Saturday, September 28, 2013

How Many Energy Slaves?

Sometimes life is a bit of a blur. I have good intentions to write a blog post a week but what with moving house, working on my woodland, doing freelance work and having kids I have been struggling of late. Anyone who has been following the electronic scribblings on these pages for the last three years or so might have noticed that I started off unfocused, writing mainly about random stuff, went through a period of writing focused relevant articles that even got aggregated by other sites, and have now come full circle and started writing randomly again. 

Apologies! My only excuse is that, in the great scheme of things, writing a blog for free comes fairly low down in the pecking order all things considered, when other things jostle their way to the front of the queue. Nevertheless, now that the heat of summer has dissipated and the cool September sea mists have begun to roll in off the Atlantic it is perhaps easier to be more reflective and calm again, which is the state of mind needed to effect any kind of lucid communication in this day and age.

That said, this week’s post is more of a news roundup than a fully rounded piece. You know how it is, you get an idea and think I must write  something about that, but before you do something new turns up and you add it to the mental pile. Before you know it, you’ve got a kebab skewer of ideas for a blog post and no idea which piece you should bite into first. So, without further ado, I’l dish out the chunks of fried meat, one morsel at a time.

Most people, when they move to Cornwall and drop out of mainstream society become impressionist artists, soapmakers, carpenters or, ahem, woodlanders. Not so Chris Abbot, whom I have come to know via the local Transition Penwith group. No, instead of setting up a little shop selling curios to tourists, or carving mushrooms out of logs, Chris decided to set up his own intelligence agency. 

He says it is the ‘world’s first civil society intelligence agency’ and it’s run from a small building down here at the tip of England. Okay, so Open Briefing hasn’t exactly got the CIA isn’t quaking in its boots just yet, but with several analysts with backgrounds in intelligence on the staff rostrum, it’s not a bad source of unbiased information about how our civil liberties are being systematically stripped away. Did I say unbiased? Well, of course it isn’t - it’s biased towards ordinary folk, rather than the military industrial complex.

I saw Chris last week when he popped around to pick up some citrus trees I had brought back from Spain. He looked tired and said he had been working hard on new report about drones. That report, entitled Remote Control War: Unmanned combat air vehicles in China, India, Iran, Israel, Russia and Turkey has now been released. 

Read it here (or a summary here) but don’t expect it to put you in a good mood. 


Yesterday saw the release of the IPCC’s report on climate change. There were not any real surprises in there, and if anything it has been toned down substantially so as not to rock the boat too much. I gave up hope in governments doing anything to tackle AGW several years ago when I was at the Copenhagen COP15 Climate Conference. It is now starkly clear that we either leave most of the fossil fuels in the ground, or we sign the death warrant of most human civilisations

The message seems to be getting through in some quarters, with most UK newspapers reporting on it as their main item. My jaw hit the floor however when I read the Daily Telegraph - the go-to newspaper for aggressive climate science denialists - write an article with the following:

It is surely past time, therefore, to take matters out of the hands of the zealots – on both sides. No one can deny that mankind is pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at unprecedented rates, or that this will inevitably have a warming effect on the climate (the reason for the current “pause”, scientists believe, is that the heat has been stored up in the deep oceans, as part of a natural cycle).

Did my eyes deceive me? Had I actually just read that? An anguished howl immediately went up from the rabid, frothing at the mouth climate science deniers in the comments section. 

Today, however, there is no mention of the IPCC report on The Telegraph. Perhaps the editors got a call from the tax-avoiding, big oil protecting, independent media bashing, liberal hating Barclay brothers ... who happen to own The Telegraph.


Still on the climate, the report states clearly that we are on course for a +5C warming by the end of the century on a business as usual (BUA) basis. BAU, in my opinion, won’t happen due to resource constraints, but assuming we can continue to plunder every gram of carbon based fuel from the Earth’s crust we will. 

Who’s to blame? All of us, of course. Some more than others. In fact, some a lot more than others. But blame isn’t a particularly useful response. To that end I’ve decided to plant 500 trees a year and have already started. This is happening on my land at Fox Wood, with 500 acorns due to be popped into soil-filled bags in a couple of weeks. I’ll be writing more about it on that blog in due course.


