Energy Slaves

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Energy Slaves - image of a sweaty energy slave pushing a car interior
Minutemen - Double Nickels on the Dime cover homage.
Buckminster Fuller looked to the gridlock... ...and knew he wouldn't be moving any time soon.
Buckminster Fuller was a polymath, dubbed “the Leonardo da Vinci of the 20th century”. But here he was, stuck in traffic like everyone else.
Bucky's antennae tingled to the humming exhaust pipe chorus. Gifted with an active imagination, Bucky thought about the 100-horsepower engines that encircled him.
Spontaneously, Bucky began picturing each car with dozens of harnessed horses bucking and stomping above the hood.
To Bucky, the gridlocked cars displayed both humanity's mastery of energy... ...and humanity's systemic wastes of energy.
Despite their expert engineering... ...the autos' potential was frittered in the industrial blood-clot.
Bucky thought more about the word 'horsepower' and how useless it was to a generation unfamiliar with farm animals. Then and there, Buckminster Fuller decided to replace 'horsepower'... ...with a unit using human beings as the common denominator.
It turned out that all energy could be equated into human terms. The U.S., Swiss and German armies had measured data on the work which could be performed by their healthy soldiers. Bucky learned that an average man could do approximately 2,000 kilojoules of work during an eight-hour day.
This 2,000 kJ was the surplus energy, on top of his base bodily metabolism, which a man could expend as work... performing physical tasks, such as shovelling soil, or pedalling bicycles. Across a year of 250 eight-hour working days, the average man could perform 500 megajoules of work annually.
As the traffic began crawling forward, Bucky Fuller coined a term for this annual unit of work: the 'energy slave'.
Bucky surveyed the cityscape, and found himself surrounded by imaginary 'energy slaves' performing work in aid of humanity.
Cartoon of R.E.M. band members driving in car like Everybody Hurts video clip.
Slave gangs filled the streets and buildings. Their abstract toil powered everything from the very smallest of tasks... the colossal jobs that would be beyond the limits of human physique.
Invisible slave gangs lifted, cut, drilled and stamped the construction materials at the building site.
An imaginary gym of treadmill-running energy slaves kept the lights and air conditioning working in the office tower. Bucky realised that energy slaves were everywhere in modern life.
Pulling into a fuel station, Bucky perceived the muscle-power of the volatile workers that pushed his car. When filled, each car's 60 litre tank of gasoline contained an entire month’s work from 48 men.
In other words, a car's filled tank contained the energy equivalent of one man working for 48 months... ...or 48 men working for a single month. (In the annual unit, the 60L tank contained 4 energy slaves). But Bucky saw that we typically burn our energy slaves at a far more aggressive rate than months or years.
Instead of a single slow-burn across a whole year... ...the four energy slaves temporarily work overtime with the strength of a thousand men. They heave their effort into propelling the speeding car down the highway.
Within hours, the slaves’ entire stored energy is totally exhausted after the single journey.
Bucky Fuller reflected on the history of transportation, and humanity's gradual mastery of energy slaves. Travel had once been a whole body experience, with the kinetic power of movement coming from within the person walking across the land.
Without energy slaves for assistance, travellers were reliant on their personal fitness alone. Muscles were everything, and our bodies' impact on the environment was minimal.
Later advances harnessed the energy of animal-power and wind-power to propel human beings, and their cargo, across the Earth's surface. Work was still being performed under the command of humans... ...but the work was no longer being channelled through human muscles.
Bucky calculated the 'energy slave' equivalence of these upscaled technologies, charting humanity's magnified impact on the environment.
Engineers were harnessing superhuman forces of animal-, firewood-, water- and wind-power...
...but humanity was still living within the 'solar income' budget available through daily sunshine. Human ingenuity was simply redirecting solar flows from other parts of the ecosphere... ...and using technology to conjure energy slaves from the environment.
