Sunday, December 28, 2008

Energy slaves

I went to Tulsa for a visit over the Christmas holidays, and while I was there I filled up my gas tank. The price for this amazingly energy-dense fuel was $1.39 a gallon. I filled up the rest of my tank for $12.60, and I figured that this was enough gas to get me from Oklahoma City to Tulsa and back to OKC again.


Can you imagine what it would cost if you had to pay someone to take you, and your family, and your luggage, in a train or a horse drawn buggy on this 200 mile round trip? What would it take to pay someone to push your car all that way? Can you imagine how long it would take if you had to bike that 200 mile trip, carrying your luggage and your kids?

When you run the calculations, we discover that there is enough energy in a gallon of gas (38,000 kilocalories) to be roughly equivalent to a human person working 500 hours. This is called an "energy slave". Since we use fossil fuels in so many ways, for transportation, for industry to make our consumer goods, for heating our homes and running our appliances, for agriculture to grow our food, etc.... it turns out that the average European uses the equivalent of 100 energy slaves to maintain their lifestyle.

Now that is really amazing. So consider again.... one gallon of gas is equivalent to a person working for 500 hours. And the average European (who uses about half the energy of an American) has the equivalent of 100 slaves working year round for their benefit. That is because fossil fuels are the most energy-dense and versatile material ever found. We have never found anything that can equal it. And production is peaking soon.

The thought that anyone believes we can technology tango our way out of this mess is ludicrous. The thought that solar + ethanol + wind + conservation is going to create some kind of lifestyle nearly approximating our current one is laughable. I'm surprised anyone can say it without blushing madly.

But really, we don't need to have the kind of lifestyle we have today to be happy, content, and engaged in our community. In fact, the kind of lifestyle we "enjoy" today creates a lot of barriers to being happy, content, and engaged. We can have a great life, although a very different one, with a whole lot less energy (decreasing from our current use by conservation, curtailment, and changing expectations of normal) - with solar and wind and wood to make up the declining fossil fuels.

The kicker is, we have to stop fighting blindly and open our eyes. We have to stop believing the Western way of life is the best way ever invented, and the only way to live. We have to give up the impossible dream of neverending fairytale GDP growth. We have to change many of our fundamental assumptions of how life SHOULD be lived and what the ideal life looks like.

We have to get used to the fact that normal life does not consist of having 200 energy slaves working all day long to make us comfortable and keep us happy and raise our status. It never has been normal, and it never will be normal. We just happened to be born during the most bizarre blip on the radar - the strangest time in millennium - when these habits and beliefs seemed to be simply average. But in truth, how we live today, what seems so average to us - is really living like kings. The richest kings that ever lived. The kind of kings that spent so much, that taxed their people so much, that they lost their heads.

We need to give up our crowns and our slaves and get back to living like regular people. If we don't do it voluntarily, don't worry - peak oil will do it for us. But it will be a lot less enjoyable process.


Lewru said...

Wow, I never thought about this in those terms, using the slave metaphor.

Your comment about putting up barriers to happiness gets into the ecopsychology realm - and it bears a lot of analysis. So many of us have drank the koolaid that technology will set us free, better living through chemistry, more stuff = more bliss, and related BS ad nauseum...And what got lost in the shuffle is the construction of real, human, face-to-face, time-tested relationships, community, family, etc.

It may seem terrifying and incredibly difficult at first, but my bet is that people will be happier after the shock has worn off.

Peak Oil Hausfrau said...

I can't remember where I first heard about the energy slave, but I have run across it many times - I couldn't find a good direct link for it though. I think it makes it very concrete for people - lets them visualize how much energy they really are using.

Alison said...

I was just wondering whether you have any insights, and references for me to read, that could explain why I'd be using more energy living in the USA than if I were living in the UK.

I don't think I've changed my habits terribly. Either I am still using what I did before and I'm just part of a higher average (maybe an anomaly), or there is something about the infrastructure here that is different, so I use more energy because it occurs elsewhere in the system, or there is something about my energy needs here, like the climate and the inefficiency of appliances, that makes the difference.

I'd seriously like to figure this out and would appreciate any suggestions.

Peak Oil Hausfrau said...

Hi Alison - I would recommend tracking your energy for a month - gas receipts and plane rides, and energy bills - electricity, natural gas, heating oil, etc. and see if you ARE above your old energy usage. It is just an average after all.

As for reasons why Americans use more energy - it's cheaper here and we don't think about it as much. Many people - 50% in some places - drive trucks and SUVs that get only 15 - 18 mpg. There is not much public transportation in many cities. We don't really have trains, instead we use planes to get from city to city. Our houses are also larger - upwards of 2000+ square feet, taking more to heat and cool. Energy efficiency has never been a top priority here - not of technology, and not of habit. So there are a lot of reasons why we use more energy. Hope that helps!