how many barrels of oil does it take to fuel an american life?

so this oil spill is fucked up, and there are really no two ways about that.

i have been waiting, i guess, to process the scale of the tragedy, not really sure how to wrap my mind around the quantities involved, or the implications that will surely continue to emerge as the food chain is disrupted, the currents disperse, and storm season begins.

i have also been waiting, i realize, because scandal and catastrophe are becoming so commonplace that my initial reaction when something terrible happens is to resist being sucked into the circus of mainstream media coverage and reactionary online commentary until after the opening parade has passed and i can begin to get a sense of what’s really going on.

now it has been two months, however, so i can’t justify a holding pattern any longer.

this tragedy is real, and it is difficult for the press to inflate it.
we could still happen upon a miraculous solution.
or, you know, aliens could show up and offer to help us in exchange for our loyalty to the alliance of gnib.

but in the meantime, oil continues to spill, no one can really say for certain how quickly it is flowing, and it is starting to feel like all we will ever be able to do is sit here and watch the numbers climb:

at some point, we are going to have to figure out how to move forward. we are going to have to accept that children born today may spend their entire lives in a world where the gulf of mexico is black and too toxic for swimming. that shrimpers and fishermen are going to have to find new sources of livelihood. that our insatiable thirst for oil and willingness to ignore safety violations until enforcement becomes a meaningless rubber stamp that corporations don’t really have to worry about actually earning, as long as they know how to make nice and hire the right middlemen, can lead to real devastation.

we need to admit that we are playing a high-stakes game here, and it is very possible to make mistakes that we can’t take back.

as we search for a silver lining, or at least for ways to alchemically convert our frustration into impact, it is very tempting to believe that this may be just the wake up call we need to curtail our oil use.

for starters, outrage against BP is rampant, and the creative catharsis is humorous and fun to look at. but while high-level investigations continue, and we wait for the scales of justice to weigh the arguments on all sides, most of us are left with a profound sense of powerlessness. a boycott of BP stations is tempting, at first, but it is important to remember that gas stations are locally owned and managed by people with nothing to do with corporate HQ, so please consider the big picture if you feel yourself drawn in this direction.

BP Logo Redesign

image via GreenpeaceUK

finding ways to cut back on gas use is more promising, and existing grassroots efforts to motivate a critical mass to change their habits are enjoying a surge in popularity, which is good, but only time will tell if the surge will lead to any long-term behavioral change.

i have been thinking a lot about gasoline consumption over the past few years because i have been on the road so much, and now that my transmission has kicked the bucket in an expensive way (yeah. hugh is dead. sucks.), leaving me carless, i am taking the opportunity to consider my next steps carefully.

while i’m here in watsonville, my mom’s car is available for basic transport and emergencies, which is very convenient. in other universes, where i am still commuting to work in san diego, or in the middle of driving cross-country, i imagine that i am much grumpier.

as it is, i am taking the opportunity to rest a bit, acquainting myself with public transport, and scouting for bikes. what i will do next is still uncertain, but since i have a bit of leeway in my decision period, i am tempted to do something dramatic, like pledge to not buy another vehicle unless it runs on biodiesel, or natural gas, or is a horse.

the dual punch of the oil spill and the loss of my car is perhaps a blessing, because these ideas that we hear all the time – we need to reduce our dependence on oil! find alternative fuel sources! promote public transportation! – are all so familiar that we almost risk tuning them out, or participating mechanically on bike to work day, which makes us feel good, like when we recycle.

but when it really comes down to it, i am realizing that even with the best of intentions, i was viewing the crisis point as sometime far in the future, and that is dangerous.

when will the turning point come, if not with a tragedy of this scale? do we really need to wait for all seven horsemen to show their heads? or are we already so jaded that we’re just digging out bomb shelters, stockpiling canned goods, and backing up our hard drives so that we have every episode of lost to keep us company?

i guess that’s a start.

meanwhile, i have decided to perform a playful thought experiment.

if we were previously going to run out of oil on day x, and i was therefore going to be forced to stop using oil at around that time, how much sooner will that day come because of the oil spill?

you know, like those statistics that tell you how each year of smoking takes so many years off your life?

what i want to know is: how many years of driving do we collectively lose for each day that the oil spill continues?

i crunched some numbers, and using the rather conservative estimate of 20,000 barrels of oil being spilled a day (this number keeps rocketing higher, and everyone disagrees about the flow rate, but no one seems able to dispute that the number is at Least this large, so i will start there), and the estimates that the department of energy gives for gallons of gas per barrel of oil, and the EPA’s assumptions that Americans drive an average of 12,000 miles/year at 20 miles/gallon, we get the rather amusing answer (for apocalyptic conspiracy theorists) that we are losing 666.66 years of oil per day.