Fossil fuels were a supernormal exception to this historical state of affairs. Bucky saw that coal, oil and gas were batteries for ancient sunshine that allowed civilisation to, for the first time, live beyond its solar income.
Incredible numbers of energy slaves could be summoned by combusting fossil fuels. Human inventors now had the fuel for a new generation of revolutionary technologies.
Buckminster Fuller witnessed the rise of automobiles during his lifetime. Bucky observed that everyday-people now covered distances in minutes that would have previously taken days.
The cushy journeys were covered without the traveller even breaking a sweat… ...and were performed by the slightest push of a pedal, and turn of a wrist. Car trips progressively became the normal, default transportation mode. Each successive generation become slowly divorced from the muscle-powered transportation of walking, cycling and horses.
Bucky watched the hulking fuselage of a jumbo jet zooming through the sky on a Transatlantic flight. A dense cloud of energy slaves catapulted the jet high above the planet's surface.
By the time the 400 passengers arrived above Europe, the plane's jet engines would have burned more fossil fuels during the single flight... ...than the whole continent below did during the entire Stone Age. During a single round-trip from North America to Europe, the plane's jet engines would burn more energy per passenger... ...than the passengers would be able to generate with their own muscles over their entire lifespan. Humanity was truly 'living it large' with non-renewable energy slaves.
Illustration of hand filling kettle from sink faucet. Yet, it wasn't just motorists and jet-setters whose lifestyles were dependent on the invisible toil of shackled labour. Bucky saw that even a person enjoying a quiet day at home was the beneficiary of fossil fuel-spawned energy slaves. Even the simple act of filling a jug with tap water...
High angle aerial illustration of water tower on top of hill cross-section. totally dependent on the water pressure created by the energy slaves who pumped full the municipal water tower overnight.
Cartoon man in suiting waiting for kettle to boil in kitchen. Using the kettle to boil water for a cup of tea... ...draws a large current from a furiously-pedalling peloton of energy slave cyclists.
Additionally, the tea itself only exists in our kitchen pantry because of the unbroken chain of fractional-energy slaves who carted it all the way from the tropics.
High angle inside Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome Carbondale Illinois dome home. Most importantly, the quiet day spent at home is dependent on a lifestyle luxuriously free of the need to farm and harvest foods for the nightly dinner. We live in leisure, because we know the slaves will feed us.
Cartoon Buckminster Fuller eating food with a fork. As we help ourselves to tonight's energy slave-heated dinner, week's dinner is being driven to our local grocer in an energy slave-powered truck... ...and next month's dinner is being harvested by an energy slave-powered tractor. Silently and obediently, the energy slaves do the work for us.
High angle view of depression era people seeing their first lightbulb installed into tenement apartment. When fossil fuel energy slaves were newly-shackled, their scarcity encouraged respectful use.
Low angle living room with massive energy wastage around the home. But abundance bred complacency. And complacency bred careless waste.
Shopper in convenience store grabbing a candy bar from chocolate shelf. Bucky Fuller felt that most people were ignorant to the vast numbers of slaves necessary to maintain their modern lifestyles.
Dutch angle drawing of inside a 7-Eleven convenience store. Why care about burning 4,000 kJ of fuel to drive to the local store for a 400 kJ snack, when the energy slaves are waiting to take you?
View of suburban street on garbage day. With servants to do the heavy lifting, we are ignorant to the physical implications of our decisions. Why care about churning through tonnes of disposable junk... ...when the energy slaves magically take it “away”. None of us knows what it feels like to haul our weekly trash to the dump... ...yet even the hassle of taking it to the curb is worth complaining about.
Rubbish track driver cartoon illustration. Their feeble bodies buffered against the toil of mechanical work... ...the average modern Westerner enjoys a servant count that exceeds the tally of any King, Queen or tycoon who had lived in previous centuries.
Close up of Buckminster Fuller's face inside a hexagon. Buckminster Fuller thought we were recklessly liquidating the resources of Spaceship Earth... a foolish frenzy that he likened to “burning your house-and-home to keep the family warm on an unprecedentedly cold midwinter night”.
