Energy Slaves of Modern Culture

Humans are no match against fossil fuel, the real Energy Slaves of Modern CultureWhen I explain to people that I have not purchased electricity for ten years, they are envious. When I tell them I have not bought gasoline or oil or a smog check for four years, they are amazed. When I tell them they can do the same thing simply by shifting their priorities, they yawn. Understanding the critical nature of our energy use is vital to our future well-being.

Ancient Sunlight

Fossil fuel is a form of ancient sunlight. Formed over millions of years, it is the product of the compression and heating of massive amounts of biomass, creating a highly concentrated form of energy. Tremendous amounts of carbon were removed from the atmosphere and safely sequestered underground. It helped form the atmospheric conditions in which we have evolved and thrived. This natural process was integral in creating the current balance of elements in the earth’s biosphere that is essential to life as we know and enjoy it.

Though small amounts of fossil fuels have been used for thousands of years, the real journey to Peak Oil started with Thomas Newcomen’s invention of the steam engine in England around 1710, widely acknowledged as the start of the Industrial Revolution. Modern use of oil came into the picture in the 1800’s, simmered a bit and then really took off in the twentieth century. Today, we use approximately 21 million barrels of oil per day, in the U.S. alone! Globally, we’re burning over 84 million barrels a day according to the Energy Information Administration.

I’d like to try to put that into perspective. There are 42 gallons in a barrel. Imagine pouring just one gallon of gooey brown oil in a large pan and burning it in your backyard. No one I know would do that on purpose, it would create a lot of black toxic smoke! Yet we are using over 3.5 BILLION gallons of the stuff daily. That’s over 40,000 gallons per second! How can any logical person deny that releasing that much carbon back into our atmosphere would not have a powerful effect on our climate?

What Are Energy Slaves?

We like to burn oil (as gasoline) since we largely ignore the environmental impacts, resulting in energy that is practically “free.” One barrel of crude oil produces about 5,800,000 Btu of energy. A hard working human being can produce about 500 watts of energy. Doing the math shows that it would take a person nine days, working hard physical labor for a solid eight hours per day, to equal the energy in just one gallon of gasoline.

If we fill our car each week with ten gallons of gas at $2.75 a gallon, then for $27.50 we are getting the energy equivalent of fifteen people working seven full days of hard labor. That works out to a few cents an hour, with no overtime pay. Every member of our industrial civilization uses these “energy slaves” on a daily basis, usually with no thought at all about the implications or true value.

Another way to imagine it is to drive the distance you can on one gallon of gas. Say that’s 25 miles. Now imagine how many people it would take, at any speed, to manually push your car back to the starting point. How many people would do it for an equal share of $2.75? To return your car in the same amount of time as the gas-powered portion of the trip would require the energy output of about 128 day laborers!

“Losing Our Energy Slaves” by Jack Alpert

A sobering and serious illustration.

With practically free labor in the form of ancient sunlight, it’s no wonder we’ve burned though about half of all the oil in the world in such an incredibly short time. But it’s the oil that has been the most accessible and easiest to get to, thus the cheapest, that we’ve used so far. The latest “fossil fuel boom” is the dirty, hard-to-get-to stuff that provides a much smaller energy return on energy invested coupled with a much larger destructive footprint.

Change: Divest and Simplify

It is time to divest and leave those toxic assets where they belong: in the ground. My investments in clean energy, efficiency and an electric vehicle have been the best I’ve ever made. My carbon footprint has dropped by 90%. Lifestyle is a big part of it too. Change is inevitable, but our choices dictate the terms.

There is no magic bullet that will replace the incredible one-time gift of “cheap” oil that we have fundamentally taken for granted. The truth is that it is far from cheap. In fact we may end up paying the ultimate price for our brief but profligate fling with fossil fuels. We should have taken steps to ease this problem fifty years ago. The warning signs are greater than ever yet we continue to rush headlong toward global disaster.

About 7,350,000 gallons of oil burned while you read this article.

Do we really want to waste the planet, just because we can? Live simply. It matters.


Energy Slaves – Embedded in our Food Too

COWSPIRACY: The Sustainability Secret, is a groundbreaking feature length environmental documentary, following an intrepid filmmaker as he uncovers the most destructive industry facing the planet today and investigates why the world’s leading environmental organizations are too afraid to talk about it.