Prioritizing our use of Fossil Fuels

by: Heather on 06/19/2009
Posted in: Peak Oil

My partner and I recently cleared approximately 3/4 or an acre on our 5 acre property. While the experience was, on a gut level, acutely horrifying to my treehugging soul, it was entirely necessary to bring some light and openness onto the property and render more of the land usable.

If you've never seen land-clearing (I hadn't) it's a sight to behold. An enormous machine comes in and literally pushes over 60 foot trees like so many matchsticks. Logs and usable wood are stacked to one side, the debris are pushed into a big pile and the soil is churned ready for fall seeding. It took about 20 hours to clear the area we had selected, and although the value of timber is comparatively low right now, we estimate that the value of our logs just as firewood is approximately double what we paid to have the clearing made.

This got us to thinking. The land clearing was simply not a job that we could have completed with shovels and wheelbarrows. Even using chainsaws and a great deal of labor it would have been next to impossible, as a chainsaw leaves a stump behind, whereas a big excavator simply pushes the tree with enough force that its stump levers right up out of the ground.

When you look at the amount of human labor saved by driving a car to work instead of biking or walking, that amount is negligible. If we live less than 10 km from our workplace, most of us are physically capable of getting there in some form of self-propelled fashion, or in urban areas we can cover even greater distances by using public transit (although some may not find the idea particularly attractive in inclement weather or for a variety of other personal reasons.)

But when you look at the amount of human labor saved by using fossil fuels to accomplish such tasks as land-clearing and excavation, the ratio changes completely. It may take me 2 to 3 times more time to commute to work on my bicycle than it would in a car, and I may burn a greater number of calories (although actually I consider that to be a feature not a bug), but it would take us months of back-breaking labor to equal what was accomplished in 20 hours with a fossil fuel-powered machine. Given that the quantities of fossil fuels remaining to us are so limited, aren't we obligated to ensure that we're getting the most bang for our buck?

Janaia Donaldson of Peak Moment TV recently contemplated the same issue in her newsletter. In the process of creating a gravity-fed water system, Janaia began hand-digging a trench. She estimated that for the 2200 ft of trench she needed she could dig about 3 ft an hour. Ouch!

Janaia writes:

Instead, we rented a trencher, a robust machine which dug the 4-inch trench, cutting most tree roots and even belching out boulders the size of a soccer ball. In two days, we used 10 gallons of gasoline, plus maybe 2 gallons in our automobile to get and return the trencher. Those twelve gallons (and our 24 work-hours), then, equal about 730 hours of hand labor.

Janaia estimated based on these calculations that trench-digging work-power in a gallon of gas is worth at least $488. While you could argue (and she admits) that she is skipping over the various embedded energy costs in her trench-digging machine, her point is still extremely valid.

A couple of years ago we published a book by Dale Allen Pfeiffer called Eating Fossil Fuels: Oil, Food, and the Coming Crisis in Agriculture. This prescient critique of energy-intensive agriculture was actually way before its time - Dale's predictions about the collapse of industrial agriculture sounded far-fetched to mainstream readers in late 2006 - two and a half short years later his calls for a return to localized, community-supported, sustainable farming methods have become conventional wisdom, and are of course echoed by many of our other authors such as Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton who discuss at length the possible methods for rejuvenating our local food system in A Nation of Farmers.

What do you think about all this? Is it most desirable to reserve remaining fossil fuels for high-intensity uses? How should we assign priorities? Who should be responsible for making those decisions? Please leave us your thoughts in the comments below.

Eating Fossil Fuels       A Nation of Farmers

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