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Our Energy Habit -- Putting It into Perspective

by Sam Pearson posted on Jan 02, 2008 01:30 PM last modified Mar 20, 2012 10:08 AM

How many energy slaves do you keep busy on a daily basis? You may be surprised at the number.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. 
Yes, and…?  What does that have to do with me? 
In this moment in history, everything. 

Consider that a barrel of oil can produce as much work as 20 men working for a year.  And that we in the US consume on average the equivalent of 5 barrels of oil per year per capita (those are oil equivalents for our total energy consumption, including coal, nuclear and alt fuels).  It’s as if we all unwittingly enjoyed the services of a small army in order to conduct our lives in the manner to which we have become accustomed.  We are a nation of Louis XIV’s, mincing about in an absurdly grandiose fashion – a nation of Rois Soleil, enjoying our supposed energy birthright.  For that matter, even an impoverished Bangladeshi commands a crew of 1 or 2 full-time to accomplish his yearly share of life in the world economy.

When I first did the math, I came up with 60 energy slaves each, but then I discovered that they were all Lance Armstrong, so I used a different output in the denominator and came up with a nice round 100 per person.  So my household of four includes an additional ghostly contingent of 400, none of them with any food, shelter or energy needs themselves.

We are accustomed to speaking in energy absurdities – for example, of the imaginary/invisible hundreds of horses under the hoods of our private vehicles.  It’s a useful thought experiment to try to envision your driveway and garage or the roads you travel daily to work clogged with those one to four hundred equines per car.  And that’s just our transportation habit.

Duane Griffin, Professor of Geography from Bucknell, has calculated current US consumption patterns using NASA figures for assessing human needs in space.  Our daily lives entail a thousand-fold increase in both inputs and out flows over those of man “in a state of nature.”  A return to noble savagery is unlikely to be high on anyone’s list of personal aspirations – but how can we achieve a life in balance with our sense of ourselves and the capacity of the planet?  Part of the answer is “it depends.”  It depends where you are; it depends how much of the planet buys into the transformation at once; it depends on when we get around to downshifting…

It’s this invisible army of energy slaves, this extravagantly spendthrift mode of existence we enjoy, that make alternative energy sources unviable.  Of course alternatives can’t replace oil and coal at our current level of consumption.  Our energy demand is skewed and wildly out of scale to the needs and means of the planet.  Our current solar income is miniscule compared to the rate at which we are vaporizing the accumulated solar wealth of eons in the form of fossil fuels.  It’s also why it’s so difficult to conceive of a more reasonable way.  It’s hard to correct for miscalculations off by several orders of magnitude.  And yet, we need to, in one fell swoop, transform our technology, re-envision our way of life, and, somehow, preserve our economy.

How can we go from a world of energy inflation to one of wise use (to borrow a term from the energy barons’ lexicon)?  Oh, oh, I know, we could use coal, which is basically the same thing as oil in a slightly different physical form.  But coal is the crack cocaine of our oft-touted energy addiction.  It won’t really solve any of our problems and is ultimately an even more destructive habit (just ask Appalachia).  But it does give a glimpse of the lengths we will go to as a society to feed our need for battery-operated cat food dispensers, 10-minute marinaters, 50-mile commutes, 6,000 mile plane rides, and salad shipped year-round from CA.

Some cultures refer to oil as “el sangre del diablo” – the devil’s blood.  This certainly fits with the absolute corruptions such casual access to power has engendered.  I’m not certain there’s a moral argument to be made.  It seems indecent to me, to consume at a rate so out of proportion to the carrying capacity of the planet – but that’s true of us in any number of areas – we use more synthetic chemicals than the earth can process and neutralize, we use more heavy metals and other toxins than we can keep the biota secure from, we generate more waste than anyone knows what to do with, and we go through fresh water as if it were free.  We’re not creating a culture that the planet could continue to support for future generations – that shows both lack of foresight and outright stupidity.  It’s also venal to steal from those not yet born.  To me it’s downright immoral but others have a different set of terminology for that discussion.   Conservatives are having a field day mocking the religious overtones of Al Gore’s message, so perhaps I should just leave morality to the side.

(Oh, and by the way, trash is not the solution to our energy woes.  Yes, we could extract large amounts of energy and raw materials from what we currently discard – even easily if we designed for it, but it would still be a cycle of net energy loss – the energy used in manufacture, infrastructure, transportation and use we spend irretrievably.  The object itself could be more efficient, but it’s ultimately of minor significance in the overall energy picture.  Far better to wring out the efficiencies earlier in the process.)

So what next?

Well, when you’ve been living beyond your means financially and it’s time to pay the piper, you don’t just carry on, you stop spending money you don’t have.  I might recommend we imagine stopping spending energy beyond our current income.  Unimaginable you say?  Well, time to start imagining.

It’s also time to wean ourselves off the energy industry.  They live by the creed that says you can make more money selling a man fish than teaching him to fish.  They are absolutely right, but it’s not a very effective way to secure a food supply.  It’s time to learn to fish.  If we can succeed in “feeding ourselves for life,” instead of staying in thrall to industries perversely incentivized to sell us more rather than less, we will be able to make sensible decisions about fuel sources (nuclear is only a part of the solution, if you feel those 100 energy slave actually belong to you; it, too, is finite, i.e. subject to peak, not to mention poisonous), transmission patterns (which are currently mindlessly wasteful), and consumption profiles (who says you have to actively heat buildings?  Only those who don’t bother to design the buildings to maintain acceptable temperatures year-round).

There are low-energy alternatives across the board to the wasteful way we currently do all sorts of critical things:  obtain clean water and handle our wastes, provide basic medicine, travel nationally and internationally and communicate globally.  (For the curious, rain harvesting, aquifer husbandry, and living machines; preventative neighborhood medical care and real food; blimps and canals; low-energy dispersed communication webs like the XO laptop.)  None of those is likely to be realized if we keep chipping away at the energy issue from our current angle.  And none is ever likely to be realized if we sleepwalk into the energy-constrained future without making provisions, indeed, triaging, for it now.  Wouldn't it be better to go cold-turkey on consumer culture, instead of modern medicine?

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