In other developments, I have long been threatening to write a book. That threat is now starting to be put into effect. I don’t know how long it will take me but I already have an idea, chapter by chapter, how it will pan out. In writing a book about the end of our industrial society one faces several challenging questions, such as:

Who is it for?
To what level of depth do I go into?
To what extent should it be empirical and full of references to statistics?
Should it be ‘a good read’ (i.e. with splashes of humour) or should it be po-faced?
Should it be self-published or should I seek a publisher?

I have managed to answer a few of those questions myself. The book, primarily, will be aimed at people in over-developed countries, and there will be a particular focus on Britain. After all, that’s where I live and am from. Why are most peak oil authors American? It is just not on the radar over here. I have some theories as to why that is so.

The book will be a primer. I don’t intend to go into much depth about the metaphysical underpinnings of our crises, although can’t entirely avoid that. I won’t be proposing any geo-engineering solutions, perpetual energy devices or happy endings (other than at the individual level). I can promise that it will have a dose of humour, however, as I don’t seem to be able to write the kind of dry fact-dense prose which features in most other books dealing with similar subjects. 

This doesn’t mean I won’t be having a crack at the following:
  • Highlighting Cartesian/Baconian thinking as the departure point from which humanity began to get too big for its boots
  • Drowning the civil religion of progress in a bucket of cold water
  • Caricaturing the techno utopian fantasists as dangerous imbeciles
  • Standing up the the ‘bloke in the pub’ talk about nuclear fast breeder reactors and the like
  • Demolishing the myth of free market economics
On a more positive note, I’ll be focusing on what people, either as individuals, families or small communities, can do to prepare themselves for the future that is already upon us. The tentative title is When the Lights go Out: Surviving in the Age of Broken Promises.


Writing a blog about the abstract concept of the end of the age of abundance probably has its advantages, although I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Last week, however, was a bit different when 22 Billion Energy Slaves reader and doomstead diner Harry Lerwill turned up in my local tavern the Dolphin Inn. Harry had come over from California with his other half Barbara and found himself in the neighbourhood hunting for ghosts (the Dolphin has three). It was good to sink a couple of pints of Cornish ale and chat about economic collapse. Anyone else in the area feel free to drop me a line.


And finally ... how many energy slaves?

The title of this blog was gleaned from a comment made by petroleum geologist Colin Campbell. It refers to the number of human slaves equivalents we would need, working 24/7, to supply the same amount of energy that we currently get from easy oil. 

One or two people have commented that if we were to include everything else we get from fossil fuels, taking tight oil, shale gas, coal etc. into consideration, the true number would be closer to 200 Billion Energy Slaves

Alas, if I changed the title of the blog I’d probably lose a lot of links and readers. Saying that, anyone with a more mathematical bent than I is free to send in their calculations for how many energy slaves we actually would need if ALL non-renewable sources were taken into account. I would hope that it would include the reasonable assumption that slaves cannot work for more than 12 hours a day. 

I’ll send a box of Cornish fudge to whoever sends me an email (jasonhepp at gmail dot com) with the most comprehensive answer before the end of October. 


  1. Re the bullet points for your upcoming book. They are all good ones and include one of my personal favorites, namely "Caricaturing the techno utopian fantasists as dangerous imbeciles". It immediately brought to my mind Ray Kurzweil and his Singularity. I am always surprised when seemingly intelligent people take him seriously. I suppose it is wishful thinking that we will be able to engineer our way out of whatever problems we have engineered our way into.
    I am beginning to think that technology unidirectionally makes the world a worse place to live in if one goes to the trouble of tracing its effects over a sufficiently long period of time. So techno-utopianism is particularly harmful in that it consistently ignores the data on the effects of technology. Fossil fuels > AWG. Nuclear energy > Fukushima etc. Farming > overpopulation. Mechanized farming > even more overpopulation. Our most dangerous technology is probably farming because it puts food into the mouths of engineers who would not be making harmful technology if they were busy feeding themselves.
    Re the question of why there are more peak oil writers in America than elsewhere. I suspect it is because Americans are so much more dependent on their automobiles than the rest of the world and as a consequence feel more threatened by the decline of oil. When I first saw Colin Campbell's peak oil graph, and my wife and I were walking past a marina populated entirely by gleaming white plastic boats, I couldn't help but muttering, thirty more years, thirty more years. That supposedly was how much longer we could make these things. I have since stopped muttering that particular mantra and my wife finds me less annoying since I have.
    Much of Europe was built before cars and petroleum and so a future without petroleum is easier to envision and perhaps seems like less of a challenge than in America where most of our infrastructure assumes a plentiful supply of petroleum.

