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Living on the Earth, June 6, 1997: Energy
We can't live without energy. We need it to do the work of pumping our blood,
growing our food, and building our shelters. For most of the hundred thousand
or so years we've been on this planet, humans have used the sun's energy to do
the work that needed to be done. The stored solar energy in the plants and
animals eaten by our ancestors provided the energy to gather or grow that food,
as well as to keep their communities functioning. Stored solar energy from
plants and animals is still an absolute necessity for us to live.
Because the sun was the energy source they knew, our forebears figured out
ingenious ways to tap into its energy flow. They captured the sun-driven wind
with sails on boats and on grist mills. They used the power of gravity's pull
on solar-evaporated water to saw lumber and to irrigate fields. Stored energy
in wood provided warmth and fuel for cooking food. Centuries ago, the natives
of the Southwest created elegant cities heated by the sun in winter and cool in
the summer by intelligent design.
Using just the sun's energy, the Egyptians built the Pyramids, the Chinese
erected the Great Wall, the Greeks created Athens and the Native Americans built
the great cities on the plains.
Only in the last several hundred years has anything other than current solar
energy been used. The discovery of fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas,
changed everything. With the possible exception of some natural gas remaining
from the Earth's creation, fossil fuels contain ancient sunlight, captured by
plants eons ago.
The solar energy in fossil fuels is very concentrated. The Earth's mineral
reserves contain hundreds of millions of years worth of captured sunlight.
We're on schedule to use up most of that in just a few hundred years. Once the
extraction of these fuels began, our energy use increased dramatically. Since
1950, although the world's population has just about doubled, it uses six times
as much energy. Several studies indicate that within a decade or so, we will
have extracted about half the fossil oil that humans will ever use, that new oil
will take more energy to produce than it contains, and that much of the
remaining oil will be in the politically volitile Middle East.
Americans expect energy to be plentiful and inexpensive. They frequently
complain about its expense even though we pay some of the lowest prices in the
How about some perspective, here. Let's see how much energy it takes to run a
human being for 24 hours. The 2,000 to 3,000 Calories each of us needs every
day are equivalent to the energy in about one cup of gasoline. Our bodies use
as much energy as a 150 watt light bulb uses running all the time - about three
and a half kilowatt hours per day. That means that the energy to run an average
person costs roughly 15 if we could get it from gasoline or 35 if we used our
region's supposedly expensive electricity. (There's a lot of energy wasted in
making electricity from fossil or nuclear fuels, so it's more expensive.)
Of course, the price we pay for energy doesn't even begin to cover its true
costs. We pay more with our taxes to defend the Persian Gulf than the energy
companies pay to buy oil there. Our excessive energy use causes expensive
environmental problems: air, water and soil pollution, urban sprawl and acid
rain to name just a few. And, the costs of recovery from global climate
change-related floods, storms, and droughts are rising quickly.
And, we still haven't figured what it will cost to safely run the four,
now-closed nuclear plants in Connecticut, much less the exorbitant expense of
dealing with their very-long-lived poisonous wastes.
But, because individuals and businesses don't pay for these costs when they buy
energy, kilowatts and gallons are so cheap that they've become the major
ingredient in almost everything we touch, use, eat or drink. It could take most
of a day to tally all the many ways energy is embodied in the teenagers driving
the new cars out of the fast food joints with meals to go. Their bodies run on
the energy in corn, wheat and potatoes, but this fast food meal and its delivery
system consumes enormous quantities of fossil and nuclear energy.
It's time to go on a very serious energy diet and to relearn how to sustain
ourselves using solar energy. There are just too many warning signs of the
hidden costs and the dangers of our increasing dependence on limited supplies of
polluting fuels to continue down the high-energy-use road.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
(C)1997, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT certified
organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban agriculture
projects in New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford and Norwalk, CT). Their collection
of essays Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful
Future is available from Bill Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14
postpaid. These essays first appeared on WSHU, public radio from Fairfield, CT.
New essays are posted weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing and those since
November 1995 are available there.