Low angle view of man holding a Jerry Can fuel container. Bucky felt that fossil fuels were an irreplaceable Mesozoic gift that we were flogging at extraction cost, rather than replacement value... ...and stated that gasoline would be sold at over $1 million per gallon, if we truly valued the geologic processes needed to slow-cook the ancient algae into supercondensed fuel.
Rear view over the shoulder of man in a suit exercising on a rowing machine. Fossil fuel-borne energy slaves are incredibly easy for us to spend... ...but 'putting the genie back into the bottle' is a daunting task. During a year of 250 shifts, working 8 hours per shift on exercise equipment like rowing machines... ...Buckminster Fuller calculated that an average man could only generate the energy-equivalent of 14 litres of gasoline each year.
Cartoon view of man in mirror exercising in gymnasium. One year of human effort to replace the fuel that most Western motorists burn within one week. Bucky saw that our modern energy use far surpassed human muscle-power.
High angle view of old part of city, with narrow laneways. It is easy to tell whether or not a city was built before the mass-shackling of energy slaves. Older cities were built on the modest scale of human beings.
Aerial view of European city with church built into town centre. Black and white drawings of rooftops and buildings.
Aerial view of IKEA big box store, and urban sprawl car park. Newer cities are built on the inflated scale of energy slaves. Today’s invisible slave-power, so easily summoned from buried black matter...
High angle view of large carpark and big box retailer roofs. operates at a scale that is impossible to replace with human or animal toil.
Close up cartoon drawing of helicopter hovering above modern city in black and white. Just as human slavery persisted well into the railroad era, long after it was still necessary for the masters' indulgent lifestyles...
Cartoons of a wasteful, excessive modern meal in restaurant. ...flagrant fossil fuel use has taken us to decadent heights beyond a mere 'comfortable living'.
Cartoon view of cyclist riding with semi trailer truck travelling right behind him. Instead of using fossil fuel-spawned slaves as a wise bridge to a renewable future...
Cartoon interior of truck cabin. View over the shoulder of the driver towards the road ahead. ...we act with anger and hostility to those who encourage responsible use.
Cartoon mom putting groceries into trunk of SUV car in supermarket parking lot. Many modern people feel entitled to the energy slave-fuelled lifestyles that they currently enjoy. Yet that is a self-serving delusion, entertained by people who happened to be born as Westerners during the 20th century fossil fuel boom. Our expectations of what we ‘deserve’,… ...our expectations of what is a 'normal' state of affairs…
Cartoon of obese family pushing shopping cart of junk food across big box parking lot. ...has been warped by the supernormal power of the energy slaves that serve us today.
Cartoon man driving convertible sports car, looking over shoulder back towards the viewer. Every 'big shot' in a fast car…
Cartoon of man trying to push a broken-down car along the road. merely a little man who could not even roll the car with his own muscles.
Cartoon iPhone in a selfie stick drawing. Tourist taking her selfie photo. Behind the “self-achievement” of the globe-trotter...
Cartoon view of Macchu Picchu. ...are the thousands and thousands of slaves who fed, clothed, heated, cooled, and transported the traveller every step of the way.
High angle illustration of geological cross-section of old-fashioned oil well. Since the lifetime of Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), energy slaves have become increasingly costly and disruptive to obtain. The history of the oil industry illustrates this point. The United States' first oil well, drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859, needed to sink just 21 metres below the ground to strike oil.
High angle cross-section of deep-sea oil drilling platform floating in open ocean. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon, in the Gulf of Mexico, descended through 1,500 metres of water, and then through a further 4,000 metres of crust to strike oil. The Macondo oil field below the drilling platform contained a total volume of petroleum that would satisfy world oil consumption for only 12 hours.