    1. How many times have we heard people say that technology is neutral - is only 'bad' if it gets into the wrong hands? Of course, I'm talking high tech, not what Schumacher called 'appropriate tech'.

      The latest thing that almost made me choke on my corn flakes was the suggestion that we should 'planet hack'. As though Earth is some kind of giant computer game that teenage kids can get behind the dashboard of and mess around with.

      What could possibly go wrong with that?

      As for the peak oil thing (and also to Lucid, below) - I think you are both onto something there. Saying that, I also think that the UK is particularly blind when it comes to matters of energy. There is also a car culture here, with a motoring lobby that exercises a lot of power over policy and ensures that more money is spent on building pointless new roads rather than invested in public transport or cycling. But more than that, the UK (and other European countries) are energy blind because they have a shopping mentality. Run out of gas? No problem, we'll just get some from Russia/Algeria/Norway. Of course, the vast majority of people have no idea and only think in terms of how much their bills cost.

      Mind you, I'd rather be in Europe than the US when the petrol stops flowing. You're right, much of our infrastructure was built before cars were invented.

  2. I'd like to place an order for your book now Hepp, and I want it autographed with some kind of personal statement ;0). I'll pay double for it. Can't wait to read it.

    I think Wolfgang is correct about American's and PO. Carcentric anti-culture being central to what I hate most about this fucked up country. Well, maybe not most...I think I hate the fact that we kill lot's of innocent brown people utilizing joysticks in airconditioned military casinos in Vegas. Also that we generate more plastic bags full of trash than we do anything else per capita...I hate that too. But I blame everything on the car I hate that the most. It's not so much this country, as it is that this country is leading the charge of senseless consuming and bombing asses for gases.

    Whatever, I'm serious about your book.

    That's bad ass about the trees btw. I've personally been forking loads of mulch into my truck and trailer and applying to my 1.6 acres on a daily basis. I get it from the county dump for free. I just have to fork it myself. They used to load it for 5 much as you want, but I guess there wasn't enough demand. Then I was informed by one of the worker bees at the dump that the county was getting rid of the free mulch, and were going to allow a 250,000 dollar industrial sized mulching machine to rot. My wife called the local news channel (she worked for Fox Charlotte for a number of years, and so knew exactly what to say to get a reporter on the phone). The reporter called the county manager who denied the claim. I've been going several times a week since. I'm going to up that to 5 times a week now. Each truck and trailer load equals approximately 20 wheel barrel loads of mulch. I plan on covering the entire property with a foot of mulch. Trees, shrubs, perennials...that's my plan.

    How's the pond coming along?

    1. Okay, order placed - delivery date TBD :-)

      This year is a 'crown year' - so I'm told - for oak trees. I have a few fine specimens in Fox Wood and have decided to spread their DNA. I'm using the soil from digging out the pond for the bags, then it'll be a couple of years before the trees are ready for others. I'll sell them to whoever (there are woodland restoration projects going on around the country) and also give any away to people who ask for them.

      That's bad news about the mulch machine! I pick up a couple of bags of chicken poop every time I drive out to the wood. It's not much, but I supplement it with food waste, cardboard and garden clippings. There are also moles popping up all over the place. Most people hate moles, but at least they are breaking up the subsoil for me and creating worm highways. I'll probably be less fond of them if any pop up inside my new poly tunnel.

      'Bombing asses for gases' Ha! Is that the new motto of the military?

  3. Daniel (offlist) - thanks for the calculation! You're the first, so far.

    For anyone else wishing to submit their calculations, just to be clear, I'm after the total number of human slaves (working no more than 12 hours a day) we would theoretically need to replace all fossil fuels currently being used today.

    Bonus points (i.e. extra pieces of fudge) will be added for separately incorporating nuclear power and calculating how many personal slaves the average American, Brit, Chinese and Bangladeshi would need.

    I'll publish the results at the end of October on this blog.

