What is a Human Being Worth (in Terms of Energy)?

Days ago Euan got a ping from London based journalist Jonathan Ossoff:

We've tracked down a lot of statistics that demonstrate just how remarkable oil is as a resource, but we're having a bit of trouble synthesizing and contextualizing that data to get a usable understanding of how oil compares to, say, human labour, or a hydroelectric plant, as an energy source.

This query prompted an interesting discussion among the TOD staff on the comparison of human labour to oil.

Right: Bradley Wiggins, one of today's top endurance athletes. He can sustain a power output of about 500 watts for extended periods of time. But how significant is that number?

Nate was the first to provide an answer:

This has been argued and debated often on TOD, mainly in response to some of my own quotes in media about 1 barrel equating to 25,000 hours of human labour (12.5 years at 40 hours per week). Ultimately the answer to this question depends highly on assumptions - but we can arrive at a good approximation. 1 barrel equates to 6.1 Gigajoules (5.8 million BTUs). Depending on the 'job', humans use roughly 100-700 Kilocalories per hour (Computer work requires an estimated 119.3 Kcals/hr). 1 kilocalorie (Kcal) = 4,184 joules. So 1 barrel of oil has 6.1 billion/4,184 = 1,454,459 kcals. Using a range of 100-700 kcals per human hour of work then results in a range 2078 and 14544 hours per barrel of oil. At 2000 hours per year (40*50), this is would then be 1.0-7.25 years per barrel. This was discussed in the comment thread here.

However, we aren't robots - we need to eat, sleep, breathe (we exhale energy), maintain, etc. So a wide boundary analysis would require other calories not devoted to doing work - thereby increasing the disparity between human work and a barrel of oil - there is a good discussion of human thermal efficiency here.

Lastly, there is the quality issue. Though one could expend enough calories to chop down a tree or carry a cord of firewood by hand, there are many activities which would be physically impossible for humans to directly accomplish -e.g there wouldn't be room for the required number of humans to stand behind a semi-truck and push it down the highway at 100 kph. Or fly a jet, etc.

The average american uses 60+ barrels of oil equivalent(oil, gas and coal) per year (360 billion joules), which implies a fossil fuel 'slave' subsidy of around 60-450 'human years' per person. Depending on assumptions another way to look at it is to take a midpoint of 10,000 hours per barrel. At $20 per hour average payroll compensation, that is $200,000 per barrel, not even quality adjusted....

I made a few calculations based on my experience:

This is a very interesting question. The answers you usually see simply assume some fixed value for the human body energy output per day and divide the barrel by that.

The problem is that the human body can produce motion at different power rates. An healthy person can produce close to 1 kw instantaneously; a top Olympic athlete, like a 100 metres runner, should go above 2 kw during those 10 seconds.

But you know that no one would make that kind of speed for much longer. That's because to produce its maximum power output the human body has to shut down air intake – what's called anaerobic exercise. To keep normal breathing the body's power output can't go above a certain threshold; every person has a certain heart beat rate beyond which air intake shuts down – the anaerobic threshold. In theory the body's power output just below the anaerobic threshold should be maintained indefinitely – what is called maximum sustainable output.

The fastest Olympic runners are those that do the 200 metres race. They do it in about 20 seconds or less, about the longest consecutive period the body can be at absolute maximum power output without breathing. In the old days in Greece this race was 180 metres, the distance the Greeks believed that Herakles could make on a single breath. A funny thing to note is that athletes that run the 200 meters look like oxen, while those who run the 400 meters look like gazelles.

Down to the math, my anaerobic threshold is about 178 heart beats per minute (this can vary during the season). When I reach my top form, I calculate that my output is about 240 watts (w), about half of a professional athlete. So you could just hit the blackboard and multiply that by a number of hours and relate it to oil, to know how long I'd have to work to replace a barrel.

But not so fast, at that power output I'm using over 1000 Calories per hour. The human body can't digest much over 2500 Calories per day. So all this math can be complicated. What happens is this, if you have your body working for a long time at maximum sustainable output the next day you won't do much.

Why is it so? When exercising, muscles use essentially three fuels: oxygen, water and carbon-hydrates (which at high output are mainly sugars, the ones that can be used fast enough). So as long as there is water and easily digestible food (chocolates, fruit, marmalades, honey, etc) the body keeps on delivering. But at this high output level the muscle tissue slowly dies and more important than that, so do the red blood cells. Slowly the body's performance degrades, and replacing this cells requires the intake of proteins that are all but easy to digest and synthesize.

On certain occasions I spent over 6000 Calories in the same day but on the next I was close to dead. By experience I can say that if I spend anything over 3000 Calories on a given day, my performance the next day will be visibly affected. It is as if there's some energy budget that can't surpassed, even if at lower output rates. This may change from person to person but let's use that round number.

So you could just multiply the maximum sustainable output by 3 and get the body's daily energy delivery? Not yet. Anyone that would go on spending 3000 Calories per day every single day for an extended period of time will eventually hit problems of hormone production (those that stimulate tissue regeneration) and even psychologic induced performance losses. Any serious training program also includes rest periods, which equate to at least one day per week, more likely two.

So the calculation I'm comfortable making is this:

Empirical maximum sustainable energy output per day (240 w * 3 hours)

multiplied by

the number of workable days per year (365 * 5 / 7)

That would give about 187 kwh in a year.

But no one is able to keep itself at top form during the whole season and there are also vacations. So, 150 kwh might be a more realistic number (3*220*230). A top athlete should be able to double that.

I would take 11 1/3 years to replace a barrel of oil (equivalent to 1700 kwh), while a top athlete would make it in about 5 2/3 years.

But in face of all this Chris had an interesting remark:

It's an interesting calculation but I don't think it really answers the question in a useful way. Rather than thinking about energy maybe it's better to think about useful work done.

"how many days / years labour does one barrel equal?"

Pick a task - cutting wood, moving dirt, harvesting a crop etc...

Compute how many man hours it takes to complete the task without external energy sources and how many hours with external energy. Assume any tools are available and ignore the tool's embedded energy. For a more holistic approach include the embedded energy in the tool divided by the fraction of its lifetime used to complete the task (likely to be minimal).

The question is hugely complicated though as some tasks are far easier to mechanise and therefore apply external energy to than others - cultivating/harvesting grain is easy to mechanise, picking strawberries far less so. The equivalence between human energy and oil energy is highly dependent on the task.

Glenn had a more down-to-hearth perspective:

C'mon everyone, we're just talking about brute force labour here. Humans add "smart labour" which is worth a lot more than the wattage equivalent of energy output.

There is a trade-off between human smarts, capital/tools and energy. In the cheap energy era, we relied too much on the energy inputs and not enough on our brains and building the right capital stock. In the very expensive energy era, we will have to make more use of our brains and technology and build infrastructure that does not require heavy energy inputs.

On which Chris built up:

It's a good point Glenn. Historically we've had lots of "brute force" available in the form of fossil fuels. This availability has let us maximise tasks for which this kind of energy can be applied. In pure energy terms many of these activities are hopelessly inefficient though (hence the 10:1 oil:food ratio).

This is why direct energy comparisons between oil and human labour don't make much sense. Without oil, the "task set" would be completely different. We wouldn't even think about running a 10:1 food system on human labour for obvious reasons!

Take away the large amount of brute force fossil fuel energy, and we also take away all this hopelessly energy inefficient tasks. We don't attempt to maintain the same task set on human labour and therefore average task energy efficiency rockets automatically. Looking at the global economy as a whole, we only need to use so much gross energy because the fossil fuel source of energy tends to be used for very inefficient tasks. As fossil fuel supply declines, the overall efficiency, measured as Joules in per unit of useful work out, will improve - we'll need less energy to deliver the same output.

And Euan finished:

A Human Being may have around 45 useful working years. From Luis' calculation detailed above, this computes to around 4 barrels of oil equivalent which at today's price equates to a value of $540 for lifetime human slave labour.

However, in today's oil slave wealth inflated economy a healthy human body sold as spare parts may fetch up to $45 million.

The not so healthy human body rendered into constituent compounds is worth only $4.50.

Somewhere between these extremes lies true worth based on human intellect, ingenuity and compassion on the one hand and the enormous chemical potential energy of oil on the other. Survival of humanity must lie in Mankind using the second half of Earth's oil endowment more wisely than the first.

So, what has the TOD readership to say in face of all this?

Earlier on The Oil Drum, a guest post by Professor Marty Sereno, UCSD:

Why oil (and helium) are still underpriced

Browsing through Lippincott's Medical Physiology, 2nd ed:

"Moderately intense exercise by a healthy, but sedentary, young man may require a metabolic rate of 600 W (in contrast to about 80 W at rest), and intense activity by a trained athlete, 1,400 W or more.

During phosphorylation of ADP to form ATP, 58% of the energy released from the fuel is converted into heat, and only about 42% is captured in the ATP that is formed in the process. When a muscle contracts, some of the energy in the ATP that was hydrolyzed is converted into heat rather than mechanical work. The efficiency at this stage varies enormously; it is zero in isometric muscle contraction, in which a muscle’s length does not change while it develops tension, so that no work is done even though metabolic energy is required. Finally, some of the mechanical work produced is converted by friction into heat within the body.

At best, no more than 25% of the metabolic energy released during exercise is converted into mechanical work outside the body, and the other 75% or more is converted into heat within the body."

So for useful work* this comes down to: [600...1400]W *.25 ~

150W sustained for us mere mortals that do office work

350W+ sustained for an athlete, but probably not sustained for several days (that is several hours a day / several days in a row)

It is worth noting that at 1400+ watts the cooling becomes crucial in order to sustain that output (same reference).

*Not including machine/tool conversion losses.

150 W/h * 8 h/d * 230 d/yr = 276 kWh/year = 994 MJ/year ~ 16% of a direct thermal energy content of a barrel of oil (NB! Apples to oranges comparison!)

How much useful work is in a barrel of oil? It depends on how we use it. Sometimes it c. 1% (modern US-made ICE car with a single 85kg passenger). Sometimes it can be several times that. However, more often than not, it's closer to the low figure.

We really are throwing oil away - spending it like it just didn't matter. And because we waste oil, the human labor equivalent of a barrel of oil is really high, much higher than it ought to be.

I think Matthew Simmons is absolutely correct when he claims that oil is cheap, even too cheap. We waste things that are cheap, regardless of their intrinsic or relative value.

Thus, I conclude that oil needs to rise in price by a multiple, before we start to appreciate it's energetic value (assuming no cheap/abundant/scaling substitutes).

When the value of oil rises manifold, what happens to the relative value of human (labor)?

I think we need to compare apples with apples.

How far could a person travel on a barrel of oil using a light, highly efficient motor cycle?

And then work out how long it would take to travel that distance a) walking, b) running and c) cycling. What we are assuming here is that the value of oil is the time it saves us in performing a task.

It might be worth looking into micro light aircraft too. What is the most efficient transportation mode we have using oil? For sake of simplicity we should assume 1 barrel of refined product.

I fully agree, Euan. The best analyses I've read on these from oil all the way down to distilled products used in a vehicle are here at TOD, of course with materials referenced from elsewhere. I didn't want to rehash those, because I wouldn't have done them justice.

The challenge is with "how much useful work does X amount of primary fuel Y contain"? This boils down to what Chris brought up above: "what is the task?" and what I think Glenn touched further upon: "What is the tool/method?" (paraphrased).

My point was that from the maximum thermal potential of 6119MJ/barrel we can easily get below 1% useful work out of that potential - once we go through the "oil -> logistics -> gasoline distillation -> logistics -> ICE -> wasteful car -> wasteful driving -> single passenger" cycle - just to use the driving example.

Or in other words, we could theoretically improve this ratio an order of magnitude for many a task/tool/method.

Most TOD visitors know this, I wrote nothing new here.

My personal doubt comes from whether we have enough economic/energetic foresight to actually to radically - not incrementally - improve upon this wasteful use in practice - not on paper.

I believe (cannot prove), based on history of oil consumption, that we lack this foresight when faced with abundant availability and ridiculously cheap prices.

So, we need price rises that drive us towards more efficient use. My hypothesis is: radically more expensive prices for radically more efficient use.

After that happens, what happens to the price of human manual labor?

My assumption is that it also has to rise, but by how much and how will this affect our daily dealings? This is more of a useless systemic WHAT IF question, and does not by any means exclude your more practically oriented and useful "how equivalent in practice to activity X" question.

SamuM - my question was really a general one - I'm hoping that Luis or Chris or Nate turn up to answer.

My hypothesis is: radically more expensive prices for radically more efficient use.

I'm increasingly convinced of the inverse of this statement which is:

radically more efficient use will lead to radically more expensive prices

And the conclusion that those societies / countries that use energy most efficiently will be able to pay higher prices and win the bidding war.

Great point.

The more value we can get out of a barrel of oil, the more we can pay for that oil, and the better we will do in the global auction for a fixed or declining supply of available oil.

Incomes being equal, a driver of a 50 mpg econo-box, can (and will) afford to pay a lot more per gallon than a driver of a 10 mpg SUV.
However, if the driver stops going to work, his income drops, he will be less able to afford fuel.
This is the risk posed by using energy taxes to change behavior, individuals will make decisions based on the cost of those decisions, but if their decisions result in less GDP (especially exportable GDP), and/or if the government spends those tax dollars on activities that do not make our economy more productive (in terms of exports), we will be worse off than before.


