Supporting sustainable economic development
and direct trade in Guatemala

Where's Your Spare Planet?

earth-save-the-planet-clip-art-thumb2257949You carry a spare tire in your trunk for emergencies. You always have an extra light-bulb or roll of toilet paper around the house just in case you run out. Maybe you carry an extra pen should you run out of ink. So where's your spare planet?

The water gauge on your house tells you how much water you've used. But wouldn't it be more useful to know how much water you have left? We come from a society of abundance. We've always had all the electricity, water, oxygen and energy we've ever needed, so it's difficult to imagine a limit. If you're using solar energy, your meter tells you how many kilowatt hours you have left to use. If you're using electricity from the grid, your meter only tells you how much you have used. Apparently there's no limit ... or is there?

As an average US resident, in one year, I consumed the equivalent energy found in 58 barrels of oil. That's a lot, but what was I to do? My car only got 19 miles to the gallon. I lived in the north and had to pay the heating bill. Darkness falls early in winter, so I needed to turn on lots of lights. My entertainment mostly involved electrical gizmos or a drive somewhere else. My hobbies in the garage burned fossil fuel, directly or indirectly. My glass top stove was easy to clean, but inherently inefficient. I put an insulator on my water heater, but was that enough?

There are two coffee farmers in my office right now. One has six light bulbs in his home, the other seven, most of which are compact fluorescent and all 40 watts or less. They each have a small black and white television and a radio. One owns an electric iron. Just to keep my ice cream from melting, my refrigerator used as much electricity in a day as either farmer's entire family.

I drove to work. They walk. Their kids walk to school or take public transportation. I cooked, and still cook, on an electric resistance stove. They can't afford a stove, so they cook over a fire, from trees they planted themselves. Maybe they don't have a choice. Or maybe they care more than I do.

This isn't a doomsday article. This is an awareness article. Science tells us that proven energy reserves around the world have about 1,317 billion barrels of oil, 6,182 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and about 1 trillion tons of coal. Let's assume that science has a lot of coal and oil left to find, that science is going to find new ways of extracting energy from the planet, and that we will have access to twice as much oil, gas, and coal than we know about today. With that assumption, we have fossil fuels with the energy equivalent of seven million million barrels of oil. That's a big number. That's a seven followed by 12 zeros. It looks like this: 7,000,000,000,000. I can't really fathom a number that big. It's endless. It looks to me as though we have an endless supply of energy.

Various estimates say we have 200 to 500 years worth of fossil energy based on current consumption. We can't possibly use up the rest of the energy on the planet in my lifetime. Or could we?

The average US citizen uses the energy equivalent of 58 barrels of oil in one year. Imagine the rest of the world's citizens used energy at the same rate. There are 6.6 billion people. That's 6,600,000,000 people X 58 barrels per person per year. In other words, 382,800,000,000 barrels per year. Again, that's a big number, and I can't fathom it. But, if you divide that unfathomable amount of available energy by the unfathomable energy use of the entire planet at the rate of US consumption, you get a number I can fathom. You get about 18. That's 18 years worth of energy the planet has left if everyone consumes energy at the rate I do.

I've got 50 or 60 more good years left in me. If everyone becomes like me, I need to find three or four spare planets to live out my life. Or I need to convince the rest of the world not to be like me. Or maybe I need to rethink my energy needs.