writings due to his continued spreading of misinformation about Peak Oil over on his Carpe Diem blog. And I've written more than a few times about Perry's posts, his misrepresentations, and how he carefully presents data to highlight his preferred narrative.
Last month, Perry (apparently for the first time) discovered the term "energy slaves" by reading a blog post by Brian Wang. Later, Perry wrote about his discovery in a post titled "Each American has the energy-equivalent of nearly 600 full-time “human energy servants."
Think about it this way, what if we took away all our modern fuels and then asked ourselves how much human power would we need in order to produce the daily tasks we've all grown accustomed too? By one calculation, to replace the energy of just one gallon of gasoline in your car - a gallon that cost you less than the price of a cup of coffee - would take hundreds of energy slaves, and that's not too big a stretch when you think about what it would take if humans had to literally push and pull your car to take you on your daily commute.
In one stunning example, a 2009 BBC show placed an unsuspecting family in a new home for a normal day, while all the power for the home was being furiously provided by a "Human Power Station" in a building next door consisting of 100 bicycles. It took 24 cyclists to heat the oven and 11 to provide the energy just to make two slices of toast. In recalling the program Andrew Nikiforuk writes, "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... 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 pedaling."
Perry sums up the findings this way: "It’s something of a miracle that the affordable energy enjoyed by even an average American today (total spending on energy is only about 4.4% of total consumer expenditures so far this year) is the energy equivalent of having nearly 600 full-time “human energy servants” to make our lives more comfortable, convenient and enjoyable."
The short version is that in the millions of years the Earth used to create fossil fuels, it managed to create substances of unparalleled energy density. And this is THE critical factor for the development of modern society over the past 150 years.
When you think about energy in terms of energy slaves, you realize that all of us live lives that ancient man would compare to kings or gods - invisible armies powering even the most mundane parts of our days.
The concept of energy slaves isn't anything new. Peak Oil educators have been talking about it for some time, especially in the context of energy return on invested (EROI). Colin Campbell once wrote that a drop of oil is equivalent to one day's hard human labor and that "today’s oil production is equivalent in energy terms to the work of 22 billion slaves."
The common place between fossil fuel promoters like Perry and the Peak Oil educators is that everyone genuinely wants people to understand how spectacular fossil fuels really are - a fact underappreciated by most of society.
The place where they diverge is that the peakists actually continue the story. Once they've established that fossil fuels are a big deal, they go on examine issues of supply and depletion. They look soberly at the negative effects of our fossil fuel use (because all energy policy discussions are really discussions about tradeoffs). And how both of these factors should push us towards transitioning away from fossil fuels and to ask ourselves what are the best plans for that transition. That's a proper and complete view of fossil fuels, understanding their value and the great benefits they have provided to civilization, while simultaneously understanding their drawbacks and inherent unsustainability.
Most fossil fuel promoters like to suggest that fossil fuels have few, if any, downsides, and that any supply issues either don't exist or won't be an issue for a very long time. You're free to find this line of "everything is awesome" thinking by reviewing the works of Alex Epstein or Robert Bryce or all the works of Perry himself.
Which brings us to why this topic was hilarious to me - only because it reminded me of something that happened a couple of years ago that stars everyone's favorite fracking lobbyist, Steve Everley.
When you observe fracking lobbyists, it's easy to see that the conversations and debates they WANT to have are with environmentalists. They are always happy to debate environmentalists and have discussions about IF we should be fracking or not. They are notoriously less willing to have discussions about the long-term sustainability of fracking. This includes debates with people like David Hughes who has done extensive research on shale decline rates. Or people like petroleum geologist Arthur Berman and the tireless Bloomberg reporting from Asjylyn Loder both of whom write on shale drillers' extreme debt problems.
Back in 2013, David Hughes had just released his publication "Drill, Baby, Drill: Can Unconventional Fuels Usher in a New Era of Energy Abundance?" and Daniel Lerch of the Post Carbon Institute got into a small twitter debate with Everley. At one point, Hughes' name was mentioned and then things went off the rails with Everley writing "Forgive me if I don't take serious the claims of a guy who likened oil use to human slave trading."
At a later date, Everley took a similar approach in a conversation with David Murphy (sidenote: Murphy just recorded a great episode on Chris Nelder's podcast all about EROI, check it out!). Here Everley writes: "Peak Oil adherents once got their fair shake, too. Hughes has compared oil use to human slavery. Absurd," and later "Comparison to slavery of any kind removes you from civil debate."
You should definitely read the twitter threads in full (before they're deleted). But just to unpack this briefly: Everley is suggesting that "energy slaves," a thought exercise about pretend people that don't exist, is somehow tied to real life human slavery. And that if you even use the term "slave" around Everley, he'll get violently offended and is then morally above actually continuing a conversation with you.
The amount of backbending here in this dodge is so fantastic that it continues to stick in my mind even now, over two years later.
Even funnier about this, when Mark Perry first tweeted about Brian Wang's blog, he used the term "energy slaves" because that's the exact term Wang uses. But by the time Perry got around to writing his post, someone must have gotten to him with a lot of panicky hand waving to convince him to change the title, because he then changed it to his own invented term of "energy servants."
Again "energy slaves" is a thought exercise about imaginary people, a tool used to conceptualize the large amounts of energy used in our daily lives. It has nothing to do with actual slavery. You can take it from me, an actual descendant of American slaves, you can freely use the term without fear of offending people.
But even after carefully explaining all of this, if you still run into trouble, be sure to ask the "offended" party about their next protest of the auto industry, and all the imaginary horses they abuse whenever they cruely use the term "horsepower."