  4. Hi Jason, as I believe you know I made the calculation in my book Garden Earth and landed on 120 to 600 billion. However I also note in the book that there are a number of assumptions that needs to be clear. Are we talking about useful energy coming out of a person and a machine. I.e. do we compare the actual work performed by people with the actual work performed by machines and the actual heat generated in the radiators. Or do we compare it with the "consumption", i.e. the food energy of humans with the gross energy in all our energy sources. The combustion engine has some 30% efficiency, nuclear has tremendous losses etc. Meanwhile our human engine is also not very efficient, perhaps 20%? you can read one of my calculations at:

    1. Hi Gunnar. Yes - we'd have to consider useful energy output, rather than inputs. In simplistic terms, if all fossil fuels were to disappear tomorrow, but we discovered a planet with a trillion human, er, slaves - how many of them would we need to maintain the same amount of work currently provided by fossil fuels.

      I know that means a lot of assumptions - not least the construction of all the equipment needed for the slaves to use for energy production. We can also assume that they eat food produced on another planet, and that they produce their energy close to the point at which it is consumed by us.

      There is no 'right' answer - just a bunch of plausible ones - and your 250 billion slave calculation sounds like a very good shot :-)

  5. Glad to see you back to posting. I look forward to purchasing your book.

  6. Hi Jason, I have been experimenting growing wheat on my allotment this year without the benefit of too many energy slaves. I planted it a year ago after my heavily mucked potato crop. No chemicals or fertilisers went on it whatsoever. I planted 30 square meters and harvested it by hand in late August and 20 sheafs went in the barn (some might call it a garage). I'm currently cutting off the ears with secateurs and threshing them in a pillowslip against a brick wall. Then winnowing the grain on windy days to separate out the chaff. Had to ban my wife from using an electric hairdryer to separate off the chaff, which would have defeated the object. I've done about a quarter of it so far and looks as if the yield will be about 0 .5 kg per square meter which is enough to make one loaf of bread when hand ground into flour.

    The bread seems as good to me as shop bought wholegrain flour makes. All I can say is that it is very hard work without the energy slaves. At this rate to be self sufficient in bread for 2 would need about 400 square meters of wheat which is a plot about 20x20m.

    In terms of the whole system and re the archdruid's post last night, the farm yard manure was imported to the allotments by a farmer with tractor and trailer who brought it 10 miles. So in reality a large number of energy slaves were sacrificed, but not as many as usual!

    Also on the plus side I was kept out of mischief for many days and while planting, hoeing, reaping, threshing, winnowing and grinding I was not out spending money or burning fossil fuel energy and I was getting exercise and plenty of time for reflection.

    Some ears were afflicted by sooty mould by the time I harvested but no signs of ergot so far. I looked for signs of affected grains so if I'm tripping now I missed them!

  7. Thanks Jason. Interesting that running out of economically recoverable oil is not an agenda item in Britain, especially given that Britain seems to be running out of said oil. And that oil, as I recall from living in the UK in the 80s was a large part of what fueled the Thatcher-era recovery. Over here in the US there shale and tight oil to give us a few more years of comfortable fantasy. But surely people over there must be getting a little concerned about the production draw down in the north sea?

    1. Hi Mark. There's a famous saying from the John Cleese sitcom Fawlty Towers: "Don't mention the war!"

      These days it's "Don't mention the OIL!". I can't recall any news articles for the past few years in the MSM that have mentioned the fact we are running out of North Sea oil. Although its discovery was trumpeted in the Thatcher years, a magic spell has now been cast upon us and we have kind of forgotten about it.

      Mind you, the Scots haven't forgotten - although their own estimates of how much oil is left seem to be a little on the optimistic side.

      Instead, all talk of energy is focused on the 'corrupt' energy companies and how much household bills cost. Either that or it's talk about the EU 'shutting down our power stations' for their own selfish reasons.

      It's remarkable just how far a whole society can go in refusing to think of something.

  8. Hi Jason,

    Thanks for the post, and delicious picture.

    I won't join the contest, as numbers are not my strong side.

    However, I could try to give answers to a few of your other questions.
    Remember that my family and I are originally from the Netherlands, Europe.

