You’re a leech.
There, I said it.
But don’t worry; I am too. We all are.
I remember the first time I saw the Wachowski brothers’ film The Matrix back in the late 90s (a shame they never made any sequels). Not a bad flick; great soundtrack and perhaps the first time since Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure that Keanu Reeves had been cast in a role that suited his unique acting style (which is, of course, no style at all). The movie was largely a popcorn film designed to fill theater seats with technophiles, wannabe-hackers and otherwise disenfranchised youth of the end of the century. The premise of the film was pretty standard Outer Limits fare – machines take over the world and plug all the humans into a computer-generated reality while using our bodies as living batteries to power their 22nd century iPods and three-hundred foot plasma screen TVs and whatever – but they bandied around some interesting ideas. Of particular note was the following monologue, delivered by Hugo Weaving in his excellent portrayal of the evil computer program Agent Smith:
“I’d like to share a revelation I had, during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species. I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Humans beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet…and we are the cure.”
Okay, it’s pretty pithy upon reflection, but the idea is still sound. Since about ten thousand years ago, human beings have spread across the four corners of the earth, setting up McDonalds and Starbucks as we go, forging empires, having grand old wars, building up and burning down and building up again. And Hugo is right: our behaviour really does resemble a virus’. As we’re all well aware the biggest threats to our continued existence on this planet are overpopulation and dwindling resources. The fact of the matter is, no matter what school of thought you subscribe to, sooner or later fossil fuels are going to run out – that’s the whole point of the term “non-renewable”. It might take two or three hundred years; it might happen in our lifetimes (the reports are somewhat conflicting) but it’s going to happen. That’s not even taking into consideration the kind of damage we’re doing to the planet’s atmosphere and rapidly-disappearing natural environments.
I’ve written before on the topic of alternate energy, and in the past I’ve been pretty harsh in my judgements of the myriad proposals designed to wean us from fossil fuels and onto something better – proposals which have ranged from the reasonable to the sci-fi-esque to the patently ridiculous. I’ve been a staunch supporter of nuclear energy as a stopgap measure to get us through the current energy crisis until such time as a truly renewable option presents itself. Realistically, nuclear energy is the closest we have come to an unlimited source of energy for the planet’s ever-growing requirements, but it’s undeniably expensive (though cheaper and more efficient than many other options) and, perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t address the fundamental problem inherent to our race: like Agent Smith said at the beginning of this article, we’re just wasteful.
According to the Energy Information Administration the United States alone is responsible for the consumption of 335.9 million BTUs per person per year since 1970. To give you an idea (since I didn’t know either), one BTU (or British Thermal Unit) is equivalent to about 1.06 kilojoules, or the amount of energy required to heat one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit. That’s a lot of science, so let’s break it down.
When you look at your electricity bill, you’re typically looking at it in terms of Kilowatt Hours (kWh), which is equal to 3.6 megajoules of energy. That means that one kilowatt hour is equal to 2.94 BTUs. That, in turn, means that each US citizen in the EIA statistics uses roughly one hundred fourteen million kWh per year. That’s not per household – that’s per person. Here’s a little context to give you an idea what this means.
According to Festival Hydro, some of the biggest kWh users in an average family are appliances like hot water heaters (running anywhere from 375-525 kWh per month), washing machines (33-196), dehumidifiers (42-252) and central air/heating (an incredible 850-3000 kWh per month). This is all average use, which is fine for my purposes.
Take a look at the linked table. Let’s assume the average family is using the absolute maximum of everything on that list. That’s a grand total of 5714 kWh/month, which in turn translates into 68,568 kWh/year.
Now wait just a goddamn minute here. The EIA tells us each US citizen is using one hundred fourteen million kilowatt hours per year.
To be fair, I’m no mathematician, nor am I a statistician, or any other kind of “ician” for that matter. But unless my math is totally pear-shaped, something is very, very wrong with these numbers. Hell, even if I miscalculated somehow and Festival Hydro’s numbers account for far, far more of the total year than it appears, that’s still vastly disproportionate.
Let’s assume the EIA is talking about all the energy used, all the time – they account for the grill in McDonalds when you go in for a Big Mac, the streetlight you spent ten minutes waiting to turn green every evening, the electricity needed to pump the gas for your car, et cetera. Even then – a hundred and fourteen million kilowatt hours per year is pretty impressive as far as consumption goes.
