What is a Human Being Worth? Less Per Barrel Than You'd Think

Sharon July 20th, 2008

The Gents over at The Oil Drum are having a discussion of what human labor is worth in energy equivalents.  Luis de Sousa rather unfortunately titled the post “What Is a Human Being Worth?” – obviously, he was being tongue in cheek, but also obviously, he wasn’t fully prepared for the kind of response that question generates. If you want to gently joke about human value, and implicitly raise issues like slavery and Nazism as part of your joke, well, you can pretty much expect what you get.  Some folks will mind, some won’t, but I think any whinging about how it was just a joke and that we don’t really have to talk about moral and ethical stuff, we were trying to be *empirical* about it doesn’t get any of my sympathy. 

Now I adore The Oil Drum, and I owe the guys having this conversation a lot – I’ve learned a lot from them.  But this article does kind of make Crunchy Chicken’s point about gender and the peak oil movement come up to the forefront – this post felt like a circle jerk at the boys club.  It must have been fun while they were doing it – “Hey, can we figure out what a human being is worth?  And express it in kilowatt hours? Cool!” Oy vey.  And I realize I’m a mere humanities scholar, and totally graph free, but if you were comparing something to barrels of oil, a source of energy wouldn’t you want to compare the source of my energy with the machine’s energy, rather than the source of energy with me? 

The most interesting part of the article (I’m tempted to say the only interesting part, but I’m trying to play nice) is the comments.  Like Bart Anderson and Kiashu, I think that the question is being asked badly – hmmm…who can run faster, me or a barrel of oil? Now I’m by no means a serious runner, but I still think that I could outdistance the barrel pretty good.   Well, but if you give the barrel of oil a human manufactured and maintained motorcycle, it can outrun me, you say.  True, but do I get a person to maintain me, maybe a personal trainer?  Without me on it to steer, the oil in the motorbike can presumably go faster, but will fall over pretty quick, won’t it?  I, on the other hand, won’t hit a tree for at least umm…two minutes? 

Then there’s the quality of the work – what about helping Grandma to the bathroom?  Now a robot designed to help a big nursing home full of Grandmas to the potty might well be able to do more assisting than I do – on the other hand, Grandma probably doesn’t like the robot and its probes nearly as much as she likes me (well, for most versions of “Grandma”), and then comes the problem of the occasional beheading caused by robot error – well within the statistical margin, but those that like Grandma get pretty annoyed and start bemoaning the loss of the good old days when Grandma never got beheaded in the nursing home (they probably can’t remember the days when she didn’t even have to go there).

The best computer programs in existence with a lot of human guidance to design parameters could probably produce more words than me on a barrel of oil.  But would they be better, more on-topic, more engaging, more titillating than my words?  I’m not sure I want y’all to answer that ;-) , but the old “an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters writing for an infinite amount of time would eventually produce the works of Shakespeare” bit does apply.  And while my works may well be more on the order of 5 monkeys working for 15 minutes, I still will bet that I can mock the TOD Dudes attempting to do the math on human worth better than the best humor generating programs (except for the one now using the cyborg brain of George Carlin, of course).

But there is a reason I’m pointing this out – because underlying a lot of people’s thinking about peak oil is a “OMG…we use X number of terajoules of energy to do Y, and now we’ve got to replace it with backbreaking human labor – and doing even the most essential things – digging ditches or growing food, pays for shit –  we’re all gonna be slaves!” 

Now there are several problems with this analysis, but I want to focus on one important one - the fact that cheap energy has had the function devaluing human labor.  This is fairly obvious – if a gallon of gas can do the equivalent of four men’s work digging outhouses in one day, and the gallon of gas (plus the machine to use it, the man to operate it and the (almost certainly subsidized)  infrastructure to support it) is cheaper, the value of the men’s labor as outhouse diggers drops to…zero.  Because no one in their right mind will hire them, instead of the machine and its dude.  Or maybe not quite zero – perhaps some people with money to spare will see the value of hand-dug outhouses, and tell their friends, and a small niche market will arise – but most people won’t.  And most of the outhouse diggers will have to go do something else to make money.  The best money, obviously, will be in doing things machines don’t do well (yet), like helping Grandma to the potty, writing blogs about the injustices of society and breastfeeding (oh, wait, the money for all of those things sucks… damn, the fact that I’m not an economist kicks me in the ass again.)   

