We can think of no better way to illustrate the impact of fossil fuels on modern society than using the concept of energy slave. An energy slave is to be understood as an imaginary adult man, who is located in your basement, sitting on a bicycle and tirelessly generating electrical energy. He does not need food, social life or sex, he merely generates energy for you without complaint. Picture this:
The average American citizen is on top of the global energy consumption pyramid (for how much longer?) and is so lucky to have some 147 of these imaginairy slaves working for him day and night to garantee him a western life style. These slaves do everything: heat your home, keep your computer, fridge, television, vacuum cleaner going, your car, your bus, your train, your flight and your industries. Everything. Today’s energy supplies provide the equivalent of the work of 22 billion slaves, according to former oil industry man Colin Campbell [*].
Slavery was abolished in the US around 1865. Usually this event is portrayed as a triumph of morality over greed. But in reality it is more likely that at that time Uncle Tom was outperformed by fossil fuels and rising industrial society. It simply was too much trouble to keep human slaves any more. Interesting hypothesis to test.
The prospect for the future is that every year a few imaginairy energy slaves will leave your basement, never to return. The interesting question is how many energy slaves we will keep when the situation will reach the bottom. Hopefully enough to prevent the return of human slavery.
[*] A total of 22 billion slaves does not match 147 slaves per capita. Different people make different assumptions as to what a human slave can achieve in a day. But the point is that if you switch on a light, it means that in a world without fossil fuels you would need a football team worth of energy slaves to accomplish the same effect.