Earth to Humans: You’re Doing It Wrong.

Here’s my Earth Day article. You may notice it’s late. That’s because I didn’t realize it was Earth Day until a few hours after midnight when somebody said something dumb. Here it is:

The founder of a popular British festival has even said that he would consider powering the event on beer piss, should science find a way. Don’t laugh — human beings collectively produce around 6.4 trillion liters of urine a day, so an effective way of harvesting energy from this golden wonder-fuel might end our fossil fuel dependency overnight, as well as mitigating the effects of one more way we go about polluting the environment.

We do not produce 6.4 trillion liters of urine a day, even on a steady diet of coffee, alcohol, and the vague first-world boredom that leads to a bathroom break every half hour or ten games of Draw Something, whichever comes first. The 6.4 trillion figure is around 250 gallons of urine per person per day. If that were so, your urine would fill two midsize cars every week. At an average flow rate of 20 mL/sec, you’d have to pee for fourteen hours every day to get it all out.

That’s the dumb part – a silly gaffe. But there’s a stupid part, too. You can’t get more energy out of beer urine than you can get out of beer. You can’t get more energy out of beer than you can get out of beer plants. You can’t get more energy out of beer plants than you can get from the sunshine they absorbed. Processing your sunlight by way of a barley seeds, the digestive system of yeast, and a human liver is, as a thermodynamic strategy, piss poor.

Humans are not energy producers. Any energy we output came from our food and represents our bodies’ inefficiency. Only a fraction of the energy we eat can be reharvested, and the energy we eat is about one percent of the energy we use on all our gadgets and things. Measured purely by energy consumption, it’s as if every person in the US has 100 personal servants. Recapturing energy from our bodies is like realizing our 100 servants are too expensive, so we make one of them give us a percent or two of their wages back. That means we can only ever get a miniscule fraction of the power we need from any human activity – urination, generators inside exercise equipment, piezoelectric thingymabobbers in the floor, engines run on body heat, etc.

Even if you crush your enemies and drive them before you, the lamentation of their women will not provide much power.

Why bother, then? Why is there a dance club whose floor generates electricity for lighting as revelers hop around on it? Why don’t they just dance during the day?

Human-generated electrical power could make sense in special circumstances – charging your bicycle light with energy from the bicycle, for instance, but as a general plan it’s insane. The floor in that club is not about generating electricity. It’s very unlikely that the energy generated could ever recoup the cost of the installation – if you exercise for an hour, you’ll generate around a penny worth of electricity, and that’s with high efficiency. Instead, the floor is about advertising that it generates electricity.

This is what we’ve done with energy conservation – made it into a luxury item more about social signalling than ecological benefit. How many people, proud of their environmentally-conscious Prius, have any idea how much energy went into the car’s manufacture? How many of them drive it alone? (Though Prius owners may deny it, the car’s popularity is mostly about social signalling. For cars that come in gas-only or hybrid variants, the hybrids don’t sell well. If it’s not a hybrid-only brand, it’s a lot harder for people to recognize how environmentally-conscious you are.)

No one would tie a helium party balloon to a hippopotamus and say, “See? I did my part to help it fly!” Yet they feel just like that when they bring their own bags to the grocery store. On Earth Day, people turn their lights out for an hour. (Did that happen this year? Or is it some other day? Whatever.) If everyone turned all their lights out in their homes all the time, it would reduce power consumption in the US by about two percent.

The lights-out thing is symbolic, of course. It’s there to remind you of the importance of energy conservation, and to show other people you think energy conservation is important. The problem we’re facing is that everything is symbolic – our efforts at conservation are almost random, showing no systematic effort to focus on the big-ticket items, or even knowing what they are. How many cell phone chargers would you have to unplug to make up for the energy spent on one cross-country plane flight? Most people don’t know, and so most effort put into energy conservation is wasted.

Worse, if you’re conserving energy because you want the warm fuzzies associated with it, you get your warm fuzzies based on how much you inconvenience yourself and how much you show off, not on how much energy you actually save. You feel just as good about unplugging cell phone chargers as deciding to stay local on vacation. Our emotions have no sense of scale.

Even worse than that: when we talk about energy conservation and environmentalism, we’re largely bullshitting, and people pick up on that. That’s the thing with signalling to your tribe. It gets the other tribe pissed off. (And as we’ve learned, piss is not very productive.) The worst part about energy conservation and environmentalism is that they’ve been wrapped up into one issue and shipped off to the place where good debates go to die – politics.

If we could separate our conservation efforts from our warm fuzzies, we’d send out fewer of the pheromones that rile up political associations and drive out even the possibility reasonable discourse. Fewer news stories. Fewer buzz words and applause lights. More Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air and The Azimuth Project. That is how you get a hippopotamus to fly.

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