You’d think that doing stuff machines and oil can’t do would pay pretty well, but in fact, the fossil fuels essentially devalue all human labor – the highest paid jobs become not the ones that machines can’t do that benefit society, but the ones that enable more fossil fuel usage, because functionally, cheap energy is (this seems obvious, but I make it explicit because its amazing what people miss) a way of printing money – getting a lot of work done for virtually nothing is a great way to make a profit – that’s why people used to like slavery, and then they liked fossil fuels. In fact, they devalue human work so much you can’t do the work even if you want to – you can’t breastfeed your baby because you have to go back to work at Walmart 3 weeks after the birth (because you are needed to help the growth economy), and you can’t manufacture things things, because the things are too expensive if they pay you a living wage – the only way they can use human labor is to find labor that is literally cheaper than oil – by creating economic structures that ensure that the wealth doesn’t get spread around and that there always are people who are cheaper than oil.  So it isn’t so much work that machines don’t do well that is valued but work that enables the expansion of energy use, and thus, more exchange of cash - for example, being a real estate developer paid (until the energy prices started to rise) really, really well – because they make new markets, and make new uses for fossil fuels – all those houses need faucets and insulation, all those suburbanites need grocery stores and gas stations, all those new toilets need toilet paper. 

Now the economy and culture that rise up don’t just value things that enable things that involve burning stuff more than things that don’t, they explicitly *DEVALUE* things that don’t - that is, it isn’t just that now the guys who used to build outhouses can’t do that work any more, it is that the very fact that they used to do that is now treated as appalling, strange and bad.  People marvel that anyone could ever have done it at all, and describe the work as “drudgery” and “backbreaking” – which may be true – the guys digging the outhouses may well have hated it, and may well have preferred their new jobs, unloading pallets at Walmart to digging outhouses.  Probably on rainy days, the certainly did – although maybe when their boss was timing their bathroom breaks they missed their old job and the convenient woods, and when they were working a 12 hour shift under the flourescent lights on a beautiful, breezy fall day, who knows?  Certainly, their backs probably hurt either way. 

The women who used to nurse their babies aren’t just doing something different, or contributing to a different segment of the economy (ummm…healthy intelligent workers – those aren’t useful, are they?)  what they are doing is arcane and immodest, maybe a little dirty,  showing off their boobs like that.   Certainly, it is anti-intellectual and a waste of what education they had –  staying at home rotting their brains, rather than going to do some useful work where someone else can care for the baby while your boss times you as you attempt to pump breastmilk on the toilet of the Walmart bathroom.  Of course, you give up, but that’s good, because that creates jobs for formula manufacturers and Baby Stalin Video developers.

And not only do they devalue that work, but they devalue the men and women themselves  who weren’t “smart” enough to get in on the ground floor of the fossil fuel pyramid scheme – we make a lot of redneck jokes, and talk about how important our work is and how we’re too important or smart to clean toilets or wipe bums ( And yes, these are actual things I’ve heard expressed quite explicitly)  Doing work that can be done by machines and oil (unless you manage a niche market like the perfect outhouses, coming soon to a Martha Stewart show near you), like weeding, breastfeeding or digging means you must be dumb – because didn’t you know we can do that with fossil fuels now?  Or better yet,  or with a combination of fossil fuels and people whose main characteristic is that they are cheaper than oil.  

 And it isn’t just these folks – anything that can be profitably done with cheap fossil fuels is obviously devalued -  but also, oil produces a lot of energy.  I know, I know…duh.  But bear with me.  This is its virtue, but also its cost.  At first you can take the obviously demanding jobs and replace them with machines and oil, and make slow things go faster.  Now maybe that’s ok and maybe it isn’t – we don’t do a lot of intellectual case by case thinking about this stuff –  but after a while, all the outhouse diggers are out of business.  But we still have all this energy coming in - and now we have to grow into to work that isn’t so well done with fossil fuels - work that doesn’t get done with powered machines, but that can only be replaced either with diminishing quality (ie, Grandma gets probed by a potty-machine instead of having her need for help and kindness met simultaneously), or by convincing people that what isn’t as good really is.  So, for example, despite the manifest case that industrial food production produces food that tastes like shit, has fewer nutrients and is more toxic, we have to be told that this is progress, that Campbell’s Soup is better than homemade and that Grandma is pissed not because she doesn’t like where the probe goes, but also because the frozen lasagna is better than hers ever was. 

And that’s the other way that fossil fuels devalue human labor – they convince us that the world we get with fossil fuels is  equivalent in every respect to the human powered one, that we can do analyses like the one being done at The Oil Drum, and that there’s no danger, nothing inherently demeaning there in sitting around and discussing how many barrels of oil a human being is worth.  Not only do fossil fuels devalue human labor directly, but because they produce so much energy, they must create uses for that energy – they are the primary agency of growth – a 30-1 EROEI for oil means that even if we only need to use 10 barrels of oil for everyone we extract, we have to create a need for the other 20.  Thus, you start out replacing the outhouse diggers, and replacing hand loomed cloth with machine loomed cloth, making huge differences in productivity – but gradually you start making bread machines and salad shooters and clothes dryers that don’t really do the job any better than human beings with ambient energies.  But we can’t tell anyone that’s not true – so you start selling the idea that you need a bread machine to make bread, and a backhoe to dig a hole and formula to feed a baby and that these things are better, or at a minimum just the same.  

