We Once Lived Large. So Long, Energy Slaves

I had an epiphany some years back, and until this morning, I had thought that this particular insight had been free of any influence but the AHA observation: how much human or animal muscle it would have taken to push my car up the ramp at Dixie Caverns and have it going interstate speeds in 20 seconds!

In my ruminations to myself I saw these agents of motion as “energy slaves”–maybe a hundred or more of them, doing the heavy lifting when all I had to do was apply a little pressure under the ball of my foot.

I thought about this then, wrote about it since, and have never been able to forget that insight. But it seems this notion had occurred to others before me–no surprise–and I probably had subconsciously read their accounts and used their terminology in my own moment of “independent” discovery. I can’t be sure of the source but I know that it represented a personal paradigm shift with lasting impact.

But it is at least validating to find that one prominent thinker that had a similar AHA moment before me was Buckminster Fuller. You can scroll through the “cartoon that is a classroom” at the artist, Stuart McMillen’s page.

Energy Slaves

And what I (and Bucky) also began to grasp, with no slight uneasiness as the daydream unfolds, is how, even if we hold current population constant, we are never, in anything like a smooth lateral transition, going to replace carbon energy slaves with any alternative forms currently under hopeful development.

In fact, pursuing this topic is how I ran across the Fuller cartoon in the first place, by way of an article at EHN called “The past and future of Buckminster Fuller’s energy slaves.”


This commentary expresses the sober understanding that leads me again to the conclusion that, perhaps in the lifetimes of our children, our taken-for-granted carbon slaves will have been emancipated by finally taking more energy to obtain than the energy they can produce. EROI–energy return on investment: it takes a barrel’s worth of energy to extract a barrel of oil. Game over.

We’re not quite there yet. In fact, there is still a lot of carbon energy in the ground. How will we choose to use it as we shrink our resource footprint, take responsibility for our procreation, and put planet and people before economic profit?

Peak Oil

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Your post is very timely and Bucky’s article is quite accurate in my humble opinion. The only imponderable is the timeline.

    We will eventually run out of fossil fuels and the inescapable fact of the sun burning out looms ahead in the distant future.
    In either case, we need to develop solutions.

    False solutions like the current rash of subsidized alternate energy “solutions” which are not real alternatives but are only a distraction. Applying engineering principles to the problem would lead to USEFUL solutions which can be tested for return on time and money invested and on the disruptive effects on current life as they are implemented.

    Throwing other people’s money at problems leads to Solyndra’s. Putting your own money where your mouth is results in iPads and personal computers and better living conditions. Each step in the evolution of a technology needs to be tested for benefits and risks to people and to the planet.

    Banning straws because third world countries can’t manage their garbage is an example of a false solution. Reaching out to bright entrepreneurs in third world countries will produce lasting results.

    Encouraging people to produce workable solutions will speed the day that workable solutions exist. Attempting to dictate what solutions are workable is a rerun on old King Canute. Attempting to throw other people’s money to solve what you see as a problem leads to Venezuela today where you face the real choice of eating your pet dog or starving.

  2. Solar and wind etc are not distractions but necessary if incremental solutions. I agree the final solutions, if we reach them, will include APPROPRIATE TECHNOLOGY at point of use within homes and communities but society will also continue to require a macro-level means of storage and transmission for communications, for urban utilities and the like. I don’t think the few failures like Solyndra should suggest we toss the baby with the bath. Nor do I think that more ipads will help us bridge the immense and imminent gap between fossil fuels and whatever–if anything–comes next. And all that said, we have to abandon the growth-forever model of capitalism and make unavoidably difficult decisions about limiting human population AND human resource footprint. If we solve 99 problems out of 100 but do nothing to population growth, we just kick the can a few feet further down the same road.

  3. This was extremely interesting to me. Thanks. I had no idea how cheap extraction used to be compared to now, and how it may get too expensive to make any sense!!

  4. “Each step in the evolution of a technology needs to be tested for benefits and risks to people and to the planet.” I can’t help but wonder if the developers of artificial intelligence, in their haste to implement their new apps and inventions, have any restraints on their efforts at all. Is anyone watching, and holding them responsible for the havoc some of their creations will cause?

  5. “If it CAN be done, it SHOULD be done.” The techno-engineering dogma. And the creator-masters become the creature-slaves their creations. Our species seems hard-wired to be driven by the can and could and not the might-ought-should.

  6. That’s just it, isn’t it, Fred–it’s that old “can do” attitude that;s leading us deeper and deeper into this unknown territory. It’s also what settled the West, and led this society into all sorts of adventures–some very good!