Building up steam: our civilisation’s history of collecting energy slaves

Building up steam: our civilisation’s history of collecting energy slaves
June 2017
Rear shot of a jumbo jet flying through the sky, with energy slaves pushing the jet through the air.

This is essay 3 from a 7-part series expanding the ideas from my comic Energy Slaves, about Buckminster Fuller’s insights into human energy consumption.

Building up steam: our civilisation’s history of collecting energy slaves

In my comic Energy Slaves, I chart human civilisation’s growing use of fossil fuel energy, and the way that energy has allowed people to magnify their impact on the natural world.

Primitive hunter-gatherers were limited by the energy that they could impact on the world through their bodies. To do anything, they had to eat food, and then exert that food’s energy into the world through their body’s muscles.

This is an experience that we return to when we go wilderness camping or bushwalking. In such a situation, we are each responsible for hauling our bodies—and our cargo—across the landscape.
Bushwalking using one's own muscles and musclepower to walk across the Earth's landscape. Man reaching out to grab a hand, put himself up a cliff.
As time went by, we learnt how to ‘harvest’ energy slaves from the environment to do work for us. We used technologies like fire, wind, and working animals to make this energy accessible for us to use.
Cartoon sailing ship, and cartoon elephant lifting up a log. With invisible Energy Slaves doing the work.
In an abstract way, we can imagine the invisible ‘energy slaves’ that were harnessed. Work was being done on our behalf by ship sails and working animals (beasts of burden). We can imagine the human workers that would have been need to row the ship or lift the log, had we not used technology to make this energy available for human purposes.

Things have changed radically in recent centuries. Today we have supernormal powers that allow us to speed down a highway, and fly through the air. Our bodies are no longer the limiting factor.
Cartoon rear view of jumbo jet plane flying through air, being pushed by energy slaves. Cartoon artwork of airplane flying over mountains in The Alps.
Consider the way that a tree is felled today, compared to the way that a tree was felled 200 years ago. Two centuries ago, the timber fellers would have used their bodies to do the work. The day would have begun with a big breakfast to fuel their bodies. Then, chop by chop, they would use their muscles to cut into the wood. Imagine the hours and hours of human effort needed to fell a thick trunk like this.
Old photo of timber workers chopping down a tree by hand using axe.
Image credit: Original image from the State Library of Queensland.

Now, imagine the relative effort in which we fell a tree using a chainsaw today. Or a mechanical tree harvester, for that matter.
Chainsaw cutting through tree stump. Sawdust flying through air.Tree harvester machine cutting down a tree with mechanical saw.
Image credit: Chainsaw image by pb826. Tree harvester image by Eli Sagor

We are no longer limited by our bodies’ physical strength. Instead of going it alone, we now have energy slaves to do the work for us.

This is something that affects the lifestyles of human beings as individuals. Multiplied by the 7 billion people on Earth, we are collectively impacting the natural world in a mega way.

High angle view of oil field, with UFO hovering with pipes sucking up petroleum from the oil derricks.

We now have immense amounts of energy available at our fingertips, and we are using it to impact Earth’s geology and ecology on a massive scale. This quantum leap of energy-availability is almost totally due to fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas.
Cartoon man standing in oil fields with hands on hips. View between oil derricks in desert oil fields, between pumpjacks cartoon.

In my next essay, I discuss the diminishing ‘net energy’ returns that we are now getting from fossil fuels. I discuss the challenges that we will face transitioning from fossil fuels towards renewable energy.

Read the rest of my a 7-part series of essays about my comic Energy Slaves. If you like my work, please become my crowdfunding patron via