When you have children, you can do enormous harm to them by following them around and telling them “no, don’t try that, it is too hard, too dangerous” – the result is children without self-confidence, without courage, and without competence.  What they are “worth” (and I used that term ironically here) as human beings is shaped by the ways they are valued and supported by the surrounding infrastructure (ie, the people who love and care for them).  The same is true of human beings at large, and of ordinary adults.  In this case, it is fossil fuels that stand in for overprotective parents, telling us, implicitly by the very existence of the machines and explicitly through advertising that we are not competent, that our own energies are insufficient to the job.  The very existence of the rototiller says “The shovel is insufficient” – and most people who purchase one probably do so, not after extensive trials with the shovel and with mulch, but because they “know” that the rototiller is necessary. The formula that comes in the little bag they give you in the hospital when you have a baby says “Your breasts probably won’t work as advertised – we can’t trust in them, or in you.”  In the same sense, we “know” that most of the work we do that doesn’t require fossil fuels isn’t really valuable, because, after all, it could be done much more cheaply with fossil fuels, or with one of the people “liberated” from their old jobs digging ditches or growing foods who can now do the cheap labor of caring for our children or cooking our dinners.   In the net, a whole host of people from anthropologists to Juliet Schor have shown that industrial society needs more of our time and energy than either agrarian or other subsistence societies – that is, the push to burn the oil also means a push to get us pushing the buttons that burn the oil, and making money to buy the salad shooter – it means besides telling us we can’t do things, it embeds us in a system that absorbs the time we might have had to get stuff done.

What happens in a lower energy world, or one where energy isn’t cheap anymore?  Do we have to put all those human beings on treadmills to run the machines that make the wii systems, and then have someone running behind your kid generating power while he’s pretending to run on his wii?  Hmmm… just maybe there’s a simpler way.  Like maybe a large percentage of the activities that seem so necessary when we have all these fossil fuels we have to burn won’t seem so necessary. Maybe the question isn’t “is it more efficient for Steve to fly or walk from Alabama to Michigan for his business meeting” but “will it be necessary for Steve to work for a company that sells B to B software and has business meetings in Michigan?”  Might it be possible, in a world where energy isn’t cheap anymore to shift our valuation of things, to valuing human labor highly enough to support someone doing something more useful, and perhaps closer?

Might it even be possible to ask a different question – how much human time and energy is required to support the infrastructure for a fairly simple, reasonably humane, low energy, mostly human powered society, that gets to keep some of the best elements of the fossil fueled world, while jettisoning the rest?  And then, how much human time and energy is required to support a heavily industrialized, toxic society that devalues human beings?  There’s a very good chance that the answer to the first question is *less human work* than the answer to the second one.  Juliet Schor’s explorations, and Helena Norberg Hodge’s research in Ladakh, as well as investigations into Hunter-Gatherer societies and the work of historians generally all pretty much agree – most people worked rather less than we do in most agrarian socieities – they worked long hours during planting and harvest, and very short ones in the winter or the rainy season.  The averages range from 2-4 hours of daily work to support all the need of a !Kung to a daily average of about 6 hours per day in medieval agrarian societies.

I am grateful for fossil fuels in my life, and I use them, if advisedly and with care.  My point is not “fossil fuels are evil” - they aren’t.  But they have consequences, practical, economic, moral as well as phsyical ones that go unexplored in this kind of very narrow analysis.   To a degree, it is only possible for us to be sitting here asking what human beings are worth in relationship to a barrel of oil because fossil fuels enable us to devalue human labor, and humans themselves so thoroughly.  One Oil Drum commenter suggests that it would be useful to think about how many slaves fossil fuels have replaced – but in fact, as I’ve written about here, and as recent studies have suggested, there are more slaves in the world now than there ever were pre-fossil fuels.  The fact is that slavery is an expression of how we value other human lives – the idea that we can honestly transform people into energy and dollars.  This is not dependent on fossil fuels – but it can be enabled by them (and by other things as pre-modern slave societies show) – it is enabled by any model that represents human beings primarily as a source of energy.  I understand that the people doing this analysis meant to be contributing something useful to the world – but what they succeeded in doing was rather different – their article is as much a defense of this kind of ethics free reductionism as it is an exercise in mathematics.

So what’s a human being worth? Not nearly as much as you’d hope, it seems. 


51 Responses to “What is a Human Being Worth? Less Per Barrel Than You'd Think”

  1. Backhoes, particularly pieces with relatively low hours prove to be the best buys over the long haul.

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