What’s that slurping noise? It could very well be our collective snouts feeding from the world energy trough.
There’s no denying it. We North Americans are energy hogs. Our energy-intensive Western consumer lifestyles demand that we be. Big house? Two or more cars? Central air and electronic devices, gadgets and appliances galore? Welcome to hog heaven.
Energy-intensive lifestyles have transformed North Americans into energy hogs. Photo Credit: iStockPhoto
Top energy consumers
According to calculations by Canadian geologist David Hughes using data provided in a U.S. Energy Information Administration 2009 report, North Americans have nearly four times the average global per capita energy consumption (PDF). In absolute numbers, North Americans consume one-quarter of the world’s primary energy production, even though we make up less than seven percent of the world’s population. As well, a new report from World Wildlife Canada places Canada and the United States among the top-10 countries with the biggest “ecological footprint” per person.
Historically underpinning our posh lifestyles is the availability of relatively cheap, abundant supply of energy, primarily derived from hydrocarbon sources. While there’s much debate over how much oil, coal and natural gas is actually left, there’s no disputing that this resource is a finite one.
Conservation is paramount
That’s why energy conservation should be a top priority for all, especially considering that energy demand is slated to rise, a prospect we explored in a previous OSQAR.
Wait a minute. Can a company like Suncor that generates most of its revenues from the sale of fossil fuels credibly call for society to use less energy? Yes we can, because like you, we want there to be energy left for future generations.
Getting folks to heed the energy conservation message is no easy task. Like smoking, eating or reality television, energy gluttony is a hard habit to curb. Sociologists know that people tend to be more committed to positive action on a day-to-day basis if the line of sight between behaviour and consequence is apparent.
Unfortunately when it comes to energy conservation, it’s not possible to see the earth’s hydrocarbon reserves dwindle every time we hammer our Hummer’s gas pedal. We can, though, turn to our vivid imaginations. Imagine if our energy consumption was expressed as a dedicated entourage of human energy slaves? The more energy we consume, the more souls we put into our exclusive bondage.
Author Samuel Alexander explores the energy slave concept in his paper Peak Oil, Energy Descent, and the Fate of Consumerism (PDF), using analysis from David Hughes correlating energy and human labour.
A healthy person peddling quickly on a bicycle can produce enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb. If this person works eight hours a day, five days a week, it would take about 8.6 years of human labour to produce the energy stored in one barrel of oil. (You would, by the way, owe the cyclist about $138,363 - based on minimum wage - for his toil.)
How many of us would choose driving over walking for that two-block latte run if it meant forcing our fellow humans into hard physical labour just to get us there? What if you had to generate the energy yourself, before consuming the latte?
Keeping the water hot
Never one to leave things to the imagination, the BBC experimented with the energy-human labour connection. Check out this clip to see what keeping water hot for a regular shower means for a group of volunteer cyclist “slaves.” It took more than 70 bikers cycling at the top of their ability to make enough power to keep the hot water flowing for a mere two minutes.
So while human labour won’t trump our established energy sources any time soon, we energy hogs still may want to think twice before hitting that thermostat, power button, or ignition switch. Future generations are counting on it.