Efficiency: Maximizing production (profit) in combining labor, capital, raw materials, and technology.

We can modify the production process to use more or less of a specific input in response to changes in the relative cost of each input, only a reduction in the cost of a specific input can increase (total) production or reduce cost / unit.

Great point. For instance, if we use a velomobile w/ a small gas or electric engine for assist to commute, it may be more inefficient, strictly speaking (BTE), than using a diesel truck with 30 tons in the back, but it certainly uses far less fuel. There's a sweet spot wrt utility given the majority of use, efficiency, and overall consumption. Modern transportation via the auto has become something of a luxury/entertainment, and as such is grossly inefficient. Can we do better? Sure. Equipping vehicles in the states with properly geared manual transmissions and the drivers with knowledge regarding conservative fuel efficient driving could cut world oil consumption by a good ~5%. Saying there's plenty of room for improvement would be an understatement.

I have said this before on the Oil Drum, efficiency is not really a valid measurement for transport. Essentially all transport has an efficiency of zero since on a two way journey the average work done in the transportation exercise is zero, but fuel is used to overcome friction. The term efficacy is more appropriate as this compares the MPG.

As for the consumption of energy, we have a god given right to consume the stuff. The CEO of Centrica has just made a very sensible suggestion that we wear two jumpers, and in doing so has created a storm. Folk just don't get it.

I once estimated that it would take an athlete 30 minutes to heat enough water from 10 deg C to 100 deg C just to make a cup of tea. It was only an estimate and if my figures arn't quite to the mark it would still be hard graft and a well deserved cuppa!

All of this thread is so frustratingly nerdy. The oil is there, people have found fun ways to use it-- gazillions of trinkets of no essential value other than novelty-- and not-so-fun ways to use it, making bombs and warplanes and the like.

The entire western industrial economy is all about converting oil into money. To be sure, some of it is used for food, some for shelter -- but most of it is just useless fluff that a nerd (like me) has no way of understanding or appreciating the value of.

My theory is that the total volume of nerdiness in the world is inversely proportional to the amount of oil available.

And idleitis is directly proportional to the amount of oil avaiable.

"What is the most efficient transportation mode we have using oil?"

I have no numbers to offer, but intuition suggests that the most efficient transportation application for oil is on the bicycle chain.

Our family fleet:

Two military style bicycles, one travel/city bike. Combined annual mileage 10,000km. Oil usage: half a can of lubricant per annum.

No toeclips? You’re wasting a whole bunch of efficiency there. By using your upstroke you can gain much more power. I don’t believe safety is an issue - I’ve used them for over forty years on the streets of Chicago and can get out of them very quickly. I won’t, however, use clipless pedals such as Looks on the street. Difficult to get used to, require special shoes (try waling a long way in them when you have a flat), and in one instance I found them gone when I came out to ride my bike back home. Nice fleet. Wish my digital camera hadn’t crapped out a couple of months back I could post mine.

No toeclips? You’re wasting a whole bunch of efficiency there. By using your upstroke you can gain much more power.

Power, maybe. Efficiency, no. You use energy when pulling the pedal up with your leg, energy you wouldn't otherwise use if you were just coasting with it on the up swing. Not knowing anything about anatomy and muscular dynamics, but it might actually be less efficient since the muscles in the human leg aren't meant to pull up loads other than its own weight under any evolutionary circumstances.

Anyway I use the heavy military bicycles to offset my otherwise sedentary lifestyle, so maximizing efficiency would mean I wouldn't get the same exercise as before. In fact I don't understand some cyclists with their over thousand euro super bikes with gazillion gears and carbon fiber frames. Surely if you want to get fit and be 'sporty' you should pick the heaviest bicycle you can possible peddle with? And the speeds they reach begin to be quite dangerous, at least to other cyclists. And if they want efficiency they should stick with speeds under 25km/h since above that you actually waste most of your pedaling effort into forcing air out of your way.

I didn't buy my bike to get fit. I bought it as a cheap and relatively environmentally friendly mode of transport (which also allows me to drink a couple more beers than if I was driving). For me, getting fit is just a welcome side effect.

Not that I have some sort of super bike - mine cost me £40 and has a steel frame.

Where you gain efficiency is in a smoother stroke, enabling you to maintain a spin in the 80 - 100 rpm range, very difficult to do with a free pedal. This is why the Biopace gears went out of favor, they destroyed smoothness. I used to be a gear pusher way back and experienced hurt knees, muscle imbalances, etc. This is also the reason for multiple gears to stay in an .efficient rpm range. I do have a single speed fixed gear bike when I’m in the mood to punish myself. I’m sorry, I just don’t get the mentality of a heavier bike, especially if I’m coming back from a tip against an unexpected headwind. Whatever rocks your boat. Everybody makes love to their old lady (man) different.

I haven't seen the likes of the military style bikes. I presume they have traded off weight and efficiency for robustness and reliability. It looks like they have 1.5 to 2 times as many sokes, so I suppose you could carry a very heavy load without damaging the bicycle.

Toe clips do help, the amount of extra muscles recruited are at the discretion of the rider. I used to do tons of mountain biking, on ridiculously rocky terrain, I never was unable to get out of clips when falling off. But not being clipped in, and you are likely to lose control as your feet are bounced off the peddels. At high output levels, toe clips allow you to generate more power, or less leg strain at a fixed power level. Clipins are slightly more effcient than clips, but I never mastered getting out of them -especially if I tried to stay upright until the last possible half second.

The hard core "trials riders" didn't use clips, but instead used platform pedals. They could do amazing things with their undersized bicycles. But trials setups would be horribly inefficient to ride for any sort of distance.

the most efficient transportation mode

I have an old book about bicycles (no idea why someone tries to sell it at Ebay Poland ..).
There's a graph in that book comparing energy efficiency of different animals/vehicles. The question was how much energy is needed to move 1kg of body weight 1 kilometre far.

Top energy consumers are small animals who need more food a day than they weigh themself, such as some mice or humming birds. Then, the middle class: Humans walking, airplanes, cars, most other animals.

The top class: Seagulls, on top of them the Albatros. But he's not the winner. The most energy efficient animal on earth is: the Salmon. And then there's a large gap. And then comes: The human on a bicycle. On a bicycle humans have achieved to overcome evolution.

There's a graph in that book comparing energy efficiency of different animals/vehicles.

Any chance you could scan/photograph that in here?

Any chance you could scan/photograph that in here?

There is a PDF-article called "Abenteuer Fahrrad" (adventure bicycle) on the web page of the German TV program "Quarks & Co." where you can find the graphic on page 17 (Adobe Reader page 9; there are always two pages in landscape orientation.)

BTW My quote from memory was not correct in regard of humming birds. And the text on the right says that railways at low speed use even less energy than a cyclist. If you're interested in more details from that document write me an email (dunno if you read German.)

Part of the efficiency of the average human depend upon the food the human has eaten and how "efficiently" (or, along another line of thinking, how many fossil fuel inputs) were involved in it?

If you're eating that locally grown organic food, your big picture energy efficiency is higher than if you eat an industrialized agriculture diet, with strawberries from 8000 miles away, etc.

Over a meal after an event here in San Francisco a couple years back, Richard Heinberg brought this up, saying that all things considered (the average diet) an electric bicycle actually was more "efficient" (right now) than a human powered bicycle.

This was not in any way an "endorsement" of electric bikes or condemnation of human bikes, just a statement about efficiencies in the world as it is set up.

If you're eating that locally grown organic food, your big picture energy efficiency is higher than if you eat an industrialized agriculture diet, with strawberries from 8000 miles away, etc.

I've thought about this as well. It would be hard to understand the total energy use of a vehicle if one needed to account for the fuel (food in the case of a bike), and the energy to obtain the fuel etc. Do we count the energy inputs in the food fed to an oil worker in the EROEI of oil? It becomes very circular.

There's an almost infinite amount of inputs we could calculate. But as we go further and further down the chain the effects of those inputs become more and more marginal. Eventually they become so small that we just ignore them.

Keeping in mind the oil needed to mine, smelt, create, distribute and maintain our bicycle chains... And then the rubber in our tires. There is no human power to contribute to the chain without a backddrop of oil.

Which is why I already have a lifetimes worth of IDENTICAL or COMPATIBLE bike spares - think ahead: "oh those - no they went bust years ago.."
Keep the tyres dark and cool. Choose your chainrings with old man muscles in mind, 1 steel one per decade of future cycling, and plenty non-indexed shifters.

I would start collecting soon, because I was buying cards of red rubber brake blocks and spare Suntour jockey wheels when they were made 25 years ago..

150W sustained for us mere mortals that do office work

Many people here have missed the point I think, treating the problem from mainly the quantitative rather than qualitative point of view. Trying to compare watts with watts here doesn't bring much insight into the problem since you're really comparing apples with pears.

Rather I would start by trying to get the whole picture of what utility can be gotten from a given energy source, say a barrel of oil compared to a human being, or MWh of electricity.

And also the journalist did actually ask how does oil compare to [other energy sources, such as for example] human labour, hydroelectric plant as an energy source. This in my mind means he's interested in the whole picture of the problem: why oil is so special compared to other energy sources? This would include a much more qualitative treatment of problems. For example liquid fuels compared to ones which produce electricity ie. the infrastructure dilemma, availability, transmutability etc.

Let me first begin with the question of utility and why comparing oil and human labour is like comparing apples and pears.

The problem is simply put thus. In order to dig a hole of a fixed size in area and depth using human labour is subject to steep diminishing returns as the number of laboring humans is increased. In fact the cut-off point is reached rather soon even with complex arrangements of division of labour and strict work procedures. Simply put, men must have a minimum amount of space around them to continue digging at maximum efficiency. Now, if we allow the use of practically infinite source of energy which costs almost nothing ie. oil, we can easily keep devising ways to get the dirt out of the ground quicker and more efficiency by increasing the size and volume of the equipment using ever larger amounts of oil. For any practical level of utility (ie. hole size) diminishing returns do not yet apply and it is hard to imagine where the cut off point would be.

In short, oil is immensely scalable energy source, humans not so.

Digging holes in the ground might sound too theoretical so let us take another example with food production. Currently food for a given population produced using oil involves mining and refining of fertilizers with machinery and chemical plants, plowing and harvesting the soil with machinery, and transporting the goods to the consumers with more machinery. At every stage we have found ways to increase food availability and flow rate rather easily simply by increasing the use of oil at every stage. Only now in many areas of the world, have other limiting factors come to apply, mainly availability of arable land and water for irrigation.

Annually US uses 3.5E17 J of energy for food production (including distribution, household refrigeration etc.), much of this in liquid fuels. This is equivalent to 98TWh of energy. But what kind of energy?

Surely 'equivalent to' should mean 'being able to achieve the same', in physically reality also? Or indeed in our current situation, or perhaps even with existing infrastructure? And here lies the problem. Even if we suddenly got donated 98TWh of electricity production capacity from magic pixies, be it nuclear or solar, or any mixture thereof, would we be able to use it to produce the same amount of food without liquid fuels? Even if we upgraded the grid and threw a few electric vehicles into the mix?

Or indeed with human labour? Could we do the same with 305 million agricultural workers (the total of current US population) toiling with hand tools in the mines and on the fields? Or if we bred more people in order to meet the energy equivalence of 98TWh divided by 2000 work hours per year times 100 watts per person = 490 million people? Can a human being mine, refine and transport NPK, plow and sow and harvest the field, and finally manufacture, transport and store an equivalent food with his 200kWh of annual labour, than an equivalent in liquid fuels to his whole year's labour, a mere tenth of a barrel of oil?

In conclusion comparing different energy sources done simply by direct equivalent energy content does not produce useful information. It is like comparing apples and pears. And from the above brief glimpse at the dilemma we can observe that oil and human labour as energy sources are indeed at extreme ends of the fruit scale!

edit - PS: here at TOD we make great efforts in distinguishing between different qualities of crude oil. We don't go comparing light sweet with bunker fuel, so why is it so hard to extend the same critical thinking to comparing vastly different energy sources, such as for example liquid fuels vs. hydroelectric for example? Or wind or solar? All these should be judged qualitatively - what kind of energy do they produce, ie. how can we utilize it? What is the potential flow rate vs. investment and infrastructure needed? Do they scale and transform efficiently? Are they subject to diminishing returns or external limiting factors?

Exellent point, imho. Still we should do qualitative and then a quantitative comparison, imho.

My point was and still is this: regardless of equivalence levels, we waste oil, esp. because oil+machines scale so well (unlike human muscle power). What happens to the value of human labor if/when the value of high quality & high density available fuels multiply in price? What does that change in the value of human labor do to our societies? It's a systemic McLuhan type of question (ala tetrad).

on some tasks there is no comparison.

fossil fuels can not replace a teacher or nurse.. (yet?) if some robot surgeon is manufactured one day you may claim its construction and use is a energy comparasion issue I guess.

conversely large engineering tasks look to be impossible with human labour alone. apollo or even brute force projects

could human labour dig the channel tunnel.. without air extraction fans etc?

human beings in ancient societies can inch there way through huge building projects.. stonehenge Pyramids and that.
even those ship breakers of Chittagon guys have a fair amount of mechanically assisted help.. they are a good indicator of what fossil fuels represent not because we see the effort but we see the limitation of human/animal capability


I feel a direct energy comparison undervalues fossil fuel (or other) energy sources because it does not address the enabling aspect.

a huge raft of endeavors are fantasy without them.


