I don’t have $512,811… do you?

I haven’t posted on this blog in quite some time because, well, I’ve been inordinately busy. Back in March, I accepted a position with the Post Carbon Institute, managing their Relocalization Network. It was with mixed feelings that I shifted my attention: Having come so far in developing the concept of Climate Champions and ultimately Climate Relay, I was loathe not to continue investing my full attention to bringing it to life.

But working with Post Carbon was a rare and great opportunity. Even before I understood the true scope of the “peak everything” crisis, I was deeply attracted to the organization’s vision for relocalization because I saw that in this framework offered a solution to a number of critical issues: climate change, social and economic justice, healthy individuals and communities, energy independence, national and energy security, environmental stewardship, etc. The Relocalization Network supports communities to (re)develop local production of food, energy and goods.

In any case, part of the reason why I’ve laid low on this blog and with my family and friends since I’ve joined Post Carbon is because, well, climate change is depressing enough. When you add peak oil to the equation, it’s hard not to find the nearest sand pit in which to bury your head. (BTW, my son has a very nice sandbox in our back yard, if you ever need one.)

That said, I wanted to share this one little tidbit, just to illustrate how immensely fortunate we in the developed world have been in the last century+ as a result of cheap energy.

The huge distortions imposed on the modern industrial nations by the flood of cheap abundant energy that washed over them in the 20th century can be measured readily enough by a simple statistic. In America today, our current energy use works out to around 1000 megajoules per capita, or the rough equivalent of 100 human laborers working 24-hour days for each man, woman, and child in the country. The total direct cost for all this energy came to around $500 billion a year in 2005, the last year for which I was able to find statistics, or about $1667 per person per year.

Now consider how much it would cost to hire human laborers to perform the same amount of work. At the current federal minimum wage of $5.75 an hour, hiring 100 workers in three shifts to provide the equivalent amount of energy would cost each American $512,811 a year, or about 308 times as much as the energy costs – and this doesn’t count payroll taxes, health insurance, paid vacations and the like. Mind you, it would also require the US to find food, housing, and basic services for an additional workforce of 30 billion people, but we can let the metaphor go before tackling issues on that scale.

(Hat tip to D. Parkinson for sharing this through the Relocalization Network.)

Those born after WWII in particular have absolutely no sense of how radically transformative this cheap, accessible energy has been to our society. We almost take it for granted in the same way we do breathing: Not worth noting except when we suddenly lose it (like a power outage or rolling blackouts) or we labor to catch it (like filling up your tank with $4/gallon gas).

Many of us are now coming to see oil and other fossil fuels as an evil because of the environmental crises their use have created. That’s all well and good, not to mention true. Very true. But what I, and I think many others, have failed to recognize is how much we’ve benefited from them. Even as they’ve gouged our earth, muddied our air, and played havoc with our climate, these hydrocarbons have come like oxygen and nutrients pumping from the umbilical cord of the earth (okay… weird metaphor).

The real question now, in some ways, is have we choked ourselves on it?


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