Craig Collins writes: It took me years to realize that our supercharged lifestyle depends on a vanishing supply of fossil fuels and cannot possibly be reproduced on a global scale. If the people of China lived like Americans, there would be more cars in China than there are in the entire world today. Their cars would need all of the oil the world produces plus fifteen million extra barrels a day. China would consume two-thirds of the world’s grain harvest, burn more coal than the entire world uses today and use twice as much paper. And this is just China. The Earth simply does not have enough land, water and hydrocarbons for everyone to live the high-energy lifestyle of Americans. In fact, America’s coveted lifestyle is running on empty and on the verge of going bust, like the boomtowns that became ghost towns after the gold rush panned out.
Throughout the 20th century, the world was preoccupied with modernity, progress, science and technology, yet no one was crediting the amazing energy source that made it all possible. Even today, we routinely underestimate and overlook the unique characteristics that have made fossil fuels the energy source that has utterly transformed human life on this planet.
Fossil fuels are the most concentrated, versatile, inexpensive energy source ever discovered. Energy is the capacity to do work and we have harnessed fossil fuels to do unbelievable amounts of it. There are about 23,000 human labor hours (12.5 years at 40 hours per week) in every barrel of oil and humans use about 85 million barrels of oil every day. Just one gallon of gas can do as much work as 350 to 500 hours of hard human labor. How much would you expect to be paid for 350 to 500 hours of hard work? At $15 an hour, your labor would be worth between $5,250 and $7,500 dollars. Now compare that with how much you spend for a gallon of gas.
Modern industry and agriculture would be impossible without fossil fuels. According to Michael Pollan, it takes about ten calories of fossil energy to produce and transport each calorie of supermarket food we eat. In the United States, food typically travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from farm to plate. Supermarkets and fast food chains survive on a life support system of cheap fossil fuels. Agricultural machinery, irrigation systems, petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers, huge centralized feedlots, slaughterhouses, food processors and refrigerated storage all rely on hydrocarbons – as do the trucks, ships, trains and planes that move food around the world.