Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Oil Addiction: The World in Peril - 3

by Pierre Chomat (Universal Publishers, 2004)

translated from the French by Pamela Gilbert-Snyder

Part I. Man's Egosystems

Chapter 3. The Saqqara Pyramid

We are no more aware of the energy we use than we are of the oxygen we breathe. We may notice some indirect effects - the warmth of a furnace fueled by heating oil, for instance, or the speed of a car - but we rarely associate them with energy. I have often thought that birds are probably unaware of the air that holds them up and makes their amazing acrobatics possible. It is the same with human beings and energy. We do not think about it, any more than we do about the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin.

During my career I have had occasion to apply the greatest principles of thermodynamics. I have calculated the enthalpy of petroleum constituents and their entropy variations during combustion. I have worked with calories, kilowatt-hours, and Joules. I have applied the laws of physics set forth by our greatest scientists. I have even tried to analyze the behavior of hydrocarbon molecules, atoms, electrons, and protons. All without ever becoming aware of energy per se.

I have also counted the gallons of gas I have pumped into my car. I still did not become sufficiently aware of the preciousness of energy. I have worked with many people employed at oil refineries. None of them ever demonstrated any real awareness of the true value of energy either.

To help us become conscious of the ergamines existing all around us and, more importantly, to grasp the extent of their amazing capabilities, I have devised some simple exercises. The first involves a journey by plane.

Even if you have never flown on a plane, this exercise will be easy for you. Imagine for a moment that aircraft manufacturers designed planes so that jet fuel was stored in 42-gallon barrels among the passengers instead of hidden in fuel tanks in the wings. The number of barrels required for each trip would be loaded before departure, just like in-flight meals. Now, imagine that you are sitting on a plane traveling non-stop from San Francisco to London. Look around you! What do you see? If you are flying coach, you will see three barrels of jet fuel on your left, and three more on your right. The entire compartment is arranged this way, with three barrels of jet fuel on either side of every passenger. If you are flying first class, you take up twice the amount of space and will therefore see six barrels between you and the passenger on either side of you.

When you arrive in London, the barrels will be almost empty. And, of course, the airline will have to fill them again for the return flight. If you would rather not travel as far as London, try a shorter flight, between San Francisco and Montreal, for example. On the outgoing journey you will need two barrels for yourself. To travel to Mexico City, you will need only one.

Since I first devised this little exercise, I have been unable to take my seat on an airplane without thinking of the ergamines who boarded before me. From San Francisco to London, for myself alone, the equivalent of five hundred thousand (500,000) man-days of work are consumed through the ergamines. And I often travel purely for pleasure.

Imagine now, if you will, that you are flying from New York to Cairo with three hundred other tourists, all of whom are going to visit the pyramids of the ancient pharaohs. On the outbound journey alone, the aircraft will consume, in the form of jet fuel, an amount of energy roughly equivalent to the energy expended in physical labor by all the tens of thousands of Egyptian fellahs who erected the Saqqara step pyramid [i]. Visitors to this monument almost certainly do not make this connection. They only know that the ancient fellahs, through enormous effort, were able to give their monarch, King Djoser, a tomb fit for a god. Like the rest of us, these tourists are unaware that they belong to an oil-addicted society.

Now I would like to share an experience that is more concrete. During the 1960s, I was working in Paris and traveled several times to Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan, to assist with the construction of an oil refinery. The facility was being built near the city of Chittagong on a narrow strip of land bordered by the sea on one side and the Karnaphuli River on the other. Once on site, I felt as if I were more on water than on dry land. The earth was so saturated that measures had to be taken to prevent the ground from sinking under the weight of the refinery once it was completed. To accomplish this, we constructed a mound of earth about 25 feet high on the site of the future refinery. Its weight exerted enough pressure on the soil to force the water underneath to rise to the surface through wells that had been dug previously. Once the site had been "dewatered", the mound of earth was removed. Although these very deep wells were drilled by machine, the mound of earth was built by hand using dirt transported in baskets on workers' heads. Approximately two thousand Bengalis took part in this undertaking over a five-month period. Yet the enormous expenditure of energy in physical labor required to accomplish this task was equivalent to only half the energy contained in the three barrels of jet fuel that were necessary to carry me by plane from Paris to Chittagong. I had not yet brought the ergamines out of their anonymity at that time; if I had, I surely would have blushed for shame.

There is no doubt that we belong to an oil-addicted society. These examples are easy ways to help us to understand that if human beings can "fly", it is only because ergamines are cheap. We do not pay for the actual value of their labor. In this way, they are truly our slaves.

BOX: The amount of fossil energy - oil, gas, coal - consumed by human beings on Earth is so enormous that if we converted it all into a river of oil, it would flow at a continuous rate of 80,000 gallons per second, or the equivalent of the Seine in Paris. Its output would even exceed the average flow rate of the Saint Lawrence River at Niagara Falls, on the American side. However, unlike these rivers which are constantly replenished, the stream of ergamines will soon run dry.

Although these mental gymnastics help us to visualize the enormity of our energy dependence and gluttony, they do not necessarily show us the colossal amount of labor provided by our little ergamine Cinderellas every day on our behalf. For that we must turn to Giovanni and Anna Gioletti on their beautiful island of Capri.


[i] The Saqqara step pyramid was originally 200 feet high and rested on a base approximately 394 feet long by 360 feet wide.

Bill Totten


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