The relationship of modern humans to their energy needs can be fairly well described in terms of slavery, as appalling as that may sound; and just as human slavery has been abandoned as unacceptable in a sane society, so might we consider re-drafting the slave-master energy relationship in which we are so mired.

Energy is required for work. Human survival has always involved a lot of “work,” which, in physics terms, means “energy transfer involved in moving an object over a distance.”  Every aspect of sustaining human life requires work, from obtaining nutrition, to protection from the elements, predators and other hostile forces; and for getting from here to there.

Most animals perform the necessary work using their own energy, which is obtained originally from plant-based food, which is obtained from photosynthesis, which is achieved courtesy of the sun.  Ultimately all energy on the Earth comes from the sun.

Somewhere in human history, people began to live in groups to streamline work through cooperative labor. Later, people began domesticating animals and enslaving other people to exploit their energy potential and make some individuals wealthy.  So wealth was commanded by using other people’s labor to supplement a person’s own limited work potential.

Meanwhile, most of humanity kept its energy demands in the DIY range by living at a basic subsistence level, dreaming about striking it rich and getting their own servants.

Then one day, fossil fuels in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas were discovered to be extremely concentrated and thus powerful sources of potential energy to do humanity’s work. These fuels had been formed from dead products of photosynthesis over a period of around 350 million years.

When fossil fuels came to popular use virtually overnight in terms of human history (that is, after 10,000 years of animal energy, within 100 years), the general population obtained the work equivalent of several people, oxen, and horses working full time. People quickly adjusted their “needs” to include many luxuries previously available only to the owners of labor-producing animals and people.

In another blink of an eye (1900-2000), the Corporation evolved into a new sort of life form compelled to perpetuate itself, using fossil fuels ever more aggressively to extract “natural resources” to manufacture goods, to feed the demands it has created in our society.

As a result of all this, average Americans now employ the work of 100 slaves to sustain their lifestyles. That is, Americans use energy at a rate of 11,000 watts per person, roughly the power that 100 humans can sustainably put out around the clock. Fuel that took 350 million years to form will have been used in 350 years.  For perspective, this is equivalent to charging a cell phone for a year, and getting to use it for only 30 seconds.

You could say the Earth itself is now Humanity’s slave.  Humanity (and its proxy, the Corporation) has indeed exploited the planet to feed its needs, and also its “wants.”  We call this “bloodless slavery” because for today’s average human there is no connection between energy consumption and the “work” involved in powering it.

You could say our energy demands have pushed Earth to its limits. You could say the climate chaos being generated by fossil fuel-induced warming is inspiring a rebellion, in which the Earth is attempting to overthrow its oppressors.

Right, this is just a metaphor.

But the science, too, tells us that this rebellion is not negotiable, and the Earth cannot be appeased:  Although we are unable to completely understand or predict the future course of the climate chaos and feedback loops generated by unprecedented warming rates, it will definitely continue to worsen, even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases immediately.  The science is definitive about this: The carbon dioxide we have already put out will be in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.  We can only change how much more we put out from here on.

We can slow the increasing chaos down and try for a livable future – IF we act decisively and immediately.

We have the ability, and briefly the opportunity, to abandon the master-slave relationship with the earth, and forge a cooperative partnership with the sun.  The sun’s energy is inexhaustible, in human terms.  Technological developments are continually improving our ability to efficiently harness its work potential.  Unfortunately, its direct energy is much less concentrated than fossil fuels, and it requires more land area for accessing it, so our demands will need to be reduced.  Increased efficiency and decreased demand are simply essential to our future.

Some paint this more moderate energy future in apocalyptic terms, fearful that energy police will subject them to a regime of deprivation and cave dwelling.

We’d like to point out that this description more closely resembles what will happen if we do not make the shift away from Earth-energy slavery:  The tables will turn, with all of future humanity laboring relentlessly against warming-induced catastrophic climate events and their repercussions on our cities, farmlands, forests, and oceans.

Just as some parts of society had trouble giving up human enslavement, some will balk at restoring Earth’s freedom. But human slavery is now unthinkable to virtually everyone, and you can be sure that if humanity survives this crisis, our current energy excesses will be viewed as breath-takingly profligate in hindsight. They’ll be asking how we could possibly have carried on for so long like teenagers at an epic, parent-free party.

Let’s ensure that the answer to that question ultimately makes at least a little sense, by shifting our society’s energy dynamic before it’s completely too late.

Paul Stancioff, PhD., is a professor of Physics at the University of Maine Farmington who studies energy economics on the side.  He can be reached at [email protected]  Cynthia Stancioff is an amateur naturalist who likes to write. Previous columns can be found at 

Comments are not available on this story.