Wednesday, March 16, 2011

An energy budget

Rising gasoline prices are pinching the economy just as it's starting to inch towards recovery, and most people don't realize how pervasive that one factor is. The fact is, every product or service you spend money on is directly, and potently, impacted by energy costs. Energy is the most fundamental of all costs in our global economy, even more than labor is now, because even things made by robots are still consuming energy to be made, transported, operated, and disposed of.

When you think about this, if you take a big step back and look at how we, as a country, as a species, as a society, use our energy, it's immediately striking that we are totally and utterly insane about it. There is essentially nothing about what we do and don't spend energy on now that is any different from how we did when it was, in a very real sense, "unlimited" -- that is, there was more of it than the whole human race could expect to use up.

At any given moment, you aren't just using up energy to power a light bulb and a TV (which itself might be seen as kind of frivolous). You've also got a pantry stocked with foods that were grown 5000 miles away, probably by methods that used a lot of energy to manage temperatures and such, and then was packaged and transported to you. That transportation in turn necessitated a whole industry to pave roads, stock gas stations, build and repair vehicles (most of which are vastly underutilized), and keep the roads clear of obstacles and the effects of weather. You aren't just keeping your whole house (including the rooms no one is in) warmer than the manor of a spoiled medieval lordling, you're also filling that house with products manufactured on the other side of the world from materials produced even more thousands of miles away.

Pick any single thing around you right now, and try to add up every way that energy was expended in the process of getting it to where you have it, from the extraction of the raw materials, through manufacturing and distribution, to the packaging it came in, to the costs that will eventually accrue when you throw it away and it has to be carted through the waste disposal infrastructure. Now multiply that by the millions of other things you and everyone around you has. Do you feel like we're using energy in a way that makes sense, for the whole planet, the whole human race? If you could start from a clean slate and design a world with the same number of people and same amount of resources, and try to make it efficient in how energy was used, would this design have even the slighest resemblance to anything we actually have?

If the world had to look at an overall, worldwide energy budget, and treat its total amount of energy the way you (hopefully) treat your gross income, deciding which are the most important ways to spend the energy it has for the most benefit without going over the amount of energy it can gather sustainably, there is essentially nothing in your life that would be even remotely the same as it is now. Instead, we spend energy like a drunk frat boy who stole his mother's credit card. No, that analogy is way too tame; even a drunk frat boy probably realizes that the credit card has a limit, and there will be a reckoning, and even if he doesn't, he probably won't start buying high-end brandy just to lubricate the bar with so the bartender can slide beers down it. But the way we spend energy, worldwide, is even more profligate than that. If there's still a human race in 200 years, they will undoubtedly consider us far, far, far stupider than we consider the doctors who used to bleed patients to death. What's worse is, those doctors didn't really have enough info to realize how wrong they were, but we have no excuse. We're just too used to living like medieval aristocrats to really think about what we're doing. At best, we say "turn down the thermostat and put on a sweater," as if that's really what the world needs.

No comments: