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Americans, with 100 ‘energy servants’ each, share blame for Gulf oil spill PDF Print E-mail
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by Sarah (Steve) Mosko   
18 June 2010
There’s no shortage of finger pointing as the now worst oil spill in U.S. history continues its assault on the Gulf Coast’s ecology and economy.

A USA TODAY/Gallop Poll taken in late May, for example, found that 73 percent of Americans feel that BP (British Petroleum) is doing a ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ job of handling the crisis, and 60 percent evaluated the federal government’s response in the same unfavorable terms.

Confronted with images of birds swathed in crude oil and prognostications that the Gulf region’s fishing and tourism industries might never recover, the urge to form a posse, so to speak, to rout out those responsible and hold them accountable is all too human.

But are we Americans shocked enough yet by the enormity of this calamity to own up to our personal role in it? After all, it’s ultimately our nation’s energy-intense lifestyle and attachment to fossil fuels that gives companies like BP and our government the implicit go-ahead to pursue oil at the risk of the very kind of disaster now ensuing.

Unless you’re a physicist or energy wonk of some sort, hearing that the average yearly per capita energy consumption in the United States in 2008 was 337 million Btu probably tells you little about your energy footprint. Knowing that a Btu is an energy standard equivalent to 252 calories -- about what’s contained in a Snickers candy bar -- is probably of little help either.

That’s why Professor of Physics Richard Wolfson of Middlebury College has been giving demonstrations for the last decade which impart a real gut-level, hands-on feel for the energy it takes to support the typical American lifestyle.

His demonstration is simple but ingenious. A volunteer is asked to turn a hand crank which, through a geared system, drives an electric generator connected to two 100-watt incandescent light bulbs.

The upshot is that a typical person can turn the crank fast enough to light one 100-watt light bulb, but not two. To add to the muscular feel for the effort required to turn the crank, Wolfson points out that it takes roughly the same energy output as doing deep knee bends at a rate of one per second.

The lesson is that the energy or work output of a human body is about enough to keep just a single 100-watt bulb lit. Wolfson conceptualizes this amount of energy output -- 100 watts -- as one human ‘energy servant.’

The question then posed is how many such energy servants does it take to power the typical American lifestyle?

Answering this requires some simple math, starting with the yearly energy consumption of 337 million Btu per capita which is equivalent, in more familiar units, to 99 thousand kWh (kilowatt hours). Dividing this by the number of hours in a year tells us that an American typically consumes energy at an average rate of 10 kW which is equal to 100 human energy servants (i.e. 100 x 100 watts).

This is Wolfson’s message: The average U.S. resident enjoys a lifestyle requiring the equivalent of 100 personal energy servants cranking away 24/7.

This is just one person’s share of what it takes to takes to heat, cool and light our homes, fuel our cars, cook and refrigerate our foods, and run our home appliances plus that individual’s portion of the energy that makes possible the many shared benefits of our society that do not show up on home gas and electric bills – like the energy used to grow and transport foods to market and to produce all manufactured goods.

It’s obvious that a person is not drawing on 100 energy servants all the time. For instance, it takes roughly 750 energy servants to keep a typical gasoline car traveling at a speed of 50 mph compared to, say, two energy servants to power a 40-inch TV. But, 100 is the number of energy servants working day and night on one’s behalf when energy consumption is averaged around the clock.

The high standard of living Americans enjoy only partly explains their high energy consumption. Europeans enjoy a similar standard of living but use the equivalent of only 49 energy servants. The world average is fewer than 25 energy servants per person.

A century ago Americans consumed energy at less than one-third the current rate.

The American lifestyle, still powered more than 85 percent by fossil fuels, has much to do with the BP oil disaster: After all, BP was just doing for us the dirty work of finding a new cache of energy servants.

Americans deserve blame for failing to conserve energy far more than we do and for not demanding of both the government and industry that the nation convert rapidly to renewable energy sources like, solar, wind, biomass and geothermal. Failure to do so could mean the unthinkable, that the Gulf oil spill will soon enough fall to second or third place among the worst oil disasters in U.S. history.