Indeed the value of human labour is not often discussed here since technocopian 'solutions' are abundant and more convenient. However I agree with you that this will become an important question.

We should not to try to match our current energy use in watts equivalent with renewables because of the qualitative difference in energy sources I have just explained. If we insist on parity in energy, status quo in living standards and way of life, we end up with these requirements in order to get the same utility from renewable energy sources:

- Manufacturing of alternative energy power plants
- Infrastructure renewal for power distribution and conditioning
- Electrifying all vehicles and machinery

All of these are currently limited by available resources, manufacturing, capital and time. Under today's conditions of financial hardship, political impotence, and public ignorance, such an undertaking in such a scale is surely impossible?

However, if we combine the above changes with a radical change in our way of life we see a massive reduction in above physical requirements:

- Community based infra, manufacturing and services
- Local food production
- Local energy production
- Passive aircondition and solar/geothermal heating for buildings
- Zero energy food preservation: cans, pickling, salting, smoking, fermenting, underground storage

So rather than argue over which energy source could possibly replace oil, we should admit that none of them will really do the job and our only real choice is to produce negawatts through a change of life style.

This will be almost impossible politically, but at least it's possible - whereas living in the false hope that we can maintain our way of life with such as such technocopian infrastructure project will just lead us back to square one - a lot poorer in energy, time and human patience.

At the moment people's perception is that going back to human labour is like going back to the caves. That is why it is not being discussed seriously. However most of the world still makes its living by hand, with a few animals helping. Soon all of us will have to leave our comfortable offices and SUVs and get our hands dirty to some extent, getting at least a backyard garden going. It's like my father used to say: you either do it voluntarily or you cry and do it. Hopefully people will find ways to approach it voluntarily and find its fun and healthy too.

BTW: We have just joined hands with the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia in order to expand our efforts for our project in the Atlas mountains of Morocco for a community based zero energy local food production.

All of these are currently limited by available resources, manufacturing, capital and time. Under today's conditions of financial hardship, political impotence, and public ignorance, such an undertaking in such a scale is surely impossible?

I believe this to a degree also (not a binary decision), but I admit it is a belief AND a value judgment at the same time. I also accept that other have different values and my probability guesstimator is probably way off.

...energy source could possibly replace oil, we should admit that none of them will really do the job and our only real choice is to produce negawatts through a change of life style.

Again, I'm personally in high agreement, although I think we often do not think of energies we use, when we say we use negawatts.

An example, let's take the mantra "send bits, not atoms". To do this we need a huge comms infra. According to a silly comparison again, NYT calculated that a single google search is worth burning a 100W for one hour (or somesuch). Regardless of the accuracy of that statement (and yes, it again ignores both utility and quality), the point is: when we think we are using negawatts, are we really? LCA can approximate an answer, systemic effects through the society tell the whole picture. We humans mostly just delude ourselves.

We all justify all sorts of wasteful energy expenditures based on 'well compared to X, this is much less wasteful'. The examples are endless.

At the moment people's perception is that going back to human labour is like going back to the caves. That is why it is not being discussed seriously.

Yes, I think we carry a lot of historical-cultural weight with our attitudes on these.

- Why walk or ride a bike, when you can drive?
- Why live in a 18C temp during wintertime, when you can live in 26C temp? (or 30C in summertime, when you can do 20C through cooling)
- Why drive, when you can fly?
- Why do anything that takes more effort, it it costs (in $) only a little more to avoid that effort?

Nate is probably smiling if he's reading this as it may boil down a lot to the MPP. However, I think whatever the mechanism, a lot of the perception is cultural. That is, we're not just necessarily genetically inclined to waste a maximum amount of energy. Or even if we were, we can override our genetic urges up to a degree.

I think a lot of this wastefulness boils down to not "only we do because we can", but because we are so highly disconnect from what energy is and what it means (in different forms, qualities and converted to utilities).

Some years ago a friend and I had a project where we tried to combine the paradox that we sit in front computers 8 hours a day and get all sorts of ills from it, then we go to a gym to waste energy (both from ourselves and in terms of gym cooling/lighting/sauna/etc). And we have total disconnect of how much energy it takes to even power our own computers. Why not build an exercise bike chair to power up a laptop (60W at that time) and gain back some insight, improve health, skip the gym and systemically a bit of energy? Well, you can imagine it didn't go down well with the office furniture manufacturers we pitched it to :)

BTW, what is "zero energy local food production"?

Here's some numbers I did a while back when designing a controller for an e-bike.

human power production: http://www.ent.ohiou.edu/~et181/hpv/hpv.html

time to exaustion
human power
>8 75
>8 112.5
>8 150
>8 187.5

+motor = 300w power output

The calculations are for shaft horsepower developed at the pedals. Power requirements were for an upright posture on a typical bicycle.

A 'normal' person is the typical, non couch potato entity while an athlete is, well, in great shape. I suspect that someone who is involved in manual labor may have a performance more at the athlete level.

In this back-of-the-envelope scenario, we are being slave drivers who are running the worker unit for a full eight hours until it is exhausted. All we care about is the amount of economic work that can be obtained from the unit and how much compensation must be given. Given that scenario, an athlete can produce 300 watts of power per hour or 8.64 mega joules (2.4 kilowatt-hours) in a typical man day of labor before the worker falls over and is incapable of doing any more work.

In the US, for the year 2009, we will be compensating a full time skill-less laborer for 2,080 hours a year at a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Benefits and other mandatory costs represent about 30% (BLS's Employer Costs for Employee Compensation Summary report) of total compensation. One can argue that, in the US, this compensation is sufficient for survival of the laborer and that it covers all externalities. Thus, the economic cost for a laborers productive work is about $10.36 per hour. However, the worker gets vacation, holidays, and down time for being sick, so it is only productively working for about 1,900 hours a year.

As stated in prior messages, a barrel of oil is the equivalent of 6.1 giga joules or about 1,6994 kilowatt-hours. Presuming that this value accounts for conversion losses (highly variable depending on type of work performed and the fraction of the oil used to perform the work - see Ayres and Warr, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.strueco.2003.10.003), then a barrel of oil is about equal to 5,648 hours, or 3.45 economic man years of manual labor.

At current prices of $140 per barrel, and a $21,548.80 annual compensation, one gets a ratio of 530:1. Thus, as others have pointed out, oil is really cheap when compared to manual labor.

Ages ago, circa medical school days, I learned that a human was roughly equivalent to a 100 watt bulb. That seemed reasonable. Is a horse worth a horsepower?

Rather than ask the question about equivalence I prefer to think of external energies, all types, as augmenting human activity, essentially as a human amplification system. Different energies allow different and new kinds of activities. Picture a human being as a core and various energies, channeled through different kinds of tools, allowing that human to perform tasks that would not have been possible at physiological potentials. So around the core we might picture concentric layers of energies and appropriate tools (including embodied energy appropriately amortized). The simplest might be a dwelling in which a wood stove provides augmented heat. A more advanced form is the automobile and gasoline allowing a human to go further, faster than any previous technology.

So I don't really see it as a question of how much work a human can do compared to a machine. Rather I see it as a synergy of human brains being amplified, first through muscles, then through whatever combination of technology and energy source can be brought to bear.

The real question for me is what kind of work this combination ought to be doing to live in balance with nature and not trample on the rest of nature. Also, I think the number of people being amplified is a limiting factor. The more there are, the less we can afford to amplify each without breaking the constraint of not harming the rest of nature. Oh! But that is what is happening now, huh?

Question Everything

I thought there was going to be an item on the Maximum Power Principle, my take on which is that humans are happiest when squandering the most energy. In other words a Hummer driving meat eater is happier than a cycling vegetarian. I think perhaps the big question is acceptable levels of powerdown. Taking the bus and growing backyard vegies are somewhat cool nowadays because we can still afford to drive and shop if we want to. Will we miserable when those choices are no longer possible? That's why I think happy times may not be around the corner. Energy savings within our comfort zone makes us feel good, but beyond that is resentment. Riding out that transition period is going to be the biggest test. The cycling vegetarian may wish powerdown on the Hummer driving meat eater and we may end up with a compromise. However I don't think it will be enough to dispense with coal and nukes whatever posters here may wish.

Happiness is a Hummer driving meat eater (re:Boof). We farm- organic fruits and vegetable, conventional row crops (corn and soybean) on 320 acres. Next year we are transitioning about 100 acres to pasture/native prairie for rotational grazing for some cattle/sheep.

Point is... the organic work is backbreaking. Up at 4:30 to start pulling weeds by hand. The 3 acres of organic takes 5 times the human effort of 300 acres of conventional oil supported agriculture.

What's more- a study 15 years ago at the Iowa State showed that the depression level among women farmers was higher for those doing organic ag than conventional ag. I attribute that to the hard labor factor. There is no option to hard labor if you are farming organic and don't access a cheap labor market- like immigrants. That study was not published and the authors were skittish about presenting to the Practical Farmers of Iowa.

Boof-- you are correct. The lack of option will make us miserable as we are forced to produce our food using more labor.

Here is something that is not politically correct but perhaps worth discussing. Everyone knows that drugs such as steroids and human growth hormone give competitive athletes quite an advantage. It also works on amateur athletes as well, as Stuart Stevens documented in a classic Outside Magazine article http://outside.away.com/outside/bodywork/200311/200311_drug_test_1.html (Stevens used himself as a test specimen). So my point is, given the taboo nature of steroids, will there ever be any consideration given to figuring out how to use these drugs to improve everyday performance? At Stevens noted for endurance cycling, the drugs don't work as well as improving performance as in improving recovery after a hard ride. This gets more difficult as you get older. So not only can we potentially improve efficiency in vehicles, we could improve efficiency in ourselves.

I do know that there are some bad side effects with using drugs such as moodiness, anger, and of course heart problems later on, but I've got to wonder if there are lower levels that might help. But the problem is the taboo aspects that these drugs have after being condemned by the guardians to the "purity" of competitive sports (that's a laugh).

I don't think I would ever take these myself, as I am even spooked by corrective laser eye surgery.

Steriods are no good for endurance exercise (you need dense lean muscles). The performance boosters of choice for endurance are hormones that activate red blood cell generation.

The problem is when the percentage of red blood cells in the blood goes above 50% there's an increased danger of demage to the heart muscle and even death by dehidration.

Growth hormone and testosterone are fine for after exercise muscle recovery, they are natural hormones that the body creates. I don't know much about it but the side effects are not as severe.

Anyway remember that any alteration induced to blood stream (like hormones) puts at lest the Linfatic system under stress.

In other words there is a s--tload of energy in oil, and as we enter peak oil, there needs to be an awful lot of alternative sources to substitute for its depletion. Without sufficiant substitution, simple tasks will become more human labor intensive. Ok, how much for the ox?

Ya gotta feed the ox. And a horse. And clean up after them.

FFs are just so "clean" and easy, once the infrastructure has been built up around them..

Cheers, Dom

This topic brings a few thoughts to my mind.

One, when we look at the Energy Value specifically of Human Labor, it would seem important to remember that to a human body, doing physical work is an essential component of a healthy life, so that within a healthy 'wattage' range, if you will, this work is also earning that person a valuable and even essential gain apart from the calories contributed to the accomplished tasks. Since all of our energy discussions are ultimately premised around our ability to live and be healthy and complete, I don't think that adding this academic layer to an already academic discussion is out of place, while it surely muddies up a nice calculation with a lot of subjective variables.

Two, in terms of 'Quality of Energy', I was reminded today on a bike ride of a somewhat counterintuitive effect of Human Power that has crossed my desk before. I took my 5-year old daughter out for some errands, she on a 'Tagalong' bike trailer behind me, a single wheel addition with pedals and a handlebar, so the child can actually help with the propulsion (if they choose). She enjoys helping me on the hills, and also pedaling when I'm not, and she asks me, 'Can you feel me pedaling, Daddy?' Usually it's just barely perceivable, but when we came to 'the big hill', I chose to push on with it instead of walking her up, and she was pushing too, and I was then acutely aware of her contribution, making the ascent much more possible than if I were simply biking Solo, even without her weight behind me. She doesn't have that many watts in those little legs, just yet, but my guess is that her efforts were most noticable when I was in the weakest parts of my legs' cycle, and by thus filling in the 'troughs' of my work, made it easier. Add to that the 'Smart Energy', of her pedalling when it was most needed, and a couple values of Human Energy and low-level inputs are quickly apparent.

The other time I noticed this might be more applicable than the above, in fact. In the Snowy NorthEast, I've had many opportunities to help push cars out of trouble on slick and messy roads, and I've been impressed at the effectiveness of adding even one good pair of Boots and Legs to four wheels, in terms of getting out of a tough spot. Surely the Amperage of the effort isn't the only benefit, nor JUST the added traction of the boot treads, or the peak momentary power of the Leg Muscles, or the timing required to push after the car has rocked back in it's icy little wheel-troughs, or the ability to finesse the angles at which one pushes.. but it works, and I've run along with vehicles for a few hundred feet, just to 'keep 'em honest' until the car had cleared the bad spots..

