This commentary is by Robby Porter of East Montpelier, a self-employed woodworker and owner of small hydroelectric projects.
I was daydreaming at a red light in East Montpelier. When the light finally turned green, the dump truck in front of me barked, emitted a cloud of black smoke and roused me from my thoughts.
I’d been remembering the night, not quite two years ago, when I was standing outside a restaurant in Tuscon, Arizona, with my 22-year-old daughter. She’d been there by herself for a couple of months. This was my first visit and the restaurant dinner, her treat, was a farewell after a nice week spent together.
My mind was full of the sort of emotions a parent has when leaving a fully grown and capable child in a strange place far from home. This was the world just before Covid fully descended onto our reality. I didn’t know that it would be almost a year before I’d see her again.
While we shuffled in the queue with the other diners, I put aside my parental worries and focused on how lucky I was to be there, to fly across the continent, drive around the city, to have the luxury of impatiently waiting for dinner in a restaurant. “Damn, this is nice,” I thought to myself. “I hope to hell it goes on.”
Back to the dump truck and that swirling cloud composed of millions of tiny globules of barbecued but mostly unburned diesel fuel. As I drove under the exhaust and followed the truck around the corner, my eye caught the neatly mowed grass of a church lawn.
We’re all just trying to get energy. The grass gets energy from sunlight and photosynthesis. I get energy from eating a cow that got energy from eating grass, and the dump truck, that’s just an extension of me. Every living thing is struggling to get energy pretty much all the time.
But when humans realized that we could take fossil fuels and use them, even though we couldn’t eat them directly, to get more energy for ourselves, it changed everything for us. Before the fossil fuel revolution, work got done by animal or human muscle power running on food energy. There were a few exceptions — heat from fires, wind and water power, but these sources of energy were limited by the technology of the time and also by the muscle power necessary for harvesting them.
As a rough calculation, the amount of energy a human being is able to deliver through muscle power over the course of a year’s work (2,000 hours) is equal to the energy we get from 5 gallons of gasoline.
One way or another, the fossil fuels will run out, either by depletion, since they are finite in supply, or because the cost of burning them becomes too catastrophic for the planet.
The only thing that matters is what we do between now and then, even though we can’t know for sure when “then” will be.
The fossil fuels bought us, very unequally distributed, a little respite from the constant struggle for energy. What we’ve done, as a species, with that respite — the massive increase in population and knowledge, the incredible indulgences and inequalities here and between us and other parts of the world, the extraordinary explorations, the probing self-examinations, the environmental destruction, the amazing innovations, the senseless wars and waste — will it, in totality, be enough, to sustain us when the giant store of fossil fuel energy is no longer available?
Will the me of 200 years hence have the luxury of flying to Arizona to visit his daughter? Will she have the luxury of moving to Atrizona because she wants to? Will we be constrained again, as human beings have been for almost the entirety of our history, by what are, in the final calculation, energy costs?
Discovering how to use fossil fuels has been our incredible good fortune. Before they run out, will we have developed sufficient sustainable sources of energy? Will we have learned enough about ourselves to avoid senseless and wasteful conflicts with each other? Will we have invented the devices necessary to live in a world without abundant fossil fuel energy?
Most of us are completely blind to how much every aspect of our lives is dependent, directly or indirectly, on fossil fuel. And most of us are people like me, who have enjoyed the consumption of energy but contributed little to solving the problems that will arise as fossil fuels get more difficult to use.
What I know is this: Standing in front of that restaurant waiting for dinner was really nice. It will be a shame if people in the future don’t get to experience their own version of that night. How we get from here to there is the only thing that matters because this struggle will contain everything we take for granted.