    About American peak oil writers outnumbering those from other countries:
    - Firstly, Americans are verbal. They like to talk. I think it is because they are trained to do so in school from an early age. We had both our children in American schools, and were surprised to see so much attention paid to speaking in public. My youngest daughter started at the age of 7 with oral presentations. My eldest daughter took three years of High School in Massachusetts, and then went to England for her undergraduate studies. Most of her fellow-students shied away from oral presentations, whereas for my daughter, those were a piece of cake.
    - Secondly, from my perspective as an Old Continental, America is a country of extremes. Any statement about it or its inhabitants, might as well be the opposite and also be true. Remember the binary thinking the Archdruid was talking about? It is exactly that. The middle ground is lacking. Coming from a country where there are many shades of grey, I was not used to this, and could not get used to it. In the end, it even became one of the reasons to leave.
    Examples? Americans use up most of the world's energy supplies with their adoration for airconditioning systems, their need to live as technical as possible, so they like to create the weather of the opposite season (very warm inside in winter, very cold inside in summer), their open freezers in supermarkets, their superstores which are open from 10am until 10pm, some even 24 hours a day (imagine the heating or cooling costs), their reverence for big cars (and not just one; any respectable suburban family with grown-up kids has at least three cars), and their lack of consciousness about where it all comes from.
    But, here is the thing: I might just as well say the opposite, and that would also be true. There is a strong and lively environmental movement. There are cities where you need to ask for meat on your sandwich, otherwise you will get a vegetarian one. In many places, bikers have organized themselves into groups that any local council better take into account. And then there is the peak oil scene, with its super-awareness of where it all comes from and where our lifestyles will lead us to.
    Add the first and the second point and you will see that it may not be so surprising that peak oilers mainly spring from American ground.

    To be continued...

  9. About your other questions:
    who is it for?
    You will aim at an English-speaking market. This may sound obvious, yet it implies a certain way of thinking. Being English yourself, this will not be hard on you.
    Then, don't bother too much about narrowing down your audience, as it may very well end up in unexpected hands. You cannot anticipate on that as a writer. For instance, when the Archdruid started his archdruid-blog, I am pretty sure he did not have a woman like me in mind. Maybe he still has not. Maybe he writes it mainly for scholared men with an aptitude for philosophy and math, who read science-fiction and history books for pleasure. I dislike SF, never cared much about history, math is about my weakest point, so that only leaves philosophy as common ground. Still, there I am each week, faithfully reading what he has to say, discussing it with Hubby (who loves SF, is an absolute crack in math, likes philosophy and history, but has such a demanding job that it leaves him no time to read blogs or books) and then trying to implement some of his lessons into my life, and spreading his word among those around me. Believe it or not, I even picked up a series of lectures on history recently!

    Then, you are wondering about the set-up of your book. You mention "standing up against the bloke in the pub-talk about nuclear fast breeder reactors and the like". Please, will you do that? Here in Ontario, Canada, people believe thorium reactors are the answer to the problems. And I don't know enough about it to speak against it, only that they are incredibly expensive to build. Nuclear waste is never an argument for these people (among whom also teenagers, the grown-ups of tomorrow!), so I never use it.

    As for a publisher, well, why don't you ask your spirits to guide you with that once the time nears?

    For the rest, I would say: do what you are good at. You have a clear way of expressing yourself, not too concise, not too expansive, and you are not afraid to enlighten it with examples from your own life. You have travelled a lot, lived in different places, and that really gives your opinions and stories an edge, compared to other writers.

    So, give it a go, boy!


    1. Hi Jeanette - thanks for your lengthy comment and advice! I read it and then immediately wrote the into to my book ( see my latest post). So thanks for the pep talk.

      In terms of Americans and peak oil awareness - that's quite an insight. People in Britain really *don't* like to talk about such things and indeed don't have much awareness of these things in general. We have this kind of wishy-washy feeling of important things happening somewhere else, and that if anything mildly bad occurs then it must be the government's fault. Of course, not everyone is like that, but many. I think it might be something to do with being brainwashed from the 1970s onwards about being a 'services and financial products' economy i.e. reality is for other people. Americans, on the other hand, seem much more nationalistic and independent minded. I remember, once, hitchhiking in the States and I was picked up by a woman driving a Chevrolet (I think). She was telling me how she would only ever buy cars made in the US, and asked me where my car was made (back in theUK). I said I had no idea … that's not the kind of question people generally consider over here (apart from maybe in France and Germany). We just think that 'stuff' - oil or cars or whatever - magically appears out of … somewhere.

      As for the archdruid … I had never really considered who he was writing for. Now you mention it, though, it seems to make sense!

      I can now see I have a lot of research to do regarding thorium etc. I'll try to do so with an open mind.


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.