It's not even enough to say that what we bring to the table is 'smart energy', but to really point out the number of ways that we can automatically and intuitively use our modest available energies to best effect, applying just as much or little as we gauge necessary by the moment to steer other, existing forces in the directions we deem appropriate. It brings to mind Tesla's little mischievous metronome oscillators, with which he would ascertain the resonant frequencies of objects such as suspension bridges, and (claimed he could?) place a little 'ticker' on a support which would eventually tear the whole structure apart, as it gradually added a vibration to the object over time.. or as Ghandi said, 'In a Gentle Way, you can shake the World'


I worked in the forestry industry 60 years ago before the era of the gasoline powered chain saw. A two man crew working with axes and cross cut saw could produce 200 logs per day from the spruce forests in the area. When chain saws appeared and became reliable a single logger could produce 600 logs per day. To do this would require about 3 gallons of gasoline. One man day plus 3 gallons of gasoline would be equivalent to 6 man days of work. So 3 gallons of gas is equivalent to 5 man days of hard labour. There are 42 gallons in a barrel so a barrel is equivalent to 70 man days of hard labour. We would spend the winter working in these camps, with only Sunday off. Our average diet was at least 5000 calories per day. Oil at $140 per barrel is equivalent to $2 per day of hard labour!! Oil is still very cheap when compared to human work.

Two dollars a day is about the wage of laborer in many 3rd world countries. It isn't just oil that amplifies human activity its energy plus capital plus skills(education). Until 20 years ago China had 500 million humans but no capital to buy the "chain-saws" and other machines, or the skilled workers to make the energy in oil into a valuable products. Now that they have those, oil is more valuable to them and they can out-bid the US for less-productive uses (cruising in SUV's, flying around country side instead of taking the train).
If oil really becomes valuable, the more productive uses will get priority ( cutting wood, designing software, powering up computers).
Just a side point:I read somewhere the silicon chip production and wood-cutting both have one of the highest returns on capital investment(about 25%) of any industry. Not sure if thats still true for silicon chips, perhaps if they are used for solar PV!

RAP, I think your approach here is actually the best one. i.e. to compare how the use of oil (+ machine) enhances productivity.

In answer to my own question posed up the thread, where the issue is transportation, to make a journey:

From what I can see, the most fuel efficient motor cycles will do around 100 mpg (miles per US gallon). With 42 gallons in a barrel, we can travel 4,200 miles on a barrel of refined prouct (I'm going to ignore energy used to refine product and that embedded in motor cycle). I'd guess we could maybe travel at 60 mph for 10 hours / day and our journey would take 7 days.

If we wanted to make the same journey on foot I'd estimate we could walk 3 mph for 10 hours per day doing 30 mpd, it would take 140 days to make the 4,200 mile journey. So it seems that oil (+ machine) gives us a 20 fold gain in terms of time relative to raw human power. Of course, without the oil we would unlikely attempt the journey in the first case.

If we add a bicycle to the mix, we can maybe cycle 100 mpd and so would take 42 days to make the journey which reduces the impact of oil to a less spectacular 6 fold uplift in time saved.

There is a fatal flaw in my reasoning here - it would be handy if someone else could point this out and explain it.

PS - what do you mean by cutting 200 logs / day - is that felling 200 trees? Seems impossible.

There is a huge glaring error in all these analysis..

Why are we looking at the cost of the energy value of a human life in dollar terms in a world run by fossil fuels...

Of course human labor is practically worthless when fossil fuels are so abundant, remember, supply and demand, when energy is abundant to cost of it is cheap, when fossil fuels are scarce and human energy is abundant human in energy is worth more.

Cheap fossil fuels distort the value of human energy.. I don't get why you would analyze it this way..

we live in a world where fossil fuel energy is cheap, so by comparison human energy is ultra cheap, in a world without ample fossil fuels, fossil fuels would be very precious and the value of human energy would rise.

Cheap fossil fuels distort the value of human energy.. I don't get why you would analyze it this way..

we live in a world where fossil fuel energy is cheap, so by comparison human energy is ultra cheap, in a world without ample fossil fuels, fossil fuels would be very precious and the value of human energy would rise.


And what happens when the value of human labor rises - how does it change our society

And what happens when the value of human labor rises - how does it change our society

Slavery makes a big comeback (not that it ever left)

That's an interesting take. We constantly hear our less energy savvy friends tell about the technofix that will descend from heaven in a golden chariot and take us all to the land of SUVs & big macs once more. Technology is a wonderful thing, but it doesn't create energy out of the void. I view technology twofold: it can allow us access to 'new' energy sources, and it acts as a multiplier on the efficient use of energy in our current economic endeavors. However, as I believe Nate Hagens has pointed out (correct me if I'm wrong) the maximum power principle as well as other evolutionary deterrents to energy efficiency, have essentially driven us to squander resources quickly rather than planning carefully.

The value of a human being is better measured by the intelligence ap plied to their work (their 'tech') than to caloric value of their labor. Certainly high energy prices will spurn more intelligent consumption of our higher quality fuels. Let's hope the twin social institutions of government and corporation don't hold back that change with their outdated regulations and laws. It's up to us to ultimately petition and change zoning laws, eliminate wasteful corporate practices (five vs four day work week, AC set for full-business-atire-in-the-dead-of-summer), install public transit, reduce packaging, get off the road etc. Without a use, without direction the energy in fossil fuels is simply useless.

The most glaring misnomer in the post that started this discussion had to be this sentence:

"This is a very interesting question." In the context in which the statement was made, it caused me to burst out laughing.

"Interesting" to whom? This post and the string of comments that follow it have actually helped me to focus and achieve a bit of an intellectual breakthrough.

I had thought that I was fascinated by anything related to energy. I am a compulsively curious person, and thought that just about anything interested me to some extent.

I was wrong. The subject discussed here holds absoluely no interest whatsoever and I can see no usefulness to the whole discussion. Sorry, I do not intend this personally in any way, but if I were looking for a topic which would be intentionally designed to bore even the most theoretical and esoterically oriented mind to tears, this discussion would have to rank way up toward the top of the vote getters.

It reminds me of one of those discussions the geeks on the American TV show "The Big Bang Theory" often have, something like "if you went into a time machine and were to go three months into the future carrying a container of cottage cheese, would the cottage cheese turn sour?" On the show, these type of discussions are played for laughs. Was the intent of the post and the following comments here intended to be satire?

If so, I take back what I have written, and will reread the article to enjoy the laugh.


I agree.

Do you gain a sense of importance from ridiculing and belittling the actions of others? Or do you do it just for fun? BTW, writing you're "sorry" doesn't let you off the hook.

What prevented you from stopping to read and skipping the rest by thinking "Oh, I'm not interested, I'll read something else instead." Esp, considering you had nothing worthwhile to add to the discussion.

I'm honestly interested in your answer. I want to understand what made you tick.

It's not a sense of importance, it's the only rational response.

The things just aren't comparable.

Without humans building and operating machinery, how many barrels of oil does it take to carve a bedpost?
How many barrels of oil do I need to pile up or burn before I get, say, a TOD article written by those barrels?
How many calories and how much protein will a barrel of oil give me if I drink it?

Can I pour a barrel of oil straight into my car and make it go? If not, why then do we speak of the energy in a barrel of oil compared to pushing the car?

Energy from oil and energy from human labour are comparable not even in brute force activities. For example, in India and Bangladesh where they break up hulks of old ships, human labour is used in preference to burning oil in machines simply because the human labour is much cheaper in dollar terms. The relative energy efficiency of the machine or human labour is irrelevant to the business owners, only the dollar cost matters.

They're simply not comparable, and even attempting to compare them deserves ridicule - because you've missed how incomparable the two are.

You're comparing unlike things.

They're simply not comparable, and even attempting to compare them deserves ridicule - because you've missed how incomparable the two are.

I've missed the point? Heh, please learn to read what others write :)

As I've suggested to X a few times, you compare things exactly BECAUSE they are unlike (but have some similarity) For Example, Comparing how far you can travel on Human Power vs Engine Power is hardly a ridiculous proposition, since the availability of that Engine Power is possibly going away, and so this discussion is raised to see what we've got without it, particularly since most folks have gotten so unaware of this trust-fund of energy that it is entirely taken for granted.

Given the numerous ways it can be calculated, I'm not all that concerned over the actual 'Number' that someone arrives at, but I think the attention placed on the abilities and advantages/shortcomings of human strength is useful. I don't know if there's a measure for the amount of energy you can provide us in 'Ridicule'.. but I'm sure someone here has a formula for it.



First, I think the term "ridiculing and belittling" is a bit of a strong description in relation to what I said, don't you? We're all grownups here, and I did mean it when I attempted to distance my remarks from being in the nature of any kind of personal insult. I have seen many excellent discussions written on TOD by the contributors named in the discussion that started this whole string, and wanted to dismiss the value of this particular discussion, not insult the individuals that began it. I think they can take the little barb I delivered. I have written several posts on TOD that were just as esoteric (and useless and boring) as the one I commented on, and no one pulled any punches in telling me so. Guess what? I survived.

As far as "what makes me tick", as I said, I am curious to a fault. Given the normal quality of the writing of the contributors mentioned in the key post, I would not have stopped reading it once I began because I made the assumption there would be a payoff in some useful idea or concept being revealed at the finish. To my view there was none. It's not the end of the world, but I could not resist commenting on it, which points to another fault of mine, the inability to let sleeping dogs lie!

But since the discussion is open, allow my to point out what is intellectually tormenting about the whole "human labor vs. oil" discussion: It automatically seems to assume that there are two kinds of energy in the world, human labor and oil. That's it, no other options to be discussed thank you. Does anyone realize how technically and scientifically provincial that view of the world is?

Suppose I said, "How many square feet of sunlight is a human worth?" Would anyone join the disucssion? But it is at least as valid as a comparison as is oil. You may argue that it takes some type of conversion system to use the sunlight, but guess what...it takes a massive worldwide conversion system with a century of the mental and physical effort of human beings to deliver oil. Oil per se is NOT energy until humans apply their physical and mental energy to getting it and converting it to energy. There is a way in which oil IS human energy. Someone in this string referred to "free oil". There is NO SUCH THING.

Frankly the whole discussion of oil vs. human labor is nothing more than a veiled form of pro oil propaganda, with the message being "you will burn lots of oil or you will be a slave." Heaven forbid that a human attempt to actually think their way out of the problem (how much human thought is oil worth? It's been worth billions of barrels thank you...)

You ask what makes me tick? I am not sure any of us really can answer that question but I can tell you this: All the humans in the world are worth far more than all the oil in the world. There is no comparison. Humans (and not just their labor) are priceless, it is this that drives all humane (notice the word) philosophy.

Oil has been convenient, but has it contributed to human culture in any real way? The case has been made that except for the sheer art of the highest class automobiles and automobile racing (the truly artistic end of the automotive spectrum, where the thought and the artistic vision is the added value, much more than the steel or the oil) the rest has been junk, going from the mines to the landfill in barely a decade in most cases. The greatest contribution of electricity has probably been the electric guitar. And most of the great leaps of human culture from Socrates to Goethe, from the Pyramids to the great Cathedrals were done without oil.

One thing I know about what makes me tick: This endless worship of what will turn out to be the most primitive and dirty form of energy is an insult to the human intellect and to me as a member of the human class. It somehow insults our mind, our human scientific effort, our very pride that somehow we can be seen as only one or the other, oil burner or slave, or bicyclist! But I will deal with the whole bicycle fixation another day...:-)


Thanks for the clarification. I'm not going to argue, because you feel what you feel and that's it.

However, what I would like to suggest very friendly is to do what I try to do (not always succeeding, mind you): when you don't know what others mean, ask.

Let's not try and assume from your own ideological positions and build useless mock arguments or strawmen - they serve nobody and no purpose. We all make huge mistakes that way, all of us. The best way to avoid this type of bias is to ask for a clarification. This textual conversation can be tricky and misunderstandings really easy.

In Britain it is still possible to see what an industrial society constructed before oil became both a major energy source and a significant industrial feedstock. Perhaps half of housing (coal-fired brick, slate roofs,timber/lumber from N America and Baltic) and much infrastructure, railways, bridges, streets, a major road network (but not motorways), sewers, hydro dams and reservoirs, (large docks and cranes have since been replaced). And so on. The energy source, coal, being portable, also fueled most bulk goods transport. Agriculture was only seriously mechanized as late as WWII, and fertilizer use likewise, with pesticides later than that. I was hand hoeing fields in 1959. (Grain yields per hectare doubled from the 1960 average when new varieties could use higher synthetic N). Food was largely imported, of course. Population in England (leaving out Wales and Scotland) went from pre-industrial ~6M to around 40M in mid 20thC, pre 'serious-oil'. Oil did of course provide small but increasingly critical inputs in the pre-oil era.
A substitute for primary energy (in order of historical importance, coal, oil, NG) is needed to maintain a society like Britain. A key characteristic of industrialization is access to economies of scale, whether these be in transport of bulk raw materials globally or in the creation of finished goods themselves. One might add that industrial power allows a superstructure of specialists and complex organization to finance and produce complex goods, from electric lights and telegraph to mobile phones, from phonographs and radio to IT.
Perhaps oil should be seen in historical context. We see presently a partially industrialised world. A large minority uses almost no fossil fuels, and never will. These remaining societies vary from very reasonable quality to abysmal disasters. Look how they live. On the evidence though, I speculate that mobile (cell) phones might remain a universal 'must' whatever the future primary energy sources.

