The Underside of Energy Indpendence


Among the social, political, and economic issues that Obama and Romney seem to have no difficulty agreeing upon is the notion that the United States needs to achieve “energy independence.” Arguing that its reliance on the importation of sources of fuel puts the US in a vulnerable geo-strategic position, advocates of energy independence not only maintain that the US must pursue an energy policy involving the extraction of oil from such ecologically sensitive domestic areas as the California coast, and the Alaskan Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, among other places, but must also develop other sources of energy domestically, including – but not limited to – the oxymoronic clean coal, natural gas obtained by the monstrously destructive practice of fracking, and nuclear energy – a source of energy which (despite the potentially world-ending cataclysm that continues to unfold in Fukushima) these “policy makers” view as simply another resource from which to draw from their “toolkit.”

However, while they agree that the US must not be energy dependent, Obama and Romney seem to overlook the substantial inconsistency involved in championing “energy independence” while at the same time maintaining an economy, and society, that is completely dependent on massive amounts of energy in the first place. Indeed, not only do energy independence proponents ignore the fact that the US consumes twice the per capita level of energy that, for example, the nation of Germany does (with no corresponding improvement in quality of life indices to show for it), they also ignore the fact that such high levels of energy consumption result in the diminution of a population’s quality of life in multiple respects – not only by way of the introduction of millions of tons of toxins per year into the ecosystem, and the subsequent costs and harms such pollution generates, but also by the significantly greater numbers of hours US workers are required to work per year. These examples, of course, are only two among the many harmful realities that are inseparable from the conjoined phenomenon of massive levels of energy consumption, nonstop work, and endless, senseless production (senseless, that is, for all but those who reap the profits generated by this burdensome excess) that characterize our economic system. In other words, even if the US had unlimited sources of so-called clean fuels, the arguments of so-called “energy independence” proponents still ignore the fact that the use of massive amounts of energy itself, and its attendant stresses, constitutes a far-reaching problem with deeply reaching ramifications.

A critical examination of the notion of energy independence will not only point out the inconsistency involved in calling for “energy independence” while maintaining a dependency on domestic energy, but will point out, as well, that beyond the dubious need for independence from foreign fuels is the need for independence from the use of so much fuel in the first place. For not only are vast amounts of oil, coal, ethanol, and other sources of fuel being burned up into tons of toxins every day in order to satisfy the market’s unslakable demand for energy, people are being burnt up and burnt out as well in the never-ending work cycle of the new economy.

Indeed, as many are no doubt aware, the most commonly traded commodity in the world today is crude oil. The second most traded commodity in the world, however, is coffee. This should not come as too much of a surprise, for just as oil is an indispensable component of our machine and computer-based global economy, coffee is no less vital to this economy’s functioning. To be sure, insofar as it fuels our very bodies – aiding in the extraction of productivity from bodies whose limited energy levels would otherwise render them fatigued, and unconscious – it is absolutely central. Obviating this natural barrier, the availability of coffee (as well as tea, and other caffeinated beverages) allows for a cheap leap across the obstacle of sleep and assists in compelling desired levels of productivity, and profit.

While it might be the second most traded commodity in the world, coffee is by no means alone in the stimulant sector of the economy. Not only does it share its niche with an endless profusion of sodas, teas, and energy drinks (whose sponsorship of extreme sports mirrors their encouragement of comparably stupid wastefulness in the more mundane sphere of work) coffee is also accompanied by the presence of a variety of ever more powerful stimulants. For example, at one end of the spectrum of economic production one encounters professional athletes, such as the seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, engaging in some variety of performance-enhancing doping. While at the other extreme, one encounters what is becoming the new norm for primary and secondary school children: receiving prescriptions for Ritalin, among other amphetamines, in order to more effectively function and be “productive” in one of the most basic institutions of power (what the philosopher Louis Althusser termed the ideological state apparatus par excellence), the classroom. In between these two extremes, college students, corporate managers, and corporate lawyers comprise just a slice of the growing class of people who feel compelled to ingest over-the-counter stimulants to not merely excel at, but to simply keep up with the demands of their respective jobs. Indeed, a critical inquiry into the notion of “energy independence” must extend beyond the issue of being free from coffee or gasoline, or even amphetamines per se, and recognize the deeper need for independence from the systemic compulsion to buy and ingest these things in the first place.

Insofar as energy is in many respects equivalent to power, the Enlightenment philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s distinction concerning types of political power may elucidate the matter involving energy and the notion of energy independence somewhat. Writing in the 17th century, Spinoza distinguished between the type of power one wields to effectively dominate another (which he termed Potestas), and the power one has over one’s own person, or Potentia. To be sure, the seminal sociologist Max Weber’s definition of violence may be seen to involve both of these notions. For in his Politics as a Vocation, Weber defined violence as that which occurs when I “assert my own will against the resistance of others.” That is, in this formulation violence is indistinct from potestas, or coercive power, whereas resistance, or liberating power, is equivalent to potentia. This resistance of which Weber writes, however, should not be understood or confused with a mere counterforce that reproduces the dominating power it opposes and thereby maintains in a reciprocal relationship, for there is another resistance at play. This other form of resistance is a type of incidental resistance, which resists only secondarily, incidentally to its distinct self-movement or activity. Resistance in this latter sense, which Marx may have likened to labor power, may also be described as the generating power of health, or healing. Indeed, health is already in many respects equivalent to the strength of one’s resistance to hostile forces. However, in order to avoid confusion it is important to distinguish between what may be deemed a superficial, bourgeois form of health – which is inseparable from the bourgeois tendency to work, and is reflected in the compulsive notion of ‘working out,’ among other things – and a more radical notion of health as freedom, and the flourishing of liberating power. This is a vital distinction since, insofar as it attempts to merely attain a superficial degree of health, and does not meaningfully challenge the fundamental conditions of domination that are inimical to actual health, and are part and parcel of an economy of disease, bourgeois forms of health not only coexist with dominating power but generally succeed in reproducing relations of domination. Moreover, as opposed to work, and to working out, a radical type of health realizes itself  not through work but through play. Not imposed by dominating forms of power in order to attain profit, or compelled by one’s own conditioned affects, play is pursued for its own sake. Although its divisions are never entirely clean cut, and even a basketball “game” can become tedious work after a certain point, the distinguishing characteristic of art, music, sports, and the pursuit of knowledge, among other human – as opposed to strictly economic – activities, is that they are pursued, in spite of market compulsions, outside of economic production concerns, largely voluntarily and for their own sake.

Insofar as proponents of “energy independence” demonstrate that their goal is the perpetual extraction of energy from not only the “natural world,” but from human beings as well – in the form of labor power – one must recognize that this notion is indistinct from coercive, dominating forms of power. In spite of this, however, the idea of “energy independence” does contain within it a radical kernel; for embedded within it is the idea that our energy – our lives – must be independent from those who merely want to extract our energy from us, as though our bodies were merely millions of tiny oil wells from which to generate profit. In light of such an interpretation of the term, we should also demand “energy independence” – but an “energy independence” of a decidedly different stripe: the independence from being compelled to sell our energy, our labor, and our health, in the first place. Indeed, if the health of the people is the supreme law, as countless proclamations contend, the compelled desecration – and energy dependence – of the health of the people of the world must not be tolerated. Rather, it ought to be rejected as the crime against humanity that, in actuality, it is.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to He lives in New York City, and can be reached at

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