Friday, July 25, 2008

The Replacement of Petroleum Slaves

The advent of Peak Oil means that the amount of energy available to our modern society will soon begin to diminish. This diminishment will cause a diminishing of economic activity. Oil and the energy derived from oil have allowed each of us to do so much more than humans in earlier, exclusively human- and animal-powered times, and the things we do can be done much more quickly. Today after work I had to stop at a store several miles out of my way home. Because I am a bicycle commuter, a journey of 20 miles took nearly two hours. It might have taken nearly as long in a car because of traffic and signals, but had I been racing against a car whose driver was free of such restrictions, I would have lost badly. The expedition of Lewis and Clark in the early 19th century was a transcontinental voyage across North America that took over two years to complete. By contrast, I can book a flight on US Airways that will take me from Los Angeles to New York City in 5 hours and 30 minutes.

Some have tried to quantify the energy density of crude oil in terms of the amount of human labor required to replace the energy found in a barrel of oil. Nate Hagens, one of the editors at the Oil Drum website, has calculated that one barrel of oil generates the energy of up to 12.5 years of human-powered work. Since the average American uses over 25 barrels of oil per year, he or she annually uses the energy that would be generated by over 300 slaves. If natural gas and coal use are also included in the picture, the total annual energy used by each American rises to the equivalent of over 700 slaves. (Source: “A Closer Look At Oil Futures,”; also check out “What Is A Human Being Worth (in terms of Energy) by Luis DeSousa,

This energy is what is available for personal use. But the incredible energy of petroleum has also been harnessed by businesses to provide goods and services at costs that are low both for the producers and consumers of these goods and services. This is what enabled the replacement of thousands of union workers in early 20th century factories with automated, computerized assembly lines controlled by programmable logic controllers, guided by a small handful of human operators monitoring man-machine interfaces. It is what also enabled the outsourcing of skilled labor from the United States to countries where wages have been historically low and benefits have been nonexistent. Were you a head of a business in a country whose workers are organizing to demand higher wages and benefits? Until recently, you could respond to such a situation by building factories in Third World countries with oppressed populations, thus lowering your business costs and maximizing your profits. Cheap petroleum-based transport was an inexpensive bridge directly connecting you to your Third World factories, the cost of shipping goods being such a small portion of the total cost of manufacture.

But now this globalist model of big business is beginning to break down, as has been described here on this blog and in many other places. Yet big businesses are still committed to maximizing their profits while minimizing their costs. Where will they turn for pools of cheap labor to replace Third World workers now rendered out of touch by high transportation costs?

I believe I saw some of the answer two weeks ago, when I bought the August 2008 issue of Mother Jones magazine ( That issue has a series of articles about our present American prison system, under the general title Slammed. The articles describe how the present justice and prison system disproportionately targets poor people and minorities; how private corporations have taken over the prison system in many states and are turning prisons into for-profit operations; how private prisons are being used to detain illegal immigrants, including asylum seekers, pending deportation or asylum hearings; and how states such as Georgia are outsourcing their probation programs to private companies who charge a monthly fee to people who are placed on probation.

The Slammed article which is most relevant to this post is titled, “Lingerie and Bullwhips: A Peek At the Fruits of American Prison Labor,” and it describes how many large American corporations are lining up to use prison labor in the manufacture or packaging of their products – products such as beef, milk, eggs, chicken products, Starbucks coffee, Nintendo games, brooms, brushes, bullwhips, Microsoft mice and software, school juice boxes, airplane parts and other material for the US military, Victoria's Secret and JCPenny lingerie, dental instruments, entire Wal-Mart stores (!), and telemarketing services, to name just a few things. Inmates are paid anywhere from pennies a day to minimum wage (if they're lucky) for jobs which would command many times the minimum wage on the outside.

These prisoners have no rights, even after their release from prison. 48 states prohibit prisoners from voting, 30 states prohibit felons on probation from voting, and 8 states prohibit certain felons from voting for life. Thirteen percent of black men currently are denied the right to vote. Therefore, these people have little say anymore in altering the prison system through political action, no matter what inequities they witnessed while in prison, no matter how they were exploited by corporate interests while in prison.

And the rich and powerful in this country are doing their best to expand the ranks of people whose rights have been permanently stripped from them. Consider the growth of private prison corporations over the years; Corrections Corporation of America saw its stock price climb from $8 a share in 1992 to over $30 in 2000. In 2005, CCA paid over $3 million to five different firms to lobby the Federal government. Dick Cheney's son-in-law was a lobbyist for CCA, and also had oversight of government discretionary payments to CCA while serving in the Federal government. CCA is typical of the large and growing number of private prison corporations who seek to grow their businesses via the Federal “War on Terror” and the “War on Drugs.” Children are now being sent to private prisons and private detention camps run under inhumane and dangerous conditions, without adequate oversight or redress for any wrongs suffered while they are locked up. (Sources: “Corrections Corporation of America,” Wikipedia,; “The Truth About Private Prisons,” Jenni Gainsborough, Alternet, 15 December 2003,

All of these things may be leading to a situation best described by “The Jigsaw Man,” a 1967 science fiction story by Larry Niven. In that story, medical science had perfected ways to greatly extend human life through organ transplants. This led the rulers of society to decree that people convicted of capital crimes should be required to donate all their organs to medicine after their execution, in order to repay their debt to society. But the demand for organs grew so much that lawmakers were forced to continually re-define “capital crime” to insure a steady supply of recycled body parts. The protagonist of the story thus finds himself sentenced to death for breaking traffic laws.

Such a story may have seemed far-fetched in 1967, but it is all too real now – not only in such instances as stem-cell research, but in the depriving of rights for ever-larger segments of the American population while reducing these people to a state of de-facto slavery, as petroleum slaves are replaced with slaves of another kind in order to help Western businesses maximize profits while reducing costs. As some might say, if you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.

* * *

I harvested all the fava beans in my garden two weeks ago, and have been drying them using my truck dashboard as a makeshift solar dryer. This is possible because I don't drive to work anymore. My hope is to use the beans as part of planting my fall garden. I'll let you all know how it works.

Tomorrow, I will be participating in a bike tour of various backyard chicken-raising operations in this city. I'll try to take pictures; hopefully you'll all be able to see them next week. Next week I will also begin to talk more about personal preparations for a post-Peak world. See you then!

No comments: