Slurping Petroleum Now So We Can Sip It Later

Amanda and I head down to Friendship today. We will work this afternoon and most of the day tomorrow before heading back up to Birmingham. We know it’s extravagant to drive 1 1/2 tons of vehicle and passengers 240 miles round trip so two people can put in maybe 11 hours of work, and we know we won’t be able to do this for long. That doesn’t mean we don’t do it, though; just that we do it with a deep sense of appreciation and wonder.

Our Toyota Corolla gets about 27 miles to the gallon on the highway, so I figure we’ll use 9 gallons +/- to make the trip, plus another gallon or so to go spend the night with Amanda’s Mom while we’re down, so call it 10 gallons. I read on

The Energy Bulletin a while back that a gallon of gasoline has the energy equivalent of a man working for 600 hours. So if we didn’t have petroleum but Amanda and I were so foolish and so wealthy as to pay men to get our 1 1/2 tons to Friendship and back, we would pay them for 600 X 10 = 6,000 hours. At minimum wage of $7.25/hr., that’s about $43,000 in work equivalent. Little wonder, then, that the gushing quantities of petroleum we’ve consumed in the last 130 years have caused an unprecedented boost in our living standards and expectations. We know that’s about to end. We know that our Toyota Corolla, reasonably fuel-efficient as American cars go now, is actually a wasteful gas-guzzler. We know that what Jim Kunstler calls the “era of happy motoring” is drawing to a close, that we Americans are doing almost nothing to prepare for it, and that the day is coming soon when any travel beyond bicycling distance will be a major challenge. So we plan for a future in which only the wealthiest among us can travel. And we’re using petroleum to do it. This is one of the ways in which Amanda’s tree-hugging environmentalist persona and my more selfish resiliant persona come into low-grade conflict. If we were true environmentalists, maybe we wouldn’t make a weekend work trip this way. But there’s work to do at the farm, and we have professional jobs in Birmingham, so we make the trip, usually once per weekend. Fair disclosure: our schedules will be different next weekend, so we’ll actually be driving two Toyota Corollas down to Friendship and back. This is simply one example of the ways in which we are using petroleum extravagantly now in the full knowledge that we won’t be able to use it that way for long.  My brother Dave Gray has been kind enough to bring his heavy equipment to our land to help a couple of times. Unlike Tractor, which seems to run forever on five gallons of diesel fuel, an excavator and a bulldozer can guzzle 200 gallons of diesel faster than you can say “What happened?” But we sure are grateful for the dead trees he can push down, the trails he can open up, and the topsoil he can spread with them. Our friend Bill Morgan from Addison trucked 6 x 6 treated posts, 2 x 6 purlins and sheets and sheets of 26 guage steel for miles to get them to our land so he could use them to build our pole barn. It’s not at all clear how he could do that without petroleum. Ditto the well pump and the PVC pipe for rainwater harvesting. And we will need to do it with all the other equipment we plan to bring in. We’re doing all this so we can live with less energy in the future, but it takes gobs of energy now. What is the morality of consuming energy we know to be scarce (although dramatically underpriced) today, so we can prepare for a day when energy will be priced more accurately? I don’t have an easy answer; I don’t even have a difficult answer. I just know that while we answer the question we’re busy slurping.

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