What is valuable today? Depends. It might be something of a personal importance to you. It could be something you worked hard for, had to pay a lot for. Or it could be something that is perceived as valuable by those around you, be it a smaller community or a larger society. Translating this into simple categories leaves us with subjective value, intersubjective or societal value and monetary value.
While the former two tend to be perceived as variable and arbitrary, the monetary value carries the aura of objectivity. If something costs 10 euros, we know exactly what that means regardless of our background and personal situations. Or do we? 10 euros in my wallet have different values in a wallet of a bank clerk and in a wallet of a teenager in suburbia. Not even talking about crossing the borders from West to East, North to South. Yet, the fiat money does have a certain impersonal feel to it. And I’d argue that this is rightly so. That is because money is not a value per se, it is an index of it, the abstraction of the value.
This comes handy when standardising quick impersonal exchange between people – which is how you could describe business. But does it make us understand what is the actual value of what we are getting for the money? In my opinion, it only does so tautologically. We know 1000 euro is more than 100 which makes it more valuable, but only within the monetary system. Perhaps devising a reference system that is more at human scale and less abstract would bring about more thorough understanding of what is the cost and the value of certain exchanges, goods, and actions in larger, more complex and more real context.
I propose energy as an alternative currency. Why is that? First, energy is universal. Every single human consumes and exerts energy regardless of their sex, gender, race, culture, age, but also regardless of very arbitrary distinctions like market value of certain efforts. In terms of energy, a working day of a web-designer would be valued very similarly to that of a public bus driver, primary school teacher, or parent during their parental leave. Take one step further, and we’ll see that its not only humans that can relate to energy, it is also all the flora and fauna surrounding us. This may be harder to grasp at first, but we can see energy contributions of diverse ecosystems to the energy system of the whole planet. Ultimately, we’re paving our ways to non-anthropocentric planetary consciousness.
But before we lose ourselves in abstractions as we did after the dusk of gold standard, let’s bring the Energy as an intangible hyperobject down to human scale. One of the ways is approaching it in terms of physics or engineering. It is associated by surprisingly depoliticised concepts of Work, Force and Power.
Work equals the energy transferred to or from the object by applying a certain force over a certain distance. Its unit is Joule.
1 Joule equals the displacement of 1 kilogram over 1 meter in 1 second.
Power is the amount of energy transferred over the unit of time – it is the rate at which the work is being performed. It is now measured in Watts, but used to be measured in Horsepower.
Energy is the ability to do the work, to exert the force over distance. It is measured in Joules as well, but can be computed in other units too.
Now, these may be precise definitions, but remain vague to many of us nevertheless. In the days just before the industrial revolution, energy needed to do the work was often simply expressed by the amount of horses needed to perform certain actions. It is right there where the term Horsepower comes from. In 1769, James Watt carried out a series of observations and calculations to examine how much work would a standard horse perform. Examining mainly horses pulling heavy stuff, he arrived at a conclusion that a unit of 1 horsepower would equal to force exerted to move 550 pounds over a distance of one foot in one second. We’re back to physics it seems, but Watt did these calculations with much more practical deeds in mind. As the steam engine and later combustion engine were first developed, they needed to be marketed to factory and mine owners. Why would you want to replace your horses with steam engines? Well, What if I told you that this single engine has 20 times as much power as your horse. E.g. this 20 Horsepower engine will save you 20 work horses. Back in the day, that must have sounded like a reasonable appropriation. But do we know what the horsepower of our automobiles stands for today? Moreover, horsepower has been gradually replaced by the unit of Watt, which carries no reference to embodied reality whatsoever..
Enter Buckmister Fuller. He’s been developing the concept of Energy Slave ever since the forties and kept elaborating on it throughout his long life. Similarly to an example with the horse, Fuller used an energy a single healthy individual can exert. In 8 hour working day, this amounts to roughly 2000 kJ. From there, any action that requires an external source of energy – e.g anything that is not performed by means of our own bodies – counts towards the service of the energy slaves. This way, we can easily come to two conclusions:
– how our lives are dependent on external invisible resources and infrastructures
– how energy thirsty our lifestyles are
– and combining the two – how unsustainable and fragile this global energy infrastructure is.
