It would be customary of me to write up our Sunday experiences at Pann Mill. The weather was nice and the people nicer but you can read all about that in one of our previous blogs (here). Instead I would like to answer a question that arose out of the Guildhall talk from 6th July. I showed a PowerPoint slide (reproduced here). It was controversial. People didn’t believe what it read.
The slide concerned the energy density of oil. Not normally a topic of polite conversation but this one was important. It reveals how little we understand how useful fossil fuels are in running our lives for us. Without them modern life would be extremely hard work. ONE litre of petrol contains the work equivalent of 130 man hours of work. At minimum wage that is about £1000. We pay about £1.40 at the pumps per litre. Still think petrol is expensive? Try paying a team of people to pull your car everywhere at 45mph.
The food you consume in one year requires 1,500 litres of oil to produce and ship. At £1000 per litre that is £1,500,000 a year. Still think food is expensive?
The calculations to give you these kind of numbers are elemental. The average fourteen year old should be covering this in their Physics or Chemistry classes. The maths is also simple. I have found similar numbers repeated in a wide variety of books on energy and oil over the last few years. The numbers no longer surprise me.
But still some doubt.
To get these numbers yourself start with two numbers: one US gallon of petrol contains the energy equivalent of 36,400 watts of power delivered in one hour… &… human work delivers only 74 watts of power delivered in one hour. Thus one gallon of petrol = 492 hours of human work. 1 US gallon is about 3.8 litres. This gives us roughly 130 hours of human work per litre. Charge this at £7.50/hour and you get £975 per litre (or roughly a round £1k.). Even if you used Imperial Gallons the numbers are roughly the same = just over £800/lt.
Fine – that is the physics and chemistry lesson out of the way. (Feel free to Google the numbers.) Next go to the paper “Food, Land, Population and the U.S. Economy” (21st November 1994) by David Pimental and Mario Giampietro. This gives us the 1,500 litres of oil figure for your annual food requirements. This is for the USA, our food footprint may be slightly lower but the figures are broadly equivalent across the western world. Even if we argued that this number was out by 90% you still get an annual food bill of £150,000. Even a number one-hundredth would make your personal annual food bill £15,000.
Expensive isn’t it?
But all of this may be irrelevant. The facts on this do not matter for many. There is a reason why we don’t believe the numbers. It is simply that we cannot comprehend the energy in oil. We have so much energy we take it for granted. We live like kings yet assume this is our birth-right. We NEVER question it. It is unbelievable.
After I delivered this data at the Guildhall we had a lot of very positive responses and a couple of negative ones. There was the repeated doubt on these numbers, then there was the reaction that went like this: “I kept thinking about what you said. It kept me awake at night. We try so hard to recycle all our rainwater and we’ll try to do more…”
These two reactions are poles apart: one is denial (“THAT can’t possibly be true!”) and the other is acceptance (“better get on with it then”). Now there is a point to this. These human reactions are entirely natural when faced with an unpalatable truth. It even has a technical name; it is called the Kübler-Ross model (commonly known as The Five Stages of Grief). These five stages are:
These represent a theoretical model to apply to any form of catastrophic personal loss. It is how we react when told that something is wrong. Many of us may go through one or more of these steps but the quicker we get to step five the better. Some just get stuck at step one and suffer a great deal.
So consider being told that there is nothing as uniquely energy dense as oil and its abundance is used to make all our food. Then you are told that oil is a finite substance and being depleted so rapidly that our grandchildren might not live to see it. Then be told that burning oil could so damage our climate that it could bring irrecoverable economic and human loss. How would you react?:
- “What utter rubbish”
- “What the heck!?”
- “OK, all we need are some energy-saving lightbulbs…”
- “It’s useless, there is nothing we can do.”
- “Right, let’s make a plan, get the neighbours round…”
There is no emergency today. Oil will not suddenly run out nor our weather go completely insane overnight. So some will wallow around stages 1 thru 4 for a long time to come. A healthier state of affairs would be to wallow at stage five.
If you are in Transition right now then welcome to stage five. Transition has no membership system. You either get it, or you don’t. We don’t recruit. We only inform. Life is a journey that we all have to make. There is no judgement to be made about those at stage one. No gloating. No “we told you so”. We just beckon you along. Join us. At least you have been told the truth.