... we're having a bit of trouble synthesizing and contextualizing that data to get a usable understanding of how oil compares to, say, human labour, or a hydroelectric plant, as an energy source.

very interesting Phil,

An additional aspect of the overall energy situation is the generally total lack of understanding of the work done by natural systems for free. Ancient cultures were well tuned to the natural pulses and learned to use it in a sustainable manner. Modern man uses much of nature as a place to exploit and dump wastes. Shame on us.

phil harris said,
"A substitute for primary energy (in order of historical importance, coal, oil, NG) is needed to maintain a society like Britain."

Make no error here, coal, oil, and Natural gas are NOT primary energy in any other sense than that the petroleum extraction energy wants us to think of them as that.

Solar is a primary energy source. The fossil fuels are simply storage mediums. This would not matter except as a semantic arguement except that it is the argument used against hydrogen for example, that it is "not an energy source, just an energy store." But of course that is true of all hydrocarbon fuels.


I can see how this discussion got started and there are some interesting technical points.

But from an outside point of view, the framework and assumptions are repugnant and inhuman.

The title itself is unfortunate ("What is a Human Being Worth?"), indicating that one has strayed from a discussion of physics to one of values and morality.

The underlying assumption is that one is in a position of absolute control over other humans, and their value consists only in the work that can be extracted from them.

Discussions like this have taken place before, but not in places most of us would like to be associated with: the Stalinist gulag and the Nazi work camps. People there studied how much value could be extracted from humans, the minimum number of calories necessary to keep prisoners alive (vs work output). Slave-based economies were also interested in such questions.

I understand that this a technically oriented group playfully pursuing a topic, but ideas have consequences. It really would be good to have a moral/religious/historical perspective in addition to the purely scientific.

Energy Bulletin

Excellent comment Bart, but I think you may have misunderstood some things.

For example, I clearly outlined that the comparison I made between humans doing manual labor and thermal content of oil is not a valid comparison. However, I needed a relative scale to underline a point.

The points I tried to make were: as we clearly are wasting the energy potential of oil then what does it take to stop us wasting that oil AND what happens to the value of human labor (if any) when that revaluation happens?

My question is generally a question of history (e.g. slave labor, price of manual labor, taylorism, dehumanization) and a question of values (e.g. value of human labor in abject poverty vs value of human labor in rich OECD middle-class).

In that respect I think you are right that this is a question of morals, values and implications for society at large.

However, to deduce from this that I'm reducing humans to what can be extracted from them, isn't necessarily what I was after (or what my backing theory assumes) :)

I'm not that interested in the exact useful work comparisons between a primary fuel + machine combo against food + human + tool combo. Bringing up a nazi card here is not very fruitful.

I'm interested in what kind of world might it entail, when we can't be driven to excess energy wasting practices through the use of cheap oil, and may also have to value human labor differently?

I don't know what it might mean, and if it even is likely (my crystal ball is still broken), but I certainly hope that I'm not lumped in with nazis for asking a simple question :)

To me personally that is a very interesting systemic and social question, even if it might have very little practical value. It makes me to stop and pause, WHAT IF?

Remember, the answer can also be positive - and not necessarily a horrific blast from the history.

That was at least my purpose, I can't vouch for others.

When we are passionate, we are sometimes too quick to read our own ideologies and moral positions into the writings of others - to the detriment of open discussion and learning. I find that unfortunate, but correctable through honest and open discourse.

Bart's point about the title of this discussion rang true with me. My first thought was to a Derek Jensen quote somewhere in The Culture of Make Believe, in which he asserted the "value" of a human slave in the US in the 1800s was something like $15,000 in today's dollars, the estimated value of a corporate slave in today's overpopulated world probably averages out to about $50 or $60 (I can't find the exact reference right now in the 700+ pages, so my memory of the exact figures is pretty questionable, but they were along those lines). His point was the slave owner actually had more of a vested interest in keeping his "property" alive than the corporation does, since it has a cheaper pool of human replenishment. I am still feeling slight discomfort at the title of this thread.

Thanks for the Jensen tip. I haven't read the books, been meaning to. So many books to wade through. In the mean time, to those new to the guy, I recommend the following "readings" by the author himself. Excellent stuff, funny and thought provoking - even if one doesn't agree with the author's positions:

Endgame part 1

Endgame part 2

A bit off-topic perhaps, but worth the plug, imho :)

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, SamuM. It wasn't my intent to attack people. I was reading along in the original post, and found myself uneasy without exactly knowing why. Part-way through the comments, I was thinking: This is NOT a good direction. How did we get here? What went wrong?

I notice that several other people felt uneasy about the thread, and came up with their own explanations.

I think the problem is that we start out from the idea of fossil fuels as Energy Slaves - substances that permit us to live like lords. If we then turn to humans as energy sources, we begin talking about them as if we could use their labor with as little thought as if they were no more than a barrel of petroleum. From Energy Slaves to real slaves.

Other posters complain that the analysis was comparing unlike things. Logically and philosophically I think they are right. Oil is not people.

There must be a better way to frame the discussion of human labor power, though I'm not sure what it would be. The technical points are interesting, just needs to be framed differently.

About the Nazi card. Actually I meant literally what said - similar discussions took place among the people who were running slave labor systems. I've become somewhat obsessed with the history of slave labor, reading about slavery under the Soviets, Nazis, Romans and Greeks, and that's why I had such a reaction to the post.

One of the intellectual mechanisms by which slave systems are set up and maintained is by talking about other human beings (the slaves) as objects. This objectification suppresses our natural human reactions of shame and sympathy.

I think the TOD discussion wandered into this territory by mistake.


You were probably also uneasy about the "what is a human worth" discussion in (high school) Chemistry class. I remember the answer being $2.40 (ok, Euan said 4EURo) and it was obvious to (almost?) every kid that the comparison cannot be made.

I also remember the introduction to Marxism (in Histor<) and/or social justice (ethics) at school: an hour's worth of work should be paid an hour's wages.

It took a good, long discussion in class to separate a doctor's hour with the hour of a factory worker (Marx's concern), and I still think that most of the class didn't get it.

Apples and oranges, of course.

BUT: we're not trying to find the value of a human, but the value of the FFs (oil) involved. AND it becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly that the two cannot be made. WELL, how do you get the value of FFs across to the public is a very, very plastic sort of way?

A cup of oil costs 15 cents? (Simmons)
The average American constantly uses 800 (or 2,500) energy slaves - depending on how you slices it?

Do you have a better suggestion?

It's a matter of PR / advertising / slapping each other in the face so that we'll wake up and smell the coffee!

It's a matter of group-think marketing, which is probably the reason that RC can't identify with the question either: The "answer" is in itself totally irrevalent, except in a didactic sort of way.

OR: The value of an egg is all in the packaging.

Cheers, Dom

Dom: You were probably also uneasy about the "what is a human worth" discussion in (high school)

I think the difference is that what the chemistry teacher told us was more of a humorous way to emphasize the fact that we are made up of chemicals - - theoretical, since no one has really conducted that experiment.

In contrast, the appropriation of human labor has been the centerpiece of civilization, with slavery as perhaps the most egregious form.

Still, you're right, there are similarities. Someone upthread noted that harvesting bodily parts would net much more than the chemicals alone, and this practice is taking place now.

Dom: BUT: we're not trying to find the value of a human, but the value of the FFs (oil) involved. AND it becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly that the two cannot be made. WELL, how do you get the value of FFs across to the public is a very, very plastic sort of way? ... Do you have a better suggestion?

I think there's a difference between the offhand remarks that are made by many peak-oilers about human power vs petroleum (which are useful), and an in-depth discussion, as this has become.

It would make all the difference in the world if the in-depth discussion were given some context. "These are the calculations - what does this mean?" Some of the implications have come out in the TOD thread here.

For me, the implication is that slavery and other forms of super-exploitation could well make a comeback as energy supplies decline. Further, that these calculations which seem theoretical have been used before. Making the best use of energy thus has a moral dimension.

My Quaker grandmother was adamant about not wasting things. I found out later that among Quakers this belief dated back to the Quaker John Woolman in the 1700s who refused luxuries (e.g. dyes for clothes) because they perpetuated the slave trade.

Energy Bulletin

hi bart

despite my joke below about economists and neuroscientists ending up on bicycle generator galleys, I agree with you that the loss of easy fossil fuel energy could lead to increased human exploitation.

Not that exploitation of humans ever went away -- some argue that there are now numerically more slaves today than at any other time in history. Half of India's 1.1 billion people survive on less than $2 a day.

And then there's the creepy world 'market' for 'donated' organs. The Orange County Register reported a few years back (in the context of a scandal about nonprofit executives' salaries) that an average organ donor produces $15,000 for a nonprofit agency but that by including skin, tendons, heart valves, veins, corneas, and bones, agencies can sometimes raise over $100,000. I'm not looking forward to a bunch of rich decrepit aging boomers scrabbling about for extra parts and all the infrastructure that that implies.

At least for now, states don't directly authorize slavery. But as industrial civilization begins to founder, the official prohibitions might end up being relaxed. Look at what happened with torture.

The real problem we are all skirting around here is that individual consumer decisions in the modern interconnected world are incredibly complex. Buying any particular object has a web of consequences. In some cases -- like your wonderful example of Quakers eschewing dyed clothing because of its relation to slavery -- people can predict and avoid certain consequences.

But in others, avoiding one food or one product can have a series of unforseen negative consequences (ethanol). I know of no solution except learning more about how the world actually works.

To end on a positive note, as transportation becomes more expensive, the world will become less coupled, which might make the web of consequences less complex and more comprehensible to individuals.

Perhaps a macro level, societal-system look at consumption patterns would serve better. It could answer the question at hand with some relevance, and bypass the objectification of the "energy slave" frame.

For example, Paul Warde writes in Facing the challenge of climate change: energy efficiency and energy consumption:

The biggest change in energy history came with the Industrial Revolution. Previously, the world depended upon what Tony Wrigley has called the 'organic economy': that is, virtually its only energy source was solar radiation converted into energy useful to humans by the process of photosynthesis in plants. ... Examination of western European economies suggests that none could really get by with under 10 gigajoules per person per year from this process, and on an organic basis it was pretty well impossible to breach a consumption level of 20 gigajoules per person per year. ...

The use of fossil fuels changed all this. ... Per capita energy consumption in most countries in Europe is about ten times higher than it was under the 'organic economy', that is, around 200 gigajoules per person per year. As the European population is around three times larger than it was two hundred years ago, this gives us an idea of what would be required to return to an 'organic economy', or rather more realistically, if Europe was to produce a considerable amount of its energy supply by biofuels. Supplying the total energy required today from this source would mean that each European hectare of land would have to be thirty times more productive than it was two hundred years ago. (emphasis added)

Bart, thanks for the lecture in morality.

This raises very many questions, amongst them, how will our views on morality fare in an energy declining over populated world? Nazi Germany al least grew out of a quest for natural resources and land and I think it is somewhat worrying to observe how the behavior of a very proud and civilised nation changed in pursuit of that goal. Is it perhaps the case that energy slaves afford us the luxury of a moral position we may otherwise have to abandon?

I believe one of the greatest moral questions of our time is converting food to fuel. A situation whereby a system of farming subsidies in the EU and N America has led to a massive food surplus which has then been consumed in amongst others N African countries where food consumption has been subsidised by government leading to massive population overshoot in these areas. How moral is it that our governments now change the rules so that the massive food surpluses now flow into the tank of an SUV instead of the belly of a starving African?

There is of course a huge moral dilemma here. What point keeping all these Africans alive - some may ask? Whilst others, like Bill Gates are setting out on a crusade to invest most of the proceeds of Microsoft in keeping as many Africans alive as possible.

My own position on this is that I think it highly immoral of OECD governments to pursue the bio-fuels directives and that we do have some moral duty to care for the poor souls we have created and I am somewhat satisfied to be able to say that the Europeans at least are now back tracking big time on their bio-fuels commitments. I'll be interested to see how moral the US presidential candidates will be in their policies on this vital topic.

Having said that it is also imperative that aid of any sort to Africa has strings attached regarding population control. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that allowing the current situation of runaway population to persist is immoral since we know the likely outcome will be famine on a gigantic scale at some point in the near future. But then many would consider it immoral for the OECD to impose population control sanctions upon third world countries.

In terms of moral, religious and historical perspectives - I agree that this is an enormously important set of issues - but this post is set up as discussion post, and the door is wide open for anyone to contribute their opinions and facts to the debate. I'd certainly be interested in a debate on the morality of the Roman Catholic Church. it's also interesting to get a perspective on the value placed upon human life in Rwanda, Serbia and Zimbabwe.

Another interesting subject is the morality of health care with respect to the old, the sick and the deformed. We currently live in a "very moral" world where everyone one is kept alive for as long as in humanly possible - even though the quality of that existence may be extremely low by "conventional standards". Is it justified spending precious energy on that pursuit? There are of course already lines drawn by the medical profession so the moral question about drawing lines does not exist - the only question is where the lines get drawn. I live in a City that is totally bankrupt (Aberdeen has just run up £50 million debt) in a country that is bankrupt and I know full well that questions about spending priorities are staring us in the face. Do you spend money on educating the young or upon keeping 90 year olds alive in a vegetative state or on aircraft carriers?

If these difficult decisions have to be made, what information is used to inform the decision making process?

Euan: Bart, thanks for the lecture in morality.

Sorry, didn't mean to lecture.

Euan: This raises very many questions, amongst them, how will our views on morality fare in an energy declining over populated world?

