Aztext Press

Life Off-the-Grid

“I Can’t Drive 55…”

By Cam Mather

Sammy Hagar was in the band Van Halen for a while and had a song in 1984 called “I Can’t Drive 55”. He was rebelling against the speed limit reduction that was imposed on major Interstate Highways in the US after the energy crisis of the 70s.

The lowered speed limit was designed to save fuel. Funny thing is that I don’t think Sammy Hagar, or any musician for that matter, gave much thought to the fact that cheap and abundant energy was what made their careers possible.

I was reminded of this watching a promo for an upcoming documentary about a mathematician who was famous for studying geometry. He had a lot in common with Sammy Hagar and Bruce Springsteen. They all got to do their “thing” because early in the 20th century we discovered how to unleash the genie in a bottle of crude oil. It became our own personal manservant and suddenly it could do all the grunt work for us, and leave us to pursue higher endeavors. If you spent your whole life working in field doing manual labor, your entire life’s work would have an energy equivalent of about 3 barrels of crude oil. It’s terrifying. Today we pump 85 million barrels a day out of the ground (and sea bed). That’s 1,000 barrels a second. That’s 5,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of crude oil every day. Can you even conceptualize of how much human labor displacement that represents?

As a member of the population born during that crude oil extravaganza of the 1960s, I just assumed that you did stuff with your brain and not your brawn. I didn’t take shop classes in high school. I took English and History and Media Studies. When I moved off-grid I regretted not taking more practical courses. Luckily my neighbor Ken, master of all trades, is a patient teacher. Over the years as I’ve tried to keep up with the constant onslaught of new technology in my electronic publishing business it never occurred to me that my standard of living was based on abundant and cheap energy. It got food to my table, laser toner to my office, paper to the printers, heat to my office … everything!

Since moving to an off-grid house I have a better handle on just how hard it is to make electricity from the sun and wind. As I’ve moved more of my heat loads like cooking to electricity I’m in awe of the heat potential in our propane stove. Instant, effortless, energy dense heat. It’s a miracle. As we start running out of this stuff it will present us with some real challenges.

So the International Energy Agency (IEA) says we’ve got a depletion rate of traditional crude oil of more than 7% a year. They seem to agree with the Energy Watch Group in Europe which feels that in two decades at this current rate of depletion we’ll be producing closer to 40 million barrels of oil a day, rather than the 85 millions barrels that we produce today. Of course the IEA assumes we’ll be able to not only replace what we’re losing each year but actually expand output, even though the maximum amount of oil ever discovered was in 1964 and has gone down steadily ever since. Lots of luck with that projection IEA! It’s not going to happen.

What is going to happen is that we’re all going to have a smaller share of that manservant that makes our lives easier. We’re all going to be traveling less, and expending more calories to get around locally on our bikes and to grow our own food.

I know what you’re saying. Civilization has always had musicians and mathematicians. I agree. The difference is that there were a lot fewer of them and it was the realm of the wealthy. Composers were all at the mercy of wealthy patrons. When I grew up anybody could buy a guitar and start a band. Lots of people went to university and expanded their minds to get jobs where they sat in a chair all day. The manservant (oil) was out in the field doing the hard slogging.

Well, that manservant is growing tired and weak. He’s running out of steam. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but one that should give us all pause to consider how we live and how we make a living, and how viable that will be in the long term. The manservant also has to serve those in the developing part of the world that want their piece of the energy pie. That’s it, I’m going to pick up my guitar and write a song…

“Manservant’s growing tired,

manservant’s getting old,

Gotta get my back in shape,

before the last drop gets sold…”

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1 Comment

  1. Denice

    Cam – How/where do you constantly get all your great ideas for your blogs? They are always interesting and thought provoking! Thanks!

    PS Can we change it to personservant? :o)

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