And that’s just the United States. The EIA informs me that the US is actually seventh place as far as energy consumption goes – even here in Canada, we’re consuming more per person than those so-called wasteful Americans (at 427.2 million BTUs or 145 million kWh per year).
Let`s face it – we can’t even comprehend numbers like this. It’s all science – it’s beyond our ability to envision, even with my amateur attempts at contextualizing it. Like Eddie Izzard said, you could count to a million, but you probably wouldn’t. But I think even us pseudo-scientists can agree that almost one hundred and fifty million of anything is a really huge number, and when it relates to the amount of energy we’re essentially pissing away year after year, the numbers become even more frightening.
So what’s to be done? That’s a question right up there with “what’s our place in the universe” and “what do women really want” as far as a difficulty-in-answering ratio.
Well, a lot of extremists on all sides like to say things like “we can’t live without oil; nothing else is going to work” or contrarily “dude, let’s totally replace all the coal plants with big wind generators – that’ll, like, fix the whole problem over night”. Of course both of these hypothetical people are idiots.
I’m far more interested in people like the ones heading up the Rocky Mountain Institute who are working on an energy efficiency plan designed to wean the United States from its fossil fuel dependency inside of two decades. RMI Chairman and Chief Scientist Amory Lovins had this to say about his group’s plan:
“Put simply, we intend to reverse the past quarter-millennium’s dominant global way in which people get and use energy…[f]ive years ago, almost nobody thought the United States could get off oil. “Now that’s a serious goal with encouraging momentum. Can we now imagine getting off the coal that makes half our nation’s electricity? Certainly.”
Sound good? It gets better. Here are some of the talking points from their Reinventing Fire campaign:
If America used electricity only as efficiently as the top ten states averaged four years ago, five-eighths of U.S. coal-fired electricity would become unnecessary.
Using electricity fully cost-effectively would save even more, displacing all coal power and more.
We could save two-fifths of the coal power by properly exploiting industrial co-generation, plus a lot more in buildings.
According to Lovin, applying just “part of what we know” about energy conservation and efficient use of what we have will lessen the load in a huge way over a period of years, freeing up resources to put towards developing truly renewable sources of energy.
So what does this mean for the average person? How do we help facilitate these processes, assuming we’re interested in doing so (which we all should be if we’ve got a half a brain)?
People born into my generation have been learning about the so-called Three R’s since we were old enough to read and write, and sometimes even before. The most important of these are the first two: reduce and reuse. Everybody knows it’s better to carry your groceries in your backpack than it is to use up three or four plastic bags you’re inevitably going to throw away, and everybody knows it’s better to put your lunch in Tupperware instead of using ream after ream of plastic wrap or tinfoil. But it also comes down to energy efficiency.
Personally, I’m one of the most efficient human viruses on the planet. I take public transit everywhere I go. My lights never get turned on at home unless I absolutely need them to locate a contact lens or if I’m cleaning and need to see where the dust bunnies are hiding. I never hang around with the fridge door open, staring aimlessly at my condiments, hoping that dinner will magically appear. I’ve noticed that because I live on the top floor of a building, everyone else’s heat tends to rise up to my place, so I don’t bother turning on the heat in the winter. In the summer, I use a comparatively energy-efficient desk fan (2-6 kWh/month) instead of my air conditioning unit (90-540). Hell, I don’t even use a microwave oven (5-30 kWh/month), opting to heat up my leftover pizza with the toaster oven (2-15). My roommate and I generate about one large green garbage bag worth of garbage a month between the two of us, and I’m currently starting up a guerrilla composting scheme somewhere near where I live (it’s a secret).
Now if each of my fellow viruses would take up even a few of these suggestions, we might be farther along towards Lovin’s ultimate goal.
But don’t take my word for it. I’m not an environmentalist; I’m just a concerned citizen. If you’re interested in hearing from people who actually know what they’re talking about, here are a few suggestions.
Seriously, these folks know way more than I do. I’m more of a Jack(hole) of All Trades as opposed to a specialized critic. Or something.
It’s time to quit being a detriment to this planet that so kindly lets us live here, build our Starbucks and kill one another all over its land masses. Let’s try to be less like viruses and more like functioning parts of an ecosystem, shall we? Just a thought.