Sep. 19, 2012 - Issue #883: Best of Edmonton 2012
The Energy of Slaves
Wandering through downtown Edmonton, it's not hard to come to the conclusion that buildings aren't constructed like they once were. Even the old warehouse district has an unmistakable charm. The architects and builders of these utilitarian structures took pride in their work and put in the effort to make each building unique. These elders of Edmonton real estate present a stark contrast to the row upon row of oversized vinyl trimmed suburbs that are slapped together in record time on the city's outskirts. The generic, soulless repetition of suburbia's nearly identical houses is probably not what most homeowners dream of. Nor is the reputation for poor construction that often comes with these boom time homes. So what's behind the shift?
In his new book, The Energy of Slaves, Andrew Nikiforuk takes a wide ranging look at the impacts of petroleum on our society, from the early days of the Industrial Revolution to iPhones and electric can openers. Winding its way through discussions of the rise of the petroleum industry, changes to the structure of the family and society and the impacts of industrial farming, is the theme of our relationship to work itself. Nikiforuk explains that ideals of quality and craftsmanship gave way to quantity as North Americans moved from 19th century livelihoods centred on physical labour and muscle power to the modern luxuries of a petroleum-fueled world. At the same time, people began valuing idleness over the hard work and independence that their grandparents prized.
Nikiforuk makes the case that the cheap and plentiful energy provided by oil, and the luxuries it affords, have deeply altered our society. He explains that just as slave holders in ancient Rome squandered the energies of their captives on grandeur and excess, the easy living that flows from petroleum has led to unparalleled material wealth—and waste—in modern times. From leaf blowers to hot showers to food that's transported halfway around the globe, people no longer even consider the energy they use. It's viewed as an entitlement. But despite our lives of luxury, energy wealth hasn't led to happiness. The Industrial Revolution's ideals of speed and efficiency have extended into our jobs, regimenting and standardizing employees' activities to the point of monotony. Our multitudes of "mechanical slaves", which supposedly simplify our every task, require enormous amounts of our time to maintain; the car is a beautiful example. And just as slave holders had a tendency to live beyond their means, modern consumers find themselves perpetually indebted as they try to pay for gasoline, electricity, and the endless supply of gadgets that use them.
At one point Nikiforuk relates the story of a series of office buildings in China that were recently slated for demolition after only 25 years of use. It's a narrative that is all too familiar to Albertans who bought homes during the last oil boom. At a time when environmentalists are calling for a transition to renewable energy, Nikiforuk suggests that the much more critical transition is away from the luxury of a high-energy society and back to valuing simplicity and the act of physical labour. We don't have to live in a world of disposable goods, fast food, and ugly crumbling buildings. Edmonton's downtown is full of 100-year-old monuments to what can be achieved when we slow down and value quality and craftsmanship.
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