F.A. Farm

  (Ferndale, Washington)
Postmodern Agriculture - Food With Full Attention

Comment on "How Climate Change Puts Globalization in Reverse"

In the Rob Hopkins interview, which is part 13 of The Nation’s video series, he makes a couple of glaring errors. These two errors are at 21:00 minutes into the video and immediately after. Here is the weblink: http://www.energybulletin.net/media/2011-04-13/how-climate-change-puts-globalization-reverse The first error is one he has made consistently in his videos over the three years that I have been viewing them. As he has done before, he states that the energy in a liter of petrol is equivalent to 35 days of hard human manual labor. This is more or less a throwaway line to make his point but he overstates the energy value of a liter of petrol by almost a factor of four. This is significant if we really want to get traction with economists and engineers who actually measure this kind of thing. There is a LOT of potential energy in a liter of gasoline or petrol and we can indeed measure it and compare it to human energy by using calories or joules or BTUs or kilowatt hours or horsepower, all of which can be translated one into the other. [Caveat: By calories I mean kilocalories. It is well understood in human nutrition information that we are really talking about kilocalories and sometimes we see it written as Calories. This is just a blip in semantics.]

Unfortunately, Hopkins does not state how many hours of human labor per day, so let's plug in 8 hours. He also doesn't give an energy equivalent for human labor per hour, so I will use my own metric. I am a farmer and do hard physical labor every day, but I don't consume more than other people of my size, which is normalized at 2500 calories per day for a human male. I also don't sweat copiously all day long (it is not like playing football/soccer for 90 minutes for example) and the physical exertion has to be maintained over a long day, sometimes 16 hours in the summer. Thus it is reasonable to apportion my labor output at what it takes to get me through 16 hours. Since we use about 500 calories in an eight-hour sleep period, that leaves 2000 calories spread out over 16 hours, or 125 calories per hour. In my experience, this is a valid measurement that is robust (i.e. you can throw all kinds of bad data at it and still get valid results). 

Now if we calculate Hopkins' statement with our own energy and time values we can see that he is saying a liter of petrol is equivalent to 35,000 calories (35 x 8 x 125 = 35,000). Now, checking this out on the Web, we find that a gallon of diesel does indeed have an energy value of 35,000 calories per US gallon (you may have to convert from joules or BTU's depending on the website). So, if Hopkins' meant to say that a GALLON of DIESEL has an energy value of 35 days of human labor, he would be spot on. [The corresponding value for gasoline is 31,000 calories per gallon, by the way.] However, Hopkins says that a LITER has this energy value and since there are 3.785 liters in a US gallon, he is exaggerating by a factor of 3.785 or nearly 4. Perhaps he should be saying, "A US gallon of petrol has the energy value of 35 days of human manual labor." Alternatively, he could say, "A liter of petrol has the energy value of over 9 days of human manual labor." He doesn't even need to say "hard human manual labor." Every audience gets the point about manual labor, since most people will do almost anything to get out of it. 

Which brings me to my second point. A bit after his throway line about the energy value of a liter of petrol, he says that a liter can power a car for 30 miles. Since there are 3.785 liters in a gallon, this would mean that a British car gets over 113 miles per gallon. I doubt there are ANY cars in Britain with this mileage, much less on average, which is implied in his statement. 

Rob Hopkins is fighting the good fight, but he needs to polish up his numbers. It really DOES matter, especially if we want to calculate our own energy consumption or compare the efficient human engine to the inefficient internal combustion engine. The comparison is stark. We don't need to engage in hyperbole.

Bookmark:    add to del.icio.us del.icio.us   add to technorati Technorati   add to Digg Digg   add to Google Google   add to stumbleupon StumbleUpon

The way I read your explanation it sounds as if Rob is talking about the energy value of a Gallon of diesel, my Volvo V50 does about 30 miles per gallon in city traffic. Still pretty impressive data. have you seen any other calculations for this experiment?

Posted by Carin Schwartz on April 15, 2011 at 02:26 AM PDT #

Well there are many ways to do these calculation and what is "right" and what is "wrong" depends on what we want to show. I would argue that you are assuming that all our food goes to work, while in reality it is only 20% or something. Read my own calculations at: http://gardenearth.blogspot.com/2011/03/250-billion-energy-slaves.html

Posted by Gunnar Rundgren on April 16, 2011 at 01:08 AM PDT #

You should talk about the WORK value of what is in a gallon of fuel as worked out by Pimental et al. A gallon of fuel can do the work of pushing a car, say, 40 miles.

That could be done in half an hour to an hour depending on road conditions.

Now, how are you going to accomplish this with human power?

Posted by Stephen Hinton on April 23, 2011 at 07:59 AM PDT #

Stephen - Check out my other blogs. The emphasis on work is misplaced. As you probably know, a 20% efficient machine, like a car, wastes 80% of the energy consumed and the heat and gases go into the atmosphere. This doesn't include the infrastructure needed to maintain the car and the road surface for the car to travel on, etc.

You seem to have misread Pimental. As far as I know, he has always focused on fossil fuel input, not output. His 2006 paper is an example, which you can read here: http://organic.insightd.net/reportfiles/ENERGY_SSR.pdf

The question is NOT how to keep the car going - that is a bankrupt transportation system. The question is how to get from point A to point B with less energy. The human engine wins hands down. Work output is a chimera when 80% of the input goes up the smokestack and makes the earth uninhabitable.

Posted by Walter on April 23, 2011 at 09:47 AM PDT #

I had heard of a comparism between a tank full of fuel being equivalent to a years manual labour, which is closer to Walter's explanation than Rob's. A tank full of fuel equalling a years human manual labour is a very good throw away line.

Posted by Charles Mossman on May 09, 2011 at 05:01 AM PDT #

Post a Comment:
Comments are closed for this entry.

RSS feed for F.A. Farm blog. Right-click, copy link and paste into your newsfeed reader