taking an average human lifespan of 66.6 years (for the sake of round numbers and fun), this means that, for every day that the oil spill continues, we lose 10 driver-lifetimes of oil.

i like this statistic so much that i made a little chart:

Chart of Oil Spill in Lifetime Supplies of Gas

so, at the two month mark, we have spilled a quantity of oil which, under other conditions, could have been distributed across 600 lifetimes.

go us!

as i said, this is just a thought experiment, and a rather silly one, at that.

basically, my brain is attempting to put the oil spill into terms that make some kind of sense to me, numbers that i can relate to my own life, and use to try to motivate myself to truly grok the scale of this disaster.

in my quest for understanding, i hit upon this 10 lifetimes per day idea, and suddenly, i saw 10 future-people in some imaginary line in some big office building where they hand out ‘lifetime supply of gas’ ration cards. the future-people are standing there, waiting, reading old magazines with all the crossword-puzzles filled in, and they’re cranky, and hungry, and the air-conditioning is broken, and it’s almost their turn! but then… the window slams shut! they stand agape, not knowing what to do, and a pasty-faced bureaucrat in a suit that’s too small, with a tie that looks like a cheap piece of christmas ribbon, sneers at them and says: “oh ho! all gone! sorry, buddy! no gas for you! too bad about that oil spill back in 2010! that was YOURS!” and then he cackles maniacally and the vision fades away…

what can i say? my brain is a strange place.

but future-people aside, i think that measuring the oil spill in lifetime-sized chunks is useful. if instead we were to look at it alongside the ridiculous amount of oil we use each day, or share it equally among all licensed American drivers, our personal share of the problem starts to look very small (~ 0.002 gallons/day), which is a tempting consolation.

continuing this line of reasoning, we could theoretically tell ourselves that it will be possible to recoup our loss from the oil spill if we each agree to reduce our gas use by some fractional amount each year, which would be a lot easier than figuring out how to go without gas entirely.

we can remain calm, and keep fighting obesity with reduced-fat potato chips.

the problem with this is that, years down the road, when we have made up for the lost oil and learned to live comfortably with this fractional reduction, we will all still be demanding more oil, whereas, if we begin to take more drastic steps today, some number of us will instead be free.

[cue inspiring video clip of birds in flight with soothing vocals in an melodic, yet unfamiliar language]

the goal, as i see it, is to do whatever it takes to change our destructive habits so that the future will be different, not to simply make the tiniest concessions possible in order to continue our bad habits forever in a watered-down form.

i mean, we’re running out of water, too, you know…

so take my chart or leave it, as you see fit.

i will continue to seek ways to reduce my oil use, and i will tell you what i decide to do re: my next vehicle.

suggestions are encouraged.

and yes, i understand that, when it comes to making sense of the oil spill, the quantity of oil involved is only just the beginning.

next, i’m going to have to deal with the trickle-through effect on wildlife habitats, including our own.

but that still makes my head hurt, so first, i will watch a couple episodes of fringe (moving on with jj abrams, now that lost is done!), and work on my bomb shelter schematics.

do you think there will be enough battery power to bring my wii?

2 Responses to “how many barrels of oil does it take to fuel an american life?”

  1. Erik Says:

    That’s cool that you’re exploring non-car transport! I’m into it!

    And I agree that the oil spill sucks. That said, I am interested in spirited debate about what the effects of it are likely to be.

    In that vein, I don’t think the Gulf will be a visibly toxic place 20 years from now. The ocean eats oil slowly, and that’s exactly what will happen. The oil will destroy the ecosystem in several ways, and then the ocean will eat the oil. We will have the same gulf, with less ecosystem.

    Here’s what I think the real effects are:
    * Jobs will be lost, but not on a scale that’s unfamiliar to us.
    * Local food culture will be lost, but not on a scale that’s unfamiliar to us.
    * Ocean ecosystems will be lost, but not on a scale that’s unfamiliar to us.
    * Communities will come together to try and save coastal ecosystems, but they will be severely damaged. Marshes that once had birds won’t.
    * Large animals will die out, leaving smaller, more anonymous life forms. Algal blooms, minnows, etc.
    * Millions of animal souls will be tortured and snuffed out.

    In the end, I think the damage done will be far, far less than many of the other terrible things that are happening under our noses.

    And honestly, at a cultural level, we will have forgotten this event by 2020. With luck we will change the laws for the better quickly now, while there is political capital to do so.

    But I have to be honest, I am pretty sure the oil companies will use this as an opportunity to push through some “reforms” of their own.

  2. Joe Says:

    I’ve been reading about cycling a lot lately, and thinking about the arguments that Ivan Illich makes in “Energy and Equity” (available on any bike punk website. Just google). I find his reasoning unconvincing, but I basically agree with his assertions; the reasons supplied by my imagination make more sense to me.

    I think it’s a travesty that Caltrain runs on diesel.

    I don’t know what my point is.

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