I agree. This actually is what interests me more than the mathematics of depletion. You seem to have thought a lot about the moral issues and the coming conflicts. I'm sure we're going to see more discussion (and lectures!) about morality in the post-peak age.

My current thought is that most of our present belief system is a product of fossil fuels. As we continue into a world of shortages, our beliefs will return to traditional patterns.

For example, it's uncanny to see the resurgence of belief in prudence, thrift, self-sufficiency and community. Your basic peasant values.

I hope we can bypass the nationalisms and ideologies of the 20th century; another two world wars we don't need.


Bart - on reflection i tend to agree that the title and post construct was flawed. Problem is I / we couldn't see the answers to questions that were wrongly framed.

I think I learned a fair bit - and that's how TOD is sometimes - hashing around ideas, even if it is a bit distasteful at times.

Euan - Regarding your thoughts on medical intervention.

I am sure the medical gravy train [drug co's /doctors /politicians /holy rollers..etc] play to the public's irrationality. There is good money for some, in elderly care

I would be interested to see the results of a free public vote, maybe after a detailed explanation of the future scenarios - the public is too dumb to figure it out.. of the following proposals:

1] Everyone can retire at 50


2] No life supporting intervention over...pick a number...70? 65??

Obviously there are tricky details. Blood pressure / cholesterol medication [cheap and reduces stroke-care costs] might make sense. Bypass surgery doesn't. Maybe we start at age 115 and knock a year off every 3 months [so people don't winge that the rules are changing in their age group].

All of this is probably already weighed up, but not under any documented universal rules. Honesty is required

It really would be good to have a moral/religious/historical perspective in addition to the purely scientific.

Especially when the science is so atrocious.

They're comparing unlike things. Oil can do things people cannot do, and people do many, many things oil cannot do. Just in a scientific, amoral, irreligious, unhistorical way, asking how many barrels of oil a person is worth is like asking how many pieces of tinder a lathe is worth.

Proper science is about comparing like things, not measuring them in inappropriate units. How many barrels of oil is a human worth? How many acres is a glass full of water? How many amps in a kilogram? It's absurd.

This is another sloppy article, belonging with Barton's nuclear one in the round filing cabinet. TOD, especially TODEurope, usually does much better.

I agree 100% Kiashu, from an engineering/economic and an anthropological standpoint its just all wrong. This is mostly economics, you cant compare human energy and fossil fuel energy in anything other than BTU's or joules. Comparing them in dollars or any monetary value is full of fallacious reasoning and questionable science and like I said before is distorted by the availability of fossil fuels. All they proved is it is cheaper TODAY to use fossil fuel energy than human energy, thats all. They never did anything relevant to what a human life is worth. This discussion should stay in the realm of junk science and is not the type of stuff I like to see attributed to TOD. the only thing you can say is whether it is cheaper to use fossil fuels or human labor at a certain point in time, however, the world is a relationship of dynamic systems and analysis like this falls into the same type of analysis that says that we have however much oil left at present rates of production. Production rates aren't constant and neither is much else in the world.

hi bart

I wrote a very similar guest article for theoildrum in 2005 (not so far cited :-} ). My estimate, based on a comparison of cycling and cars was that the 20 gallons of gasoline/petrol extractable from one barrel of oil was approximately equivalent to one year of hard physical labor by a human. Back then, oil cost $57 a barrel.

I agree that a moral, historical, and even a religious perspective on this issue is important. But I think much of the discussion above really is implicitly about history at least. It is about how people have forgotten how concentrated the power in oil is, and how easy it is to store it and carry it.

Of course, having a computationally powerful 10-watt brain attached to eyes, ears, skin, legs, and arms certainly makes it possible to direct the 100-200 watts of limb power the human body can put out in strategic ways compared to what a car can do with its 100,000 watts. And many people have made this point above.

But that point is irrelevant to cases where you just need raw, concentrated, portable power for moving and lifting heaving objects, digging big holes, transporting concrete, and crushing rocks.

Few people alive today (excluding RAP, the old logger above!) have personally experienced the transition from human power, including slaves, to fossil fuel power.

For that reason, this is not just a technical or playful discussion, but something that every school kid should be taught, given the downslope of per capita energy we are all likely to face in the near future. It motivates thinking ahead, practically.

Marty, I've only been around here for a couple of years and so was unaware of your earlier guest post but have now added a link.

But that point is irrelevant to cases where you just need raw, concentrated, portable power for moving and lifting heaving objects, digging big holes, transporting concrete, and crushing rocks.

I think the point about raw force needs to be linked to time. These raw force tasks can be achieved without oil - but they take an awful lot longer, and likely require the engagement of slave labour. This links to the concepts of "energy slaves" which I first learned about in Heinberg's party book.

We have struggled to articulate the problem because trying to mix Man's inventiveness and use of tools with "raw power" is extremely complex. Heinberg I recall discusses the evolution of tools in some detail which is fundamentally important to this whole debate.

I think variations in the value attached to human life by different societies and the situations these societies may find themselves in, particularly when stressed, is something we should be very concerned about.

thanks for the link, Euan!

You are right that you can do a lot of the same things currently done with oil using people -- if you use a lot of people and work a lot more slowly.

An example that comes to mind are Easter Island Moai statues. When Thor Heyerdahl went there in the 1950's, he found many purposely toppled or half buried. He wondered how they had been moved around and erected, so he asked the villagers. They still remembered how to do it. They dragged a 20 ton statue almost a mile to the shore, with 150 people on stout ropes. Then they erected it by slowly levering it up with tree-poles, jamming thousands of stones underneath its stomach to form an enormous pile, until the statue finally lurched upright late in the day.

Even though these weren't slaves but merely enthusiastic and proud islanders with some free time, I agree with you that we should be worried about what might happen given the different value attached to life in different societies. Bicycle-generator galleys powered by out-of-work economists/neuroscientists/bankers perhaps? :-}

The article did pretty much miss all of the important issues. I still don't understand why the performance of top athletes is considered relevant, it's the couch potatoes who benefit most from cheap energy.

But I'm still trying to work out what "we're having a bit of trouble synthesizing and contextualizing that data" means. I think it means "we need some pie charts".

That's too bad that you are bored to death.

Any topic is fine with me, and you don't have to read every topic, but I especially appreciate posts on two topics:

(1) Anything to do with the modeling, simulation, statistics of oil depletion. This is a fascinating topic because it has a very low entrance criteria. Unlike the mathematics of global warming, ordinary people can likely make some progress and come to a better fundamental appreciation on this topic, without having to punt to analysis by the funded scientists.

(2) Anything to do with bicycling. I have ridden for pleasure all my life and as a means to get to work or school for 95% of my life. Lately I have started going nuts about the high tech aspects of road bikes in particular. My recent purchases include a carbon fiber and a titanium frame. These kinds of bikes are just amazing beasts. I consider myself fairly fit, but the feel of a good road bike is an amazing sensation. To me, it feels like a second skin.

Of course, the discussions around biking are endless. Helmets vs no helmets. Support your local bike shop vs DIY. Upright vs recumbent. etc.

In any case, keep the biking posts coming. To me these are serious pieces, and if someone does not get it, well too bad, and maybe wait for the next post.

Comparing human effort to oil is to compare a machine for doing work (the human body) to an energy source (the oil). They are not the same thing. To compare you should be looking at the food compared to the oil, or the internal combustion engine compared to the body.

In any case, its mainly a question of energy density and power. The chief benefit of oil is the safe and high energy density. That's something we don't find lying around anywhere else.

After all, you can have as many humans as you like, they are never going to get a jet aircraft off the ground.

Re Garyp and Westtexas
Human labour energy cost towards fossil energy is relevant. And, IMO it is the ability of TOD to integrate all parts of the energy discussion that imakes TOD interesting :-)
In the 1750 the energy use per person was 1/100 - 1/150 of today. Charcoal/ biooil/fat was the concentrated energy sources. For survival approx 600 pounds of grain/ year per grown person was necessary. Society worked without fossils.
As a 11 year old farm boy I knew that 1 kilo of porker required 2.8-3.5 kilo Barley grain. At 12 I mastered the XT (Mollier diagram) for drying Grain with lowest possible kWh use. And I knew how many m2 the Family Ferguson tractor could till per litre petrol.And I knew how the tractor performed relative to our two horses. In my daily work I know how many megajoules it takes to produce 1 m2 family house, and the energy necessary to produce a 2.4 ton SUV. There is a direct link from human labour to our society and future society.

The discussion and knowledge about the relative performance of enegy carriers, energy modes and the Base scenario ( 1750 BC) is the key to find sustainable solutions to future life on planet earth.
Kind regards And1

My neighbour has a rotovator that he uses to dig his veg plot.
I don't have a rotovator so use a no digging system.
My veg plot produces more food.

Is that because you don't have a rotovator or because you are more connected to your plot and do more work to make it produce more?

These numbers being tossed about are nothing more
then computational mathmatical gymnastics.
An exercise comparable to syncronised swimming...only
using numbers.
Very complicated to watch and even somewhat
But the swim cap and nose plug equivalent that ruins
my intrest in the body of the swimmer.

Machines all need manufactured by humans, maintained
by humans, serviced and reparied by humans.
Maybe not the simple lever and fulcrum need oil...but
everything else does I agree.
My point being is, most machines are junk (not even
quantifying the engineered purposeful obsolescence)

Sure sure sure I understand where this was supposed to
How beneficial oil and the machines it allows mankind to produce.

The thought of the professor on Gilligans island making a nuclear reactor out of coconuts and yet couldnt make a dinghy and sail to the mainland is hilarious.

Now humanity is marooned on a desert isle and are all
waiting for a ship on the horizon.
The nightmare is when the ship doesnt show up or
when it does.......it says "TITANIC" on her bow.

Arranging deck chairs isnt gonna be a high priority.
The great unwashed masses wont need a tutorial on how
many calories a barrel of oil contains.

Eating bread with the sweat of ones brow has a way
of driving all points home just like a whip does on
the bended back.

I like you brainy mugs...really I do.
I admire how you throw your gray matter to the task
at hand.
But lets approach this problem as if it were a women.
Thats right....a WOMEN!
Theres a problem you thought man couldnt solve and
has an endless argument about.

You see gentleman, A man desires a women.
But a women wants a mans desire.

You really intellectual men probably just missed the
holygrail..so re-read the above two sentences.

What mankind fears is change and what humans hate is
But humans already lived without oil.
So its really just changing back.
The world is gonna change like a womens mind.
You still get the world (or the women) but have to
accept it (her) for what she is.

Wrap your mind around community and compassion.
Think Gilligans island.
Think Mary Ann and Ginger.
I liked Mary Ann myself...she looked like she was a
farm girl and knew how to roll in the hay.

Joseph Tainter is all I have to say about all this.. All of us are so specialized in our little fields and niches of society no one can get a good view of the big picture. Nephilim thinks of the world through common sense, yet the intellectual people here cannot understand it and take it as country bumpkin ridicule. While at the same time the intellectuals are just concerned about the same things going about it in a different way. There is no need for a rating system, we are just judging each other for the fact we haven't lived life in their shoes. For all you intellectuals out there, if you looked into this yo could see elements of Tainter's analysis, in the Professor nuclear coconut reactor analogy. The problem was that he was using increasing complexity to try to solve all the worlds problems, so did the romans, and their civilization cam crashing down using this logic. There are society's that have lived around the world sustainably for thousands of years, yet we ridicule them as simple and undeveloped. The American Indians were wiser than all of us, yet we regarded them as savages. The American Indians survived on the North America for thousands of years, and we seem to be almost out of luck pushing 400 or so. Bad Memes my friends are wreaking havoc with our world because they operate in their own self interest, it is the individual that must take control of the Memes and not the other way around.

Thanks for the attempt at defense.
Iam not at all insulted and meant no insult to others.
I fully realise that the wrench monkey doesnt want
to hear how to change the oil in a Lamborghini from
the owner who wouldnt know a freeze cap from an oil
drain plug.
Or how a venture capitalist doesnt appreciate stock
advice from a shoe shine boy.
Its not like Joseph Kennedy sr listened to a boot black
right before the 1929 crash and saved the family fortune....Wait!!!...he did just that!
I was just trying too point out that weather playing the fiddle or stroking a Stradivarius while Rome burns
isnt going to make people aware and take action.
Its abundantly obvious that unless collective action
is taken...and taken soon, it wont matter how many
degrees you have or have not.
It wont count how many villas in Tuscany you own or
if you live in a barrio in Brazil...wait...Brazil is
energy independant!
Scratch the barrio statement..turns out you could fare
better in a Brazilian barrio VS a Tuscany villa.
The future belongs to those who adapt.
The past belonged to those who adapted.
Theological scholars argued for centuries about how
many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
[Answer] All of them.
And yet none of them can see that the story of
CAIN & ABLE was about hunter gathers VS farmers and
We have the same thing going on now.
People fighting to keep what is...from what will be.
Man ready to slay his brother man for a mess of
pottage (oil).
Believing its his birthright weather hes a have or
have not.
Weather hes a know it all or knows nothing.
I happen to tip my garbage man more then I tip the
The garbage guy performs a real service I value.
The sommelier is just sucking my expensive bottle of
vino and pursing his lips.....Ive never had one declare
the wine foul and send it back for another...have you?
Ive heard many PHD types use language like......
"Dumb farmer" and yet Ive never met a dumb farmer.
The farmers Ive known were masters of every trade.
Weather forcasters, machanics, machinists, futures
traders, carpeters, animal husbandry specalists,
heavy equipment operators, electricians, horticulturists, and I could add many several dozen more entries.
Do we need brainy mugs?.....YES now more then ever.
Do I expect they will find something new under the sun?
NO and I wont blame them for it.
But I wouldnt hold high regards for any who looked
down their nose at those who preceeded us centuries
Strange how a book smart person would ignore the book
of human existance and think that the next Popular
Machanics issue is going to give plans for a perpetual
motion machine.
The New England Journal of Medicine and the Lancet have
a cure for cancer in every issue for decades and its
always just a couple issues away from confirmation.
Like I told the community here on my first several posts...I have absolutely no formal primary education.
I am self taught in everything I know.
I hope this fool typing may indeed bring something of
But any fool reading has a responsibility to glean
whats there.