* * * * *

Other articles by Mosko on Culture Change: No Such Thing as a Green Lawn, Fewer Toxins in Toyland, and Serving plastics for dinner? Unhealthy and avoidable (within "Plastics Keep Coming after You: a Comprehensive Report and a Call to Action")

This article appeared in Surf City Voice, June 16, 2010, Orange County, California, and subsequently on Mosko's website

Culture Change editor Jan Lundberg commented on the article for BoogieGreen's webpage:

Hi Steve,

You did a great job with this energy-slave article. Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, R-Maryland, has done many such comparisons of energy use and human power in his innumerable peak oil presentations.

I believe your last paragraph gives too much credit to techno-fixing the petroleum lifestyle. It turns out that renewable and alternatives forms of energy cannot substitute much for petroleum's energy or petroleum's infrastructure. So it's far more essential to pursue energy curtailment on all levels -- especially when we picture what's happening in the U.S. Gulf and with the global climate. And there's those oil wars on the other side of the world that we don't want to think about.

Comments (7)Add Comment
The lightbulb example is certainly illuminating, in every sense. :) Here's another idea: maturity. I'd like us to look at how we ended up sharing guilt with the likes of BP, because that's not who we are. Basically, I think, we did what we were told. We focused on staying young, on self-improvement, on the gadgets and widgets and cars and homes and jobs and clothes and leisure activities we were told were the best, the ones we HAD to have. All this kept us preoccupied while we ate the food they prepared for us and drank the water.

Oh, dear, did we drink the water? I'm afraid so. What we're guilty of is allowing ourselves to be kept childlike and distracted, to buy the BS. What we need first is our maturity -- to take back control of our own lives and livelihoods, starting with our food and water and moving out from there.

What do we really need versus what have they imposed upon us? It's hard to see at first (our job really pays them, not us, etc.) but ultimately it leads us away from their oil and other toys, and away from their control.
Caren Black
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Votes: +9

I didn't choose the high-energy technological lifestyle that awaited me when I was born. This lifestyle was contrived in corporate boardrooms by pudgy white men as a business plan to keep their wealth coming in. So, I'll pass on feeling responsible, thank you.

Maybe, though, the lube job on the Gulf of Mexico can be an occasion to think about and act on the necessity of curbing human reproduction. We can be sure that the human population--and it's energy consumption, which is elegantly illustrated in this piece--will shrink one way or another. Which way shall we choose?
Peter Crabb
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Votes: +4
You may not have chosen the high-technology lifestyle, and you may think it was imposed on you, but you could have choosen not to participate in a great deal of it once you knew what the consequences were for our planet. We do have the intelligence to know when we are being sold a bill of goods by "pudgy white men in suits", but turning down the goodies was more than most of us had the gumption to do, so instead we choose to believe we aren't responsible, that our high-tech lifestyle is just something that was imposed on us and we had no choice in the matter.
Ellen Rainwalker
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Then we would need 300, even slaves have to eat and sleep.

Horses largely replaced slaves and servants when slavery became a no-no, I expect we would need a paddock of them each, at least a billion horses in America if oil dried up tomorrow.
Chris Harries
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No one is to blame. We are responsible for what we can see. And that vision has recently become very clearer for most of us. Our cultural surroundings have a tendency to make us comfortable and conformist. We can be misled in our thinking (education)
We can be emotionally persuaded (media) The American Dream.
Those of us who have awakened from the Dream by the light of a new day dawning are finding ways to live beyond the industrial corporate state. If you're awake, gently nudge your brother. And don't buy no shame! Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly down the evolutionary Path. And don't worry about it! Righteous judgement and conscious lifestyles take time. Be a model of courage and confidence. That's all we can do. Then we can choose to wait on the Lord for the rest.
Alan D. Jackson
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Come on! With the money pissed away on war over the past decade we could have created an infrastructure, built railroads, tax rebates for home systems, tax rebates for organic farmers, etc. etc. etc.

Dont even talk to me about my "responsibility" if you arent going to severely criticize the Military-Industrial Complex and the Imperial egomania of the elites and the utterly immoral greed of the super-rich, all of whom do whatever they want with this country and its wealth. Start using your media platform to vigorously oppose the war and organize a General Strike. Otherwise, we dont need to hear this for the millionth time. Sheesh!
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To Hell with who's to blame! Just do the right thing. Not for me to judge your success or failure about that. That's between myself and my God and yourself and your God. But may it come easily.
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