June 18, 2010
Independence Day Thought
By Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger
The long holiday weekend will undoubtedly bring the usual calls for energy independence. With a hole in the bottom of the ocean continuing to spew tens of thousands of gallons of oil daily into the Gulf and hundreds of thousands of American troops stationed around the world endeavoring, among other things, to ensure the free flow of oil upon which our economy depends, it is worth remembering why it has been so difficult to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, even though the costs of that dependence have been high.
David Owen reminds us in his book, Green Metropolis:
Yet oil replaces an extraordinary quantity of human physical effort. A healthy, well-fed laborer, working steadily for eight hours a day, might be able to expend his own energy at an average rate of 25 or 50 watts; a diesel-powered machine, operating at 40 percent thermal efficiency, can produce 25 or 50 watt hours of work from a few tablespoonfuls of fuel. If you could capture all the energy in a typical barrel of crude oil -- 42 gallons, 5.8 million Btus -- and convert it into forty-hour human work weeks, it would be the equivalent of several years' worth of one man's moderately strenuous manual exertion. I own a modern reprint of a book called Homemade Contrivances and How to Make Them: 1001 Labor-Saving Devices for Farm, Garden, Dairy, and Workshop, which was first published in 1897, before American agriculture had been transformed by fossil fuels. It contains illustrated instructions for building manure sheds, hog stickers, cattle stunners, fishing scows, mink traps, wagon seats, flood gates, clod crushers, hay presses, chaff forks, nests for egg-eating hens, and hundreds of other hand-made and hand-operated implements, and it explains how to make fertilizer from animal bones, swamp muck, the scrapings of road-side ditches, the mossy surfaces and hard tussocks of swamp meadows, and other unlikely materials. To read the book is to be staggered both by the ingenuity of human beings and by the extraordinary amount of labor that used to go into saving labor, before the proliferation of machines powered by coal, oil, and natural gas. . .
Most of us think of our careers as the products of choice: I chose to be a journalist, you chose to be a lawyer, your friends and siblings and children chose to be plumbers and farmers and doctors and actors and carpenters and factory workers and truck drivers and college professors. In reality, though, our careers are mainly the products of fossil fuels. I am able sit at a desk all day, staring at a computer screen and being distracted by email, televised golf, and online bridge, because coal, oil, and natural gas are out there somewhere, doing my share of the heavy lifting. A manual laborer expending energy at an average rate of 25 watts for eight hours a day, 365 days a year, would have overall average rate of about 8 watts, or enough to keep a typical nightlight burning around the clock; a typical modern North American, by comparison, consumes energy from all sources (household appliances, automobiles, air travel) at an average rate of about 12,000 watts. Most of that difference--between 8 watts and 12,000 watts--is made up by fossil fuels. If I were dropped naked into the middle of an empty world, my life, for as long as it lasted, would depend entirely on what I was able to do for myself with my own strength--and that wouldn't be much. What we think of as the rise of civilization has been the direct result of our creating ever more effective ways to leverage our puny personal energy capability--by working cooperatively, fashioning tools, wearing clothes, burning wood, capturing wind, harnessing rivers, burning coal, splitting the atom.
In 1801, Thomas Jefferson, in his first Inaugural address, said that the American wilderness would provide growing room for democracy-sustaining agrarian patriots "to the thousandth and thousandth generation." He didn't foresee the interstate highway system, and his arithmetic was off, in any case, but the main reason that our world differs so dramatically from his is the discovery and massive industrial exploitation of coal, oil, and natural gas. The modern history of our species is the history of our ascent up what the naturalist Loren Eiseley called "the heat ladder." If the earth had contained no convenient source of densely packed, readily storable, easily transportable, and quickly releasable energy, America today would necessarily be closer to the country that Jefferson envisioned, and more of us would be toiling in fields and forests and workshops and factories, and building our own hog-scalding vats and corn-fodder ventilators and jigs for putting points on wooden-fence pickets (assuming we hadn't already starved to death or succumbed to any of the innumerable health emergencies that petroleum-derived chemicals have permitted us to overcome), rather than worrying about the recent performance of our 401(k). Coal bested firewood as an inexpensive multiplier of economic productivity, and oil and natural gas bested coal. The fossil fuels have enabled us to massively leverage the strength of our bodies, allowing a single farmer to produce the harvest of many, and to produce it on less land, and to ship it farther away, freeing a steadily growing percentage of us to do something other than growing or finding food, and to think of our lives in terms of something other than simple survival. The fossil fuels are not merely conveniences, or raw materials, or sources of pollution, or dwindling natural resources, or tradable commodities, or foundations of great fortunes, or geopolitical chess pieces; they are the basis of modern life. Oil is liquid civilization. We are what we burn, and that's as true for the head of the Sierra Club as it is for you and me.
The predictable calls for energy independence will be followed by the usual shopworn contentions that "we have all the technology we need" and that all we lack is "political will." But what we lack is not political will. Instead, it is affordable low carbon energy technologies that can scale to serve a global population that will grow to 9 or 10 billion over the next four decades and whose energy needs will almost certainly double and probably triple over that period of time.
Our very identities and notions of ourselves would be impossible without fossil fuels. Without an alternative we are simply not going to deal with global warming. Whatever even the most sincere green may say about the unappreciated benefits of pre-industrial agrarian societies, none of us are actually serious about returning to lives of hard agrarian labor. Nor do the 4 or 5 billion of our fellow humans who actually still lead such lives labor under such illusions.