Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Oil Addiction: The World in Peril - 2

by Pierre Chomat (Universal Publishers, 2004)

translated from the French by Pamela Gilbert-Snyder

Part I. Man's Egosystems

Chapter 2. Ergamines

In 1980, during a long stay in the Middle East, I once distracted myself by calculating the actual amounts of energy that human beings derive from oil, or black gold, as I like to call it. Maybe my subconscious was prompting me to justify my presence there. At any rate, through these simple calculations I discovered that one drop of oil, weighing just one gram, or one thirtieth of an ounce, contains as much potential energy as a hard-working ditch digger can offer over the course of an entire day! As we know, all it takes to reap the benefits of this easy energy is a cleverly designed machine. I now clearly understood how, with so many drops of oil being burned in so many of our machines, we can perform work that we would have never dared to undertake using only human power.

Bowled over by this discovery, I decided then and there to bring the drop of oil out of its obscurity by giving it a name: I called it the ergamine, from the Greek "ergon", meaning work, and the French "gamine", or "little girl". I began using this word to refer not only to the drop of oil, but also to its esteemed cousins, the natural gas bubble and the lump of coal, all of whom are little Cinderellas at work.

BOX: Physical work cannot be performed without some form of energy consumption. Therefore, energy represents potential labor and is measured in the same units as work: calories, kilowatt-hours, or Joules, for example. Energy is available in numerous forms and can be generated in a variety of ways. When fossil fuels are burned, they generate thermal energy. Until recently, energy was provided primarily by human beings or animals. However, with the advent of fossil fuels - mainly oil, coal, and natural gas - "labor-saving" devices can take over many of our tasks. Fossil fuels offer tremendous work potential. For instance, the thermal energy available in one drop of oil, weighing just one gram (or 1/30th of an ounce), is approximately 10,000 calories, or ten kilocalories. This is equivalent to the amount of work a laborer can accomplish during a full work day. [1]

Nothing before had ever led me to make the connection between the human being and the drop of fossil fuel, between the master and the slave. Not the tons of gasoline I had burned on the highway, not the years I had spent as an oil industry professional, not even my years as a student, although they had been almost entirely devoted to this precious liquid.

This revelation changed the way I perceive our entire society. Although previously I had made the connection between energy and petroleum, I had never appreciated the full capacity of its power. Since then gasoline and natural gas are no longer just mere necessities to me, available for mass consumption. I began to understand black gold's intrinsic value, a value much greater than that of yellow gold. I also began to understand the meaning behind numerous events in recent history.

Unfortunately, as we know all too well, in order to exploit the potential of this little drop of oil we have to burn it. Its two-legged counterpart, on the other hand, can always renew his energy potential with a hearty meal - something he takes pleasure in besides - and a good night's sleep. But our ergamines must be consumed in order to release their energy, and they do not exist in infinite supply. Ergamines were formed from organic matter which accumulated at the bottom of lakes or inland seas and was buried under sediment in oxygen-deprived environments. This process took millions of years. Ergamines cannot be renewed at the same rate at which they are presently being consumed. The few sites at which hydrocarbons [a] are currently being formed, such as at the bottom of Lake Kivu [b] in Africa, are only able to supply fuel in quantities that are insignificant when compared with the need generated by our oil-addicted appetites.

But, consuming too many ergamines has created another problem for humanity. As they burn, ergamines release carbon dioxide, or CO2, into the atmosphere, where it remains too long, causing global warming. I will return to this truly inconsiderate gas later and spell out the case against it.

The bottom line is that ergamines have become our source of physical power, our slaves, to whom we assign most of our material tasks. They transport us - everywhere. They run most of our industries. They heat our buildings. They feed us - agriculture is one of their major domains. They carry our products to market, often to distant continents. In many places they produce the electricity needed to run our machines. They even sweep our streets. They are also transformed into chemicals used in cleaning and gardening products, or paints and plastics used to decorate our homes and clothe us. They are also used in some of our medicines. In short, without them, what would become of us?

But ergamines give us more than goods and services. They mean much more than that to us. They are our source of economic strength and political power, and in this regard ergamines become supremely important to industrialized societies. A nation's economic power is directly proportional to the amount of energy that it consumes [2]. Although the United States contains only 4.5% of the world's population, it consumes 25% of the world's energy, and we all know how powerful America has become. The twenty-five countries belonging to the European Union represent just 7.5% of the world's population but consume an additional 19% of the world's energy. At the other end of the spectrum, India, home to 17% of humanity, uses only 3% of Nature's energy reserves [3]. Paradoxically, it is not the size of these nations' populations that determines the relative strength of their leaders' voices; it is the hidden power of their energy slaves. The president of France, who speaks for sixty million people (and the four hundred billion ergamines that assist them daily), is heard constantly around the world, while the president of Bangladesh, who speaks for a population of Bengalis that is twice as large, is almost never heard at all. His people are served by only a handful of ergamines capable of putting on only a tiny industrial show that impresses almost no one.

