The pitfalls of power to the people

With the net cumulative issues of energy, economics, politics, and resource battles surrounding us at all times, it’s become difficult for many people to remain proud to be a part of the human race. But this doesn’t need to be the case: through a combination of simple math and critical thinking, I’ve realized how absurd the way we’ve come to exploit cheap energy is. It came to me one night when I felt like ending the human race—which, granted, was like most nights, but this one was special, because I actually wrote down my mental discourse.

Here’s the way I see it: it’s been scientifically measured that one litre of gasoline produces 8.9 kWh of usable work. Now, a relatively recent study published in the Journal of Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment estimates that in an eight-hour work day, an employer could extract, at best, 90 W of continuous labour from a human. So in total, we’d get 0.72 kWh of work from this fictional, overworked person.

Therefore, one litre of gasoline contains the same amount of useful energy as 8.9 kWh/0.72 kWh/day = 12.361 days or 99 hours of overly laborious human work. Let us assume, probably rather generously, that the average North American makes $20 per hour; via exact comparison, that would mean gasoline is worth $1980 per litre. The standard rational engineering response (“did you misplace a decimal somewhere in there?“) or the standard rational human response (“what the hell?”) are both inevitable at this point. Accept them and let us continue our energy adventure.

So it seems odd that we’d feel that Alberta’s peak price of $1.37 per litre in August 2008 was too much. After all, if we paid as much for human labour it would come out to about one penny per hour, and even that would be inaccurate.

A friend of mine recently did some outreach work in Zambia and reported that their copper smelters work eight hour shifts with zero breaks and earn about $0.25 per hour. Through the above logic, the 99 hours of human labour is now worth $24.75; this means that even in Zambia one litre of gasoline is still worth $24.75 CAD. So we can deduce that the energy contained in gasoline is still undervalued 18 times even in an economic system of near-slavery.

Look, let’s stop dancing around the issue and face facts: the problem with our current energy crisis isn’t that energy is too expensive. Energy is unbelievably cheap even before you account for subsidies, peaks, speculation, externalities, efficiencies, and transmission losses. And it’s not just for gasoline; simple thermodynamic-economic analysis like this holds up even for all energy production currently on the market. Coal, solar, hydroelectric and even nuclear power are all still woefully under-priced for the amount of work we get. As a result, and as a species, we’ve grown arrogant and complacent, content with our energy slaves.

There’s a phrase in a song from At The Gates that I find always captures my opinions of this perspective: “A generation of obscenities … our ignorance will be the end of humanity.” Not rooted just in our current cost debate, but in the general attitude we’ve been adopting towards issues like these. The causes of our actions are continually rooted in the integrated psychology of human denial and greed.

But I keep believing that at least some of us are beginning to recognize that unprecedented scales of change are needed immediately, and that we’re doing everything we can to both change ourselves and inform others. And a good step in that process is to admit once and for all that energy isn’t as rare and privileged as we’d like to think. Gasoline and other fossil fuels came from the earth, after all, and maybe that should be a good indication of their ultimate value to humanity.

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