To give you an example, a standard man working 8-hours work shifts five days a week would produce an energy of 50 MegaJoules. That sounds like a lot, but in the perspective of today’s fossil fuel energy, it equals to about 15 litres of gasoline combusted in the car’s engine. A quarter of a tank, a few hours ride. This shows how huge is the potential of fossil fuels, and also how carelessly we dispose of such amounts of energy that were just unthinkable before the age of gasoline.
Take another example – a transatlantic return flight that carries 400 passengers. The plane would consume more energy than all of its passengers combined in their entire lifespan. Was the flight worth it? Well, it depends on how we put a value tag on it. Today, its value is less than 1000 dollars, so its not really going to take all your life to work this back. Still… is this a good representation of what this flight actually costs?
Let’s take a closer look at this example.
Looking through the prism of energy, how does a loaf of bread arrive at our table?. First of all, it requires fertile soil, seeds of wheat, bees, water, and sun. It needs to be planted, cared for and harvested by someone and this someone would probably use some machinery, which requires fuel or electricity. Then it needs to be transported to the processing facility, milled into flour, packed, moved to the baker, mixed with other ingredients and baked into bread. Finally it needs to be packed again and transported to the marketplace or a shop which requires further manpower and electric energy for maintenance. Finally, you need to move your body a bit (unless you drive yourself to your local grocer) and spend a couple of Euros. Wait… this whole process cost this little? Perhaps this is made possible by some miraculous energy source that can make the whole process extremely effective. And yes, that’s true. The source is the fossil fuels and the extensive technological infrastructure that relies on it.
Compare this with the historical context some centuries back. The whole civilisations would rely on what could be called the daily solar income. That would be anything that could be provided in yearly cycles, starting from growth of plants through feeding animals, to taming animals and feeding ourselves – all breaking down to photosynthesis. What made a huge change was when man discovered that fossilised bodies carry a tremendous amount of energy. These could be perceived as ancient sunlight – an insanely huge solar battery, aeons of chemical processes combining, composting and combusting layers of biomaterial. We have all that at our disposal. Or we used to. It is estimated that half of it has been mined already. Will we use the rest, or shall it rest where it is. And if we do, what will provide the fuel for our energy-hungry lives after?
The estimated use of energy per capita in Central Europe is 17,15 kWh per day. Now, what does that mean? Imagine a large circular saw in full operation for 17 hours a day. Or a cattle boiling water nonstop for 12 hours. That would consume as much energy. How about if we translate that to Joules so we can appropriate that to human energy expenses. 1 Joule equals 1 Watt spent over 1 second. 17,15 kWh is then 17150 Watts spent over an hour which is 3600s. That is then equal to 61740kJ. Back to our energy slaves, to the scale of human efforts, an average Slovak, Czech or Hungarian utilises services of 30 energy slaves – 2000 kJ each – every single day. That’s right. We’re having a big night out not worrying about paying the bills as everything is extremely cheap. But that is only because we’re living in an energy debt, or – depending on point of view – spending the energy savings of our planet. How long can this last for? As we’re all high on gasoline we can’t see the end coming any minute. We believe the economy, incomes and living standards will improve every year. We trust in infinite growth. But this growth is based on finite premises. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that that won’t work. Yet, we have believed it for way too long – and dangerously many people still do.
The energy plays by the rules of thermodynamics. The first law of thermodynamics says that energy is indestructible and the system maintains its energy potential, unless it exchanges energy with another system. And we can’t create more energy than there is either. Moreover the energy that we’ve used doesn’t disappear, it transmutes. Most gasoline combustion engines have efficiency at around 20%, with diesel engines a bit higher (but with higher pollutant index). That leaves 3/4 of the energy potential lost and turned into heat. Is there still someone who doesn’t get the global warming?
How do we unscrew ourselves? De-grow, move towards reusable sources of energy, and do both right now and at the same time. We need less, we need to slow down, and we need to use resources that we can count on tomorrow. Please excuse any inconvenience.