Cartoon scene of slaves at oil field in desert. It costs energy slaves to get energy slaves. And we are getting diminishing returns from each slave we send to work. In Bucky Fuller's youth, in the early 1900s, one energy slave could drill an oil well, and discover another 100 slaves to replace himself with.
Workers posing at oil fields near oil towers. By the time of Bucky's research into energy slaves, this 'net energy' multiplier had dropped from 100:1 down to 30:1. Today, since the early 2000s, the ratio has slipped closer to 10:1.
Cartoon bird sitting on pipe near industrial smokestacks high angle. As the 'net energy' ratio drops closer to 1:1, greater and greater proportions of our society's energy slaves must be diverted towards the mining of new energy slaves. At 1:1, the entire economy becomes a mining operation dedicated solely to perpetuating the mining operation. At this point, no slaves are available to actually do useful things in the wider economy beyond the energy industry.
Panoramic cartoon view of sprawling industrial complex - oil refinery. Once cheap to hire, today's slaves are demanding increasingly extortionate pay rises. We find ourselves “running to stand still”, with a shrinking percentage of energy slaves left over to deliver us the goodies of yesterday. Our choice is whether we run faster and faster merely to stand still… ...or whether we inspect our supersized lifestyles, and question whether there are wiser ways to use our energy slaves.
High angle view of seagull flying above traffic jam of standstill traffic. We always notice our energy slaves most when they stop serving us.
View above expressway with traffic jam, with gulls floating in air above cars. No matter how effortless and efficient our world seems today... ...our systems stand frozen without energy slaves to power them. This standstill could become permanent, if we over-estimate how many energy slaves will be available to power tomorrow’s systems.
People in traffic jam standing between stopped cars, waiting for traffic to clear. In the 20th century heyday of fossil fuels, we remodelled the physical arrangement of our cities. We remodelled the physical arrangement of our economies. We also remodelled our expectations for our future lifestyles.
Worried people stuck in traffic jam, checking phone. This remodelling was all based on the assumption that we would forever be able to depend on plentiful, cheaply-summoned energy slaves. That assumption is likely incompatible with a post-fossil fuel, renewable energy-powered future.
People arguing with each other in traffic standstill. Buckminster Fuller saw that renewables could not immediately replace fossil fuels on their enormous scale of current usage.
Low angle view of Buckminster Fuller deep in thought, looking out to the distance. He knew that a switch to renewable energy would have to be paired with an energy slave emancipation effort.
Cartoon high angle view of detailed, complicated expressway system. A criss-cross of expressways, motorways and highways overlapping. To urgently increase the energy efficiency of our systems and lifestyles. To remove the industrial blood-clots that were needlessly wasting our energy slaves.
High angle view over the shoulder of man watching view from lookout, with sun flame rays showing. ...until it was thinned to a level compatible with Earth's renewable solar income budget.Bucky felt we should keep emancipating our demand for slaves…
View of crouching slave, with slavemaster about to shackle the slave's neck with manacle. When we offloaded our burdens to fossil fuel energy slaves, we shackled one end of the chain to our slaves...
Close up view of worried back feeling the manacle shackle around his neck. ...and the other to our own necks.
Buckminster Fuller in Dymaxion Vehicle, worried about energy slaves. Today’s slaves, once used, will be gone tomorrow.
Abandoned city street, with cars up on blocks, wheels removed. Today’s lifestyles, without slaves to serve them, will also be gone tomorrow.
View of city street through a pair of glasses being held in front of the viewer. Our only chance to rearrange our world for a tomorrow with fewer energy slaves...
Futuristic 'compare and contrast' view of a city street through x-ray specs. today, while the slaves can still serve.
Futuristic 'compare and contrast' view of a city street through x-ray specs. today, while the slaves can still serve.Futuristic 'compare and contrast' view of a city street through x-ray specs. today, while the slaves can still serve.Futuristic 'compare and contrast' view of a city street through x-ray specs. today, while the slaves can still serve.Futuristic 'compare and contrast' view of a city street through x-ray specs. today, while the slaves can still serve.