The number of energy slaves at a nation's disposal also determines its standard of living. Obviously, not all of the Earth's inhabitants are equally served. The countries of North America, with, on average, more than 20,000 ergamines assisting each citizen daily, are the best off, followed by the other industrialized nations. And although the Brazilians may be far behind with their mere 2,000 ergamines per person per day, they are still well-off compared to the Madagascans, each of whom has only 200 little energy fairies to assist them daily on their beautiful island, and the Ethiopians who, with only 30 ergamines per capita per day, cannot do much more than build small fires with a handful of straw to cook their meals. But the record for simplicity and natural living probably goes to the Afars of East Africa's Rift Valley. They have no ergamines at all. Sometimes they are lucky enough to have a donkey for company, with whom to watch the stars, discuss the weather and extol the beauty of the night sky. And yet their country is probably the one in which the first hominids began to walk on two legs.

Ergamines are a force sought after by many nations. To guarantee a supply of hydrocarbons the industrialized world has imposed its will on many oil-producing nations, particularly in the Middle East. America went ahead with its war against Iraq. Although it cannot be minimized, chances are that this conflict is only one small episode in the great drama that will unfold when our dear little ergamines become rarer and can no longer be consumed as rapaciously as they are now.

For now, it is certain that the people of the Northern hemisphere have yet to realize the extent of the power that they derive from Nature's litte Cinderellas. Nor do they realize the awesome responsibility their ancestors assumed some two hundred years ago when they took the deliberate step of binding human progress ever after to the ergamine.


[1] The amount of work that a single drop of oil can perform is equivalent to one day of hard physical labor by a human being using a shovel to lift 2 tons of sand (or 4,400 lbs) to a height of 2 meters (or 6.6 feet). 2000 kg x 2 m x 9.81 m/s2 = about 40,000 Joules = about 10 kilocalories. (9.81 m/s2 is the value of the acceleration of gravity). Motors are not very efficient; they transform no more than one third of an ergamine's potential thermal energy into actual mechanical energy. In comparison, less than one person out of three in the world performs physical labor today. Even when these factors are taken into account, the amount of work obtained from one ergamine can still be considered as being equivalent to one day of physical labor by one human being.

[a] Most substances that we encounter in our day-to-day lives are made up of small units called molecules. A molecule is a combination of two or more atoms held together in a specific shape by physical forces. Hydrocarbons consist of those molecules that are composed solely of hydrogen and carbon atoms. This class of chemical compounds is comprised essentially of fossil fuels (for example, oil, natural gas) and their derivatives.

[b] Lake Kivu. The rivers that feed Lake Kivu, which straddles the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, contain large amounts of organic matter. These impact the lake by depleting it of oxygen and forming CO2. In addition, methane gas, CH4, is continuously generated within the lake, making the place a localized source of hydrocarbon

[2] Michael Economides and Ronald Oligney, The Color of Oil, (Katy, Texas: Round Oak Publishing Company, 2000), 11.

[3] Electronic document accessed at Geohive population,
and Geohive energy,
December 2002.

Bill Totten


  • Chomat's "ergamine" grossly underestimates the ability of human's to do work. His 40000 joules is only 11 watt-hours, something most people can do in a few minutes on an exercise bike. (See for other calculations.)

    I see that Richard Heinberg recently made a presentation to Prince Charles about peak oil. In it, he said that a gallon of gasoline is the energy equivalent of six weeks of hard human labor. This works out to between 65 and 90 grams of oil equal to one work day, not one as Chomat claims.

    I haven't seen the calculations behind Heinberg's number, but they are much more in line with mine.

    Chomat's wild claims, like saying that it takes 500 man-days to wash a load of clothes, are absurd and will only serve to discredit those who quote them. The world energy crisis is very serious, but it doesn't help to exaggerate it by two orders of magnitude.

    By Blogger Bob, at 1:50 AM, November 15, 2005  

  • Therefore, energy represents potential labor and is measured in the same units as work: calories, kilowatt-hours, or Joules, for example.

    By Anonymous Medecine, at 5:41 PM, March 24, 2011  

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