I just find, the line breaks and such
difficult and annoying.
Philosphically, Nephilim and I probably share
more in common, than we differ.
I just try to picture a world
where communication thru prose, usurps
the relay of information using paragraphs.
Where every writer trumps content for style.
Imagine a world where every poster on TOD,
used the same manner to promulgate their views.
With snippets of brilliance, crystal clear to the writer, but
ultimately lost on the reader.
Or worse yet, skipped over and ignored by those,
without the patience to ignore the formatting.
I sincerely hope Nephilim continues to share his insight
but would it kill him to use paragraphs?
Ultimately the decision on how or whether to post
is his. And ours to read or click
on the little down arrow, that marks
our annoyance, or on the little up arrow
that signals our approval.
By clicking, I seek not to judge,
for I am not qualified to declare
whether his musings are positive or negative.

I can only offer the feeling evoked when I see a long block of text, where the writer has made no effort to separate his ideas into smaller units. Where he jumps from one topic to the next and jumbles all of his (her?) thoughts into one massive paragraph. Such paragraphs are daunting to read, and with hundreds of posters sharing their thoughts each day, easy to ignore. What a tragedy that good writing and ideas are sometimes missed because the careless writer chose not to use the 'Enter' key. Or a POSTING THAT USES ALL CAPS TO CONVEY SOME SENSE OF IMPORTANCE OR EMOTION TO ONE's text. Or in this instance, too many breaks and murky philisopical musings one might draw the conclusion, that like the poster who must use all CAPS, that I feel that my ideas and thoughts soar high above, the lowly grounds inhabitated by those trapped in stultifying and confining world of paragraphs. Equally annoying to me are posts where the writer seeks to prove using mathematical calculations, the feasibility or non-feasibility of a solution. Incredibly complex social, political, and economic problems are commonly reduced to a simplistic set of variables: If X amount of sunlight falls on Y amount of area with an efficiency of Z, and it takes A amount of power to transfer B number of people each day to work, then C number of solar panels will not be sufficient to prevent the collapse of western civilization. Most of these calculations resort to using not one, but multiple assumptions, and a wiser man than myself (known only as Mercenary #2), once made the brilliant observation, "ASSUMPTION IS THE MOTHER OF ALL F@$# UP'S!"

I missed the episode where the professor
built a nuclear reactor out of coconuts.
Such a technological revolution would be helpful
for those who live where coconuts are plentiful.
Those stuck in less tropical climes must
resort to fossil fuels and such. Bummer.
Confusion reigns when I consider,
how many outfits did those women pack for
A three-hour tour? A three-hour tour?

Fellow Travelers,

Lets get past the whining of whether apples are different from oranges.

For just a few minutes think about the History as we know it. Think for a second in terms of the financial and human cost and the amount of Human Joules which must have been put into the Great Wall of China.

A few Excavators, trucks, and cranes, and a few bags of cement and we could do it real quick. But to wall off Mexico we may have to go back to the old Chinese ways.

The Pyramids would have been a snap, we would not even have to double shift the crews and we could still make the 2012 Olympics.

I suspect Luis's Big-picture is the incredibly complex, profligate and technological society we have been able to evolve with Free oil.

Even with all our 6 billion people, each putting out their 150 Watts, none of this would have happened.

The Genius, Management, and Planning part of such endevours
is not a factor because our brain capacity has apparently had this same potential for 70,000 years.

If ever there was a stark example of Olduvai Theory, the Math and Physics conversions from Oil energy to Human energy, proves it.

Forget the minutiae, rather look at how we "Got Here, from There, and more importantly how we are now going to get "There from Here", with no oil.


I believe that the London based journalist Jonathan Ossoff is looking for a simple, easy for a layman to grasp, comparison.

Pick a task and show what 1 barrel of oil will accomplish.

Then show how long it would take for an average human to accomplish.

The leg broke off my chair. I put a barrel of chair next to the oil and wait for the barrel of oil to fix it. I wait an infinite amount of time, and nothing happens.

I get a hammer and a nail and a file and some glue, and the leg is back on in ten minutes.

Therefore, oil is worthless compared to human labour.

Second comparison: I am in a cave in the Himalayas with a blizzard outside. I want to warm up. I open a barrel of oil and light it, and soon am quite toasty indeed. Or I can jump up and down and warm up, but sweat and dehydrate and die. Woops.

Therefore, oil is worth a lot compared to human labour, and human labour will actually get us killed.

Hmmm... it seems that by carefully choosing which comparison I use, I can prove anything I want about human labour compared to a barrel of oil.

We have then to conclude that the two things cannot be usefully compared, because they are different things.


As slippery words go, that one's a real doozie. In a contest it's gotta be a contender for first place.

And as for philosophical questions it's right up there with angelic pin-head dancing and trees falling in empty forests.

I'll have to go with Forrest Gump's answer (at least I think he's the one who said it): "Worthy is as worthy does."

I do get the purpose and point of the discussion. And I think it's a 'worthy' (grin) subject. I also agree that there could be valuable data revealed by examining the issue from that perspective. NEVERTHELESS, I find it very disappointing that no one in the discussion(so far at least) has called you on just what is meant by that tricky word 'worth.'

I say this because even in terms strictly limited to physical energy equivalents it's a tricky little devil.

For example, one watt is worth a gigawatt if applied in the right place, at the right time with the right purpose. That's the point of the mythological little dutch boy saving the lowlands by using his finger to plug the leak in the dike. His action (that required negligible force) held back cubic miles of water, accomplished the same work as the entire dike itself, and was 'worth' the incalculable labor that went into building both the dike and everything it protected.

Hopefully the discussion will start to track a little bit in that sort of direction because I think you're on to something big and that a really 'energetic' discussion might blast away some unexamined premises, such as the assumption that using up a lot of energy in utterly unnecessary activities is worth something.

One can argue that the economic compensation a worker receives is a society's measure of that human's worth. Unskilled manual laborers get the lowest valuation and skilled professional workers get higher valuations. Part of the skill set is an ability to use machines or other systems to multiply the work effort performed (a.k.a. worker productivity). No system is perfect and there are outliers and many situations that perturb the valuation from a strict linear relationship.

Nonetheless, when dealing with a sufficiently large enough economy and with multiple large economies, one can argue that a given economy, as a reflection of multiple complex social processes, establishes an equitable valuation for each worker. Sometimes the valuation is based on simple manual labor. Other times on the number of friends and social connections one has. Or even how smart you are or what you know. Or how pretty. Or how trustworthy. In the end, we quantitatively measure the valuation in the economic terms of your compensation.

According to the BLS, the average worth of a United States worker in economic terms is $19.83 per hour ($41,246.4 per year). Of course that value includes the skill set to leverage exergy for increased productivity. If the surplus energy is not available, then that skill set is useless and the worker's valuation will decline. In the worse case scenario, a human that farms the land with its hands using no tools that it did not produce and raises just enough food to survive has no surplus and, in some sense, no economic value.

Fortunately, many activities generate a surplus of exergy. Farming harvests the stored energy of the sun (ignoring nutrition) contained in plants. Damming a river and running a hydro electric plant generates even more surplus. Digging coal out of the ground generates a lot more surplus exergy. Those surpluses are what enables many people to leverage their skilled application of tools and machines, thus increasing their worth through productivity gains. As others have pointed out, this is one factor underlying economic growth. When the surplus exergy goes down, so will economic growth. It follows that the average worker's economic valuation will also go down.

In other words, what use is a computer programmer if there is not enough surplus energy to run his computer? Sure, in a time of declining exergy surplus, there will still be computer programmers, just not as many as before. The out of work programmer needs to adapt by obtaining a skill set that is valued by society. Perhaps by becoming a comedian, or maybe a farmer.

Anaerobic exercise is not characterized by shutting off air intake. Rather it is when the rate of metabolism gets ahead of your current rate of respiration.

It seems to me that all of this discussion is culturally conditioned. There have been, and are, many hunter-gathering societies who worked less hours with less effort than our "modern" society. My guess is that they would say, "Why do you want to do that stuff when you could just sit around?" Maybe they didn't live as long without modern technology but I find it hard to believe that they would trade laying in a hammock in the afternoon for a long drive to "work".


In both Environment, Power and Society and Energy Basis of Man and Nature, H.T. Odom set forth a conceptual way to deal with this issue. He proposed that energy is used, "concentrated" and upgraded in quality as it passes through the "food/energy chain" of man-made and natural systems. For instance, solar energy is upgraded to sugar and vegetable oils, which is upgraded to wood, which is upgraded to coal, which is upgraded to electricity, which is upgraded to books and education, which is upgraded to technology. At each step of this process, much raw energy is used, less raw energy exists at the next step, but the energy quality of the next higher stage is a factor of 7 to 15 higher than the previous step.

The reason that a system upgrades this energy, is that these higher value forms of energy generate a feedback effect that "pumps" in increasing amounts of the low quality, base level energy. Thus even though the raw energy (burned in a calorimeter) of the high quality energy forms is very, very small(burning petroleum engineering textbooks or petroleum engineers yields very little raw energy), the energy quality of these higher energy forms may be extremely high - in that they can draw in much raw energy.

So a human's worth should not be valued in terms of doing raw physical/mechanical labor, but by the value of his/her ability to maintain the energy capturing ability of the system of which he is a part.

So in the short term, good petroleum engineers have great energy value to the world we presently live in. In the not too distant future, however, those with the highest energy value may be nuclear engineers, or possibly those who can teach sustainable agriculture, fisheries, and forestry as we move toward once again running our world on sunshine.

Clearly no viable, self sustaining system would pay the great energy cost of creating upgraded forms of things/structures/beings unless those forms payed back in high quality services the cost of their creation.


Mind if I rephrase that to:

What is energy worth (in terms of humans satisfaction).

A pistol is much more powerful than a bow and arrow but not very satisfying when I point it at my head. It's hardly possible to make the same mistake with the bow and arrow.

I've been living closer to the earth these past few years, that is, 'green feeding' from my garden. Very low total energy use (I'm naturally lazy ) external energy two gallons (or inequivalent) of gasoline per year and dropping as I find that it is more work and less productive and sustainable to use mechanized devices like the rototiller on a small holding.

I think in this discussion that the benefit/loss of energy should be considered. So far using external energy we seem to be well on our way to destroying our agricultural base as well as the oceans, the forests. As well have used externally sourced energy to produce a population that has reached a now unsustainable level.


Hey Nate! What is this:

However, we aren't robots - we need to eat, sleep, breathe (we exhale energy), maintain, etc.

Sorry to be critical, but that all sounds pretty robotic to me; could you add something like, 'play the guitar badly', or, 'yodel off key' (oxymoron?) just to put in a bit of human fallibility in that mix?

BTW Nate, I think I said something, in the TOD backpages, about a couple of tablespoons of olive oil being all the energy I would need to cycle the same distance as I could drive on a gallon of gas . It wasn't all that rigorous a treatment so, off the top of your bean, how close to reality do you figure those figures would be? I didn't consider at all the cost of manufacturing these vehicles as I felt that, to be fair, the time difference in execution of the act sort of compensated. I think Thoreau made a similar comparison about work, being that by the time someone had saved enough by working to take a train to (Pokeepsie?) he would have beat that person by walking there.

What is a human being worth?
It is priceless -- as the commercial suggests, because it contains the mind which fosters our evolving souls. Thus it is beyond priceless.
While nature is always incredibly and brutally hyper-efficient, we humans are not. What irony.
We too often trade real efficiency for social acceptance.
One case in point is my own personal transportation device, the lowly moped.
It is not an 'acceptable' vehicle. A recent car commercial talking-head said, "What do you want me to do, drive to work on a MOPED?"
Ooo, ick!
The stigma is that you're not a real adult unless you are controlling at least 200 horses under your hood.
Screw being socially acceptable.
6 years ago I sold 'the car' and bought a 100mpg moped, out the door at $2K, and have in the interim saved probably $40K in not having to feed that iron horse. Here in Nevada one does not need insurance, tags, or all that crap. Parking is a snap, never have to get into a hot car, and in winter I drive slower and put my feet out when it snows. When I fall down (rarely) I get back on the horse and keep going. It takes half a quart to change the oil, and maintanence costs over 6 years have been less than $100. It saves enough money so that I can get by working only 4 days a week instead of 5, and still keep my toasty 'American' lifestyle. This of course frees up extra time to work on alternatives.
At $5 a gallon, it will cost about a nickel a mile to putt down the road.
Of course, an electric bicycle retrofit kit is much more EIEO efficient, but for fat lazy old folks like me, the 'ped is much more luxurious.
Yes, Virginia, there is a 100mpg vehicle, and it is available right now at a location near you.
And when I finally read that mopeds are scarce because of exploding sales, and that we are starting to manufacture them en-masse, then I will have hope that we may yet gain a few years on staving off our mutual collapse.
Until then I will tolerate the decreasingly common snickers (inversely proportional to the price of gas) at the stop light, and will snicker right back. I snicker all the way to the bank.
Our national attitude seems to be that "You'll take away my SUV when you pry my cold dead toes from around the accelerator."
Let me suggest that you may not be able to drive that Hummer through the Pearly Gates. It won't fit.
A moped, however, might....
How many years reprieve might we gain if 10% of us drove 'peds?