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How many invisible ‘energy slave’ workers does it take to fuel our modern lifestyles? Comic about fossil fuels and Buckminster Fuller’s ‘energy slave’ concept. Buy a printed copy of this comic book.

See the Energy Slaves reference list, to learn the sources behind the numbers and facts that I quote in this comic. I also wrote a series of seven blog posts that further elaborate on Buckminster Fuller’s ‘Energy Slaves’ concept, and the creation of this comic.

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Abhishek Shukla

14 October 2023

Great comic! Reminds me of people skiing downhill only to take a fossil fuel powered lift to do it again.


24 April 2023

"long after it was still necessary"? "while the slaves can still serve"? I understand the comparison to human work, which I think is interesting and useful, but I think you should perhaps consider how far you stretch this analogy. Slavery was never "necessary" and when we get into the idea of using our slaves efficiently while we still can, this starts to feel at best like a very strained metaphor and at worst like an insensitive comparison to some of the worst cruelty in human history.


23 February 2023

Hi Stuart, saw your work profiled in Brilliant comic about Bucky Fuller and the energy slaves. Please keep me updated on your work. - Dan

Katy Fox

19 January 2023

I'm working for an association that has built an earthship in Luxembourg where we do a lot of educational work around planetary boundaries and low tech solutions, as well as climate change mitigation/adaptation for young people aged 12-30. We love your comic on energy slaves and wondered whether it has been translated to French or German at all. Also is there any chance we could use it for an upcoming Low Tech festival as part of the exhibits?


27 November 2022

Found someone who share this comic, it is the perfect representation on how much of our daily lives are unsustainable for the future. Amazing, amazing story and artwork!


1 July 2021

<3 super valuable and well presented <3


25 August 2019

Great work!


2 August 2019

Your Energy Slaves story brilliantly illustrates my understanding of the power we are gleaning from fossil fuels daily. I envisioned our use of such "slaves" in 2009 after reading David MacKay's "Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air". He reckoned that in the UK we use about 195 kWh a day but our food gives our bodies only 3 kWh/day. We use two to keep our bodies at 37 degrees C. We each have only 1 kWh left for all our and mental activity every day. Without renewable energy sources, we therefore are using the labour of about 194 fossil fuel "slaves" daily. I am convinced this is one reason the emancipation of slaves in the developed world coincided with the industrial revolution. I am daily distressed to think we are asking our descendants to live with the global heating emitted by the "energy slaves" that are powering our so comfortable lives.

Eric K

30 August 2018

Very well-done illustrations! I caught your reference to XTC "It's Nearly Africa". I'm a big fan of that band! Had to go listen to the song right away with a fresh perspective... spot on! Keep up the good work.


14 August 2018

I second Simon's comment about purchasing in printed form... Have known about this stuff since 2005- worked at a biofuel startup then (bandaid) and bicycled since, on and off.. keep it up!

Jean-Marc Jancovici

11 August 2018

I was stricken the first time I did the maths (my professional occupation, I might say; I am a French consultant in low carbon economy): But the ability to illustrate numbers is a major advantage to spread the result (I will help, modestly, in France). Congratulations! Jean-Marc


26 July 2018

There are numerous analyses of available energy supplies. There are none that can come close to replacing the quality and quantity of current "energy slave" supplies of fossil fuels. has some good info (although he tends to be a climate denier). is another excellent source that ties energy analysis to the global economy. Timothy Morgan's site is also good: As is the Post Carbon Institute. If you have some specific sources you'd like people to read, you should post them. Sending people off on will google chases (ads for solar panels?) is not likely to convince people your position is well grounded. BTW, regarding exponential growth, check this out:


11 March 2018

Brilliant comic narratives on our predicament. Thank you for creating anf posting these.

Malay Dave

29 November 2017

Hi Stuart, I have been running a core course (Energy and the Built Environment) at masters level within Master of Sustainable Built Environment program at UNSW Sydney. For the last two years I have included your 'Energy Slaves' comic as one of the recommended readings for my students. The students seem to have found it extremely effective in creating lasting impression on their minds, both as individuals and as future professionals. In their individual reflections that they write on this reading the most common word they use for your work is 'powerful'. I thought I should pass on to you the overwhelmingly positive response I've been receiving on your very clever and impactful creation. Wish you all the best. Malay


13 June 2017

Great artwork Stuart. Looking forward to the next release. Can I suggest a comic on unsustainable housing and/or housemates?


31 May 2017

This is great. Loved the Peak Oil also. Is there a way to purchase these in graphic novel form?

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