The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming novel EcoGuerrillas.
Like agriculture, every aspect of our material culture is subsidized by fossil fuels. The idea of “energy slaves” allows us to conceptualize the degree to which we are dependent on cheap and abundant fuel to produce things and use appliances. In 1940, R. Buckminster Fuller (1940) used the phrase to describe the use of energy around the world at the time: “undeveloped” areas relied more on human and animal muscle, while the “developed” world had harnessed hydropower and fossil fuels. In the ancient world, a farmer would have to depend on his or her own body to harvest and process a crop. In times and places where humans were kept as slaves, the owner could save his labor by forcing bondspeople to perform the work for him. Today, we use labor-saving machines to do much of the heavy lifting. The work is still performed, but nonhuman energy is used to carry it out. In our case, this means machines built and powered by fossil fuels. The more intensive our use of external energy, the more energy slaves we have.
For comparison, a strong cyclist riding a stationary bicycle can generate about 200 watts per hour. That much energy would move a compact car 0.18 miles or a loaded semi 0.03 miles; it would toast four slices of bread, boil a quart of water on a stove, or run an oven for 5 minutes; it would power a central air conditioner for 3:25 minutes or a furnace for 40 seconds; run a clothes dryer for 4 minutes or a water heater for 3; but it would charge forty cell phones.* If we add up all the ways we use power today, it clear that we each have hundreds of energy slaves toiling away for us.
At the time of the industrial revolution, it was thought that automation would give us all more leisure time. Indeed, the upper classes in England were concerned that the poor would become lazy, which was rather hypocritical coming from the idle rich. Instead of working less, though, society chose to produce more material goods per capita than at any time in human history. Today, even average people have more material goods than the wealthy in times past. The problem is not the items or even their amount but rather the fact that society is duped into believing that these things are necessary for a good and happy life. Because of the abundance of cheap fuel for industry, we can produce disposable products of poor quality. As the age of fossil fuels comes to an end—either through our controlled draw down or a later catastrophic failure—our material abundance will diminish, so we must redesign the production chain to fall more into line with the three principles of sustainable existence.
We should consider the impact of producing, using, and discarding items on our ecosystems as we are but one type of organism on it. This means that products relying on complex petrochemicals to create inorganic substances cannot be part of our future; their production and use are mutagenic, carcinogenic, and toxic to organisms. The reason plastics remain in our environment for so long is that no organism has evolved to consume them. Before industrialization, all products were organic or inert: cotton, wool, wood, glass, stone, metal, etc. These items can be produced without disrupting the ecosystem if used judiciously: for example, wood grows by itself, has many of the same qualities as plastic, and biodegrades when discarded. By following natural cycles—growth and decomposition, smelting and oxidation, and vitrification and erosion—we can avoid harmful by- and waste products.
Our use of materials must fit within our available resources. The biggest change must be the discontinuation of disposable products, even ones that are biodegradable. Items should be built of such quality that they do not need to be replaced until they have had a long uselife. By eliminating fossil fuels from the chain of production, most of these items will drop out of circulation. Most plastic items have longer-lasting or biodegradable alternatives already available: grocery bags, pens, hot and cold beverage cups, straws, cutlery, food storage containers and bags, diapers, batteries, cameras, and so on. Even most medical equipment has reusable alternatives that can be sterilized instead of being disposable.
When attempting to carry out a task, whether it is required for survival or simply for enjoyment, we should ask ourselves if we’re achieving our goals through the simplest means available. In some cases, we must rely on complex systems, such as in the delivery of life-saving medical assistance, but most of the time, the convenient choices we make are only possible due to the complicated infrastructure supported by abundant fossil fuels. While boiling an electric kettle seems to be simple, a quick analysis must encompass local power generation through nuclear fission or the burning of coal or natural gas, the transmission of the power, and the production of the kettle involving aluminum refining and the mining of tungsten and copper.
We do not have to go back to the Dark Ages and a preindustrial way of life. Many forms of communication, for example, are the simplest means to distribute information to many people, but it will take careful consideration to decide what is the proverbial baby in order to discard the dirty bathwater. We have learned much since the Enlightenment, and we have no reason to go back into an age of fear, famine, and feudalism. We can choose to take proactive steps towards a future filled with more physical labor and fewer “things.” It is a future we can sustain indefinitely instead of burning ourselves on the pyre of oil.
*A world-class cyclist may generate over 400 watts per hour. A 30-mpg car requires 1113.67 watts/mile; a 6.5-mpg semi requires 5838.46 watts/mile; a 1200-watt toaster; a 1500-watt stovetop; a 2400-watt oven; a 3500-watt central air conditioner; a 18,000-watt furnace; a 3000-watt clothes dryer; a 4000-watt water heater; a 5-watt-per-charge cell phone.
Fuller, R. Buckminster. 1940. “World Energy.” Fortune, February, cover.