I hope this is an appropriate place to post this, and that it is 'socially acceptable'.
If not, give me a heads up.
BTW, I just love this site and all these wonderful conversations and brilliant minds.
Thank you all so much.

Craig Bergland

Wow. All this great discussion and nothing about my favorite reason for contemplating this fascinating subject: farming, food production, and how the world is able to sustain a population of more than 6 billion humans. After the peak supply of fossil fuels, are we going to have to contemplate global peak food supply? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this aspect of this very interesting question connecting energy from fossil fuels and energy from human labor.

How many acres of land can a tractor plow using 42 gallons of oil and how long would that take?

How long would it take a man and a plow horse to do the same area?

or maybe one man and a shovel? ouch!

I would ask, what is the yield per acre with and without the tractor?

I just came in for lunch from working in my garden. If I just had 20 gallons of gas a year, I would save half of it for my rototiller! With that I could grow enough food for my family. Another couple of gallons for the chain saw, and I would be able to keep warm in the winter. You are still talking some hard work - but it becomes doable to live well with very little inputs. For getting around there is the bicycle. With this lifestyle you don't need to go to the gym. It puts in perspective the human-work versus work-of-fuel issue. Without the rototiller or the chainsaw your life would be much harder.

Except - chopping the wood is not the problem. Most island nations in history have destroyed their forests that way. 6.5 billion chopping wood (with or without chainsaw) is less "sustainable" than the way we are living now...

One way to look at this problem is to look back at how energy has been used in history, and how much it cost when expressed in today's money.

Vaclav Smil's book 'Energy in World History'

is a wonderful description of how things were done before the age of fossil fuels, with a lot on the development and use of human physical power and horse power.

The cost side of it is in a brand new(alhough rather expensive)book:Heat Light and Power, by Roger Fouquet


This is an expansion of a wonderful paper 'Seven Centuries of Energy Services: The Price and
Use of Light in the United Kingdom (1300-2000)'


This points out that what we want is not energy but lumens. There are lots of different fuels, but our current use of electricity with fluorescent lamps or LEDs is amazingly efficient and cheap compared to burning candles.

Roger Fouquet is an economic historian and the new book deals with the price of energy (inflation corrected, of course) back to 1300, i.e. what it cost to hire a man or a horse for a day's labour, or to transport goods or people a certain distance.

It is full of rather dry looking charts, but what it does is compares the cost of human power, animal power, wind power, steam power etc, across seven centuries. It shows the effect of the Industrial Revolution, but also that there was a lot of human life before the steam engine.

It makes the point that horse power is cheaper than people power, but only comes in horse sized increments. Steam engines only come in even bigger sizes. People power is only really appropriate for doing small fiddly things or where horses or steam engines can't be used. Since the early 20th century it has been possible to 'subdivide' steam power by using small electric motors.

I have been wondering where the 'Road to the Olduvai Gorge' will take us. If we have to go back to the Stone Age, will we be going back through the 19th century?

This book looks at various critical transitions, such as that from sailing ships to steam ships from an economic perspective. And pithy questions like 'what are the relative economics of sailing ships versus rowed galleys?'

Life would seem to be possible with only limited fossil fuels (the UK in the first half of the 19th century was heavily reliant on horse power, water power and wind power). Maybe it wouldn't have the same GDP/capita, but it could probably manage a good Human Development Index (life expectancy, literacy rate, etc.).


Fun discussion, and it rather underscores why it may be a mistake to offer any specific equivalence factor to the general public: any specific factor can be contested. I think "a sh*tload", as Cslater8 suggests, may be technically correct. Like buying a new yacht, if you have to ask the price, you can't afford it.

When you couple this with the fact that most of what humans do doesn't need to be done at all, and that the satisfaction could be supplied by a tiny fraction of a watt stimulating the proper region in a human brain, it becomes sillier still. The fallacy of the Krell.

Human use of oil is joules before swine. Its utility and consequence are not directly comparable to any human meme save magic.

It's more analagous to the fables about people who happen upon a magic lamp, kiss an enchanted frog, sign a pact with satan, or capture a leprechaun (details vary) and receive a finite number of impossible wishes granted. Typically, at the end of the line, the person uses up the last wish and realizes that they're totally f*cked, worse off than they were before they started wishing.

We have gone to the moon, flown across oceans through the stratosphere while drinking champagne, enabled ourselves to breathe underwater, smote our enemies, killed all the scary-looking other species with most of the rest thrown in for good measure, and emptied the seas. We're getting down to our last few wishes, and are starting to realize they won't be near enough.

So perhaps it's better to argue the qualitative than the quantitative, and "keep it simple".

Weight is not always a very important factor in fuel consumption. A lot depends on the type of vehicle we are talking about so beware of some of the simple generalisations you see floating about sometimes.

Drag of a vehicle has a linear and quadratic term; the quadratic term rises quickly and dominates entirely at reasonable speeds. If drag is the major source of discipative work then your fuel efficiency will be inversely proportional to the square of velocity; at double the speed you get a quarter of the fuel efficiency. Drag is linear in cross sectional area and drag coefficient, which means that the most fuel efficient vehicles look something like a shrunken bobsleigh(flattened bobsleigh in the case of solar car competitions). Even small protrusions like mirrors can have a severe impact on the drag coefficient.

Rolling friction on the other hand is proportional to vehicle weight and speed does not come into play to any important extent. The coefficient of rolling friction can be as much as 100 times larger for rubber tyres on asphalt than for high quality steel wheels against steel tracks. When rolling friction is the major source of discipative work milage is about the same at any speed for which this is true.

The engine itself is also an important player. Most ICE's have poor efficiency at low power output, building to a maximum somewhere under their peak output.

For a standard car the fuel efficiency curve tends to start poorly and then build up to a plateu where engine performance is good and rolling friction is dominating; this plateau is somewhere around 40-60 mph. At higher speeds you get into the drag limited region and performance starts dropping off rather quickly.

I'd love to see what kind of fuel mileage you could get with aerodynamic coffins on rail traveling at slow speeds. Monstrously efficient I pressume, but definetly monstrously uncomfortable.

All the discussions about "no more comunal employment" and "chainlink fencing the kitchen garden" seem to me more fantasy than reality.

Though I presently make my living in the business computer programming world, I have not always lived as now in a nice four-berdoom house in the suburbs of Toronto. I grew up on a near-subsistence farm in northern Ontario, Canada, (we could walk 80 miles south from home without ever encountering evidence of civilization except a few abandoned mines or logging roads) and am old enough to recall "life before oil" on many levels. I still clearly recall when dad bought his first tractor (teams of draught horses before that). I was in grade four when our farm got grid electricity, grade 6 when I made first use of a telephone, grade nine when we got our first television. We heated and cooked with wood, did homework by gas-light or candles (often made ourselves), grew all our own food and bought the few external inputs required (bank payments, breeding quality livestock, seed grains) by selling surplus livestock and vegetables, and selling wood to the local paper mill, all manually cut with swede saws and axes, manually loaded onto a small hired truck for delivery, perhaps 300 T / yr (250 "cords). The hired threshing machine came around once / year and we used pitchforks and horses to deliver the grain from the field to the machine. We always hunted and fished for recreation (and food). We were in good condition. From various employments in my youth I'm a journeyman electrician, HV lineman, HP welder, heavy equipment operator. I've built several houses from scratch alone, contracted basements. Can do plumbing, HVAC, carpentry etc.

Believe me when I tell you, peak oil, shortages, etc. whatever. As much as many of you apparently would love to see it, we WILL NOT revert to those conditions for everyone. Nature provides sufficient energy (solar, wind, falling water, bio-fueled electrical CHP) to easily compensate for the receding supplies of oil over the next 20+ years. I hobby now in my garage with my son, a tool and die maker, on an externally heated (solar-concentrating, bio-fuels) stirling engine-generator CHP unit which is easy and cheap to fabricate, will last many years with zero maintenance. All that's needed for systems such as these to become comonplace is a market, and the absence of cheap fossil fuels. Our unit is designed to provide, from either two 10' tracking dishes or an equivalent amount of roof area, sufficient electricity to replace an average home's usual requirement plus sufficient heat to replace use of fossil fuel heating. Includes thermal storage so will generate through the night. Thermal storage can be auxiliary heated with any fuel you have, from wood pellets / gassifier to waste cooking oil etc.

I can design for you right now the means to do low-till agriculture with electric systems of an tractor and two motorized mast-movers which would move an overhead conductor across a field in a pattern so the tractor's catenary could maintain contact. From there, it's simply a matter of designing the appropriate attachments (seeders, weeders, harvesters etc). Potash mining is readily susceptible to electrification, as are the railways required for transport. Nitrogen supplement fertilizers are a natural byproduct of both hydrogen generation and heavy water nuclear power generation processes (a technology which is not going away). Absence of chemical pest management may cut yields of wheat and corn significantly, but even 75 bu / acre of corn is worth doing on a large scale.

Believe me, the differences in materials knowledge and power electronics which we have today means the ballgame now is NOTHING like what it was in the 1950's, or before. I still recall the invention of the chain saw for logging, and it's competition with and ultimate defeat of the Wright technology reciprocating blade system. Today I carry around a canvass sack with ten battery-operated tools any one of which would be considered nearly magical in the 1950's.

We may need to crush up and smelt a few (hundred million) surplus gasoline autos to get the materials resources, but otherwise, the genie (of knowledge) is no longer in the bottle. Large city cores may likely disintegrate into disordered chaos and lawlessness, (I hope not), but provided we can maintain some semblance of rule of law there's no reason for such unhealthy pessimism as often displayed here.

I grew up much like you did. I walked 6 miles to school
in blizzards and it was uphill both ways.

You really had me going with that(stirling engine-generator) untill I googled the videos on them.
Seems they have the torque of a gerbil.

I could maybe charge a cell phone battery with one,
if I could wait an entire year.

As soon as I can sell my George Foreman grill on E-Bay
Iam gonna snag one of those stirling engine-generators
and sell electricity to all my neighbors who live
under a bridge in Brooklyn.
I sold them the bridge and was so generous I threw in
the aluminum siding for free!

You Googled stirling engines and learned they have torque of a gerbil? Perhaps simply that you are working with a gerbil brain. Equating some coke-can atmospheric pressure professor's demo with a real engine. The second hit from Google for "solar stirling california" is titled "World's Largest Solar Project Unveiled" (that's right, larger than any other existing solar generating technology). You may be required to read a bit to actually learn anything though, as you'll not likely find any serious information via entertainment media.

500 megawatts (expandable to 850) being installed in California today.


You doomers need to stop your video games and finish perhaps a fifth grade science education.

Hi Lengould,
Your comments make a lot of sense, but may disappoint some of the "doomers". To make matters worse, crude oil prices have slide back a bit.
However, what we didn't have to deal with 60 years ago was impending, rather dramatic climate change. I am hopeful, but it doesn't look like the US, China and India are going to cut CO2e faster enough to stop some very unpleasant events. Next to climate change, shortages of oil are going to seem fairly minor. Canadians are lucky to live in a cold and relatively high country, with lots of wood so may pull through OK.
The one really great hope is that oil supply will decline fairly quickly and the US will snap out of inaction and "get religion". Alternatively a sudden 2-4 meter sea level rise could also do the trick. Lets hope for the first outcome so we can avoid the second.

As an aside...

Several websites are logging the current power meter readings from the Tour de France. Wiggins' 500 watts, is I think, sustained in fairly short track pursuit races. A quick survey of power meter data from cyclists this year shows around 300 watts being a huge effort for multiple hours. The best tech of racing bikes, quality of athlete, and all round enviroment of the Tour should give the best result one could hope for in wattage.

Danny Pate's exploit the other day:


Guess we will have to find a replacement for all that oil.

Euan, Nate, Louis,

I think some of the figures for rate of human work output are a bit high.

I have always worked with a figure of 75W to 100W that can be sustained for several hours by a reasonably fit adult. This is discussed in chapter 2 of D G Wilson's "Bicycling Science" - see fig 2.4.

Bicycling Science

Whilst we can produce bursts of 200 to 300 W, these are unsustainable for very much longer than a few tens of seconds.

About 1/10th horsepower is a good way of looking at it.

Some exercise bikes have a display showing power produced in watts. I suggest that if you have access to one of these you try pedalling at 100W and see just how hard it really is. Without the breeze blowing past, most cyclists would overheat very quickly.

Another test would be to run up a long flight of straight stairs, in a given time period and calculate the increase in potential energy from

pe = mgh

Where m is your body mass
g = gravitational constant 9.81
h = total height of stairs

By the time you have done this a few times, you will realise the limitations of the average human as a power producer.