Buddy can you spare 25,000 man-hours?

A barrel of oil. That’s what we’re mulling over today. The energy stored in a single 42-gallon barrel of oil.

According to Jan Lundberg’s Culture Change newsletter, a barrel of oil compresses the energy equivalent of 25,000 man-hours of labour. For this you pay, according to Bloomberg.com, US$59.04. That’s up four cents since yesterday, which probably made someone somewhere a few million bucks.

Lundberg got his stats here, from a speech given by one U.S. Congressman Roscoe Bartlett (R. Maryland) before the U.S. house of representatives last April. Bartlett, a physicist, takes the long view on energy issues but comes across as a realist on the subject of “peak oil.”

He writes:

The energy density in oil is just incredible. One 42-gallon barrel of oil…

…the energy you get from that is the equivalent of 25,000 man-hours of labor. That would be 12 people who did nothing but work for you all year long. Everything they did was for you, and the energy they would expend in that full year is the energy equivalent of one barrel of oil.

There was a time when having 12 people who did nothing but work for you was not so strange. Not many could afford it, of course, but them as could, did, and some who did, accomplished much. The pyramids of Egypt come to mind, as does the Great Wall of China.

These days, the energy of 12 people per year isn’t enough for most of us. In fact, Canadians use 8.16 tonnes of oil equivalent (a convoluted expression found here) per capita per year, or 60 barrels of oil (based on a conversion factor found here). The figure for the U.S. is slightly higher, at 8.35 tonnes of oil equivalent or 61.4 barrels of oil.

Um, what have you done with your 720 full-time labourers this past year? Built a pyramid lately? Embarked on some crazy “Wall” scheme that explorers on the moon will marvel at when looking back to earth?


If you’re like most everyone else, your share of oil was burnt up keeping your home warm and lit, getting back and forth to your pathetic job, running your T.V. and your A.C., charging your cellphone batteries, and schlepping out for groceries in the S.U.V.

Have we missed anything?

How does it feel to be so stupid?

Oops, not supposed to say that. What we mean is, when are you going to grow up?

Future generations of humans, from their raggedy caves in the foothills of nowhere, may one day look back on our era and ask, in whatever mumbling language that remains to them, “How did it happen that so little good came of so much wealth?”

To Congressman Bartlett we give the last word: “The real challenge now is to use conservation and efficiency to reduce our demands for oil so that we have enough oil left to make the investments in these alternatives and renewables so that we can take the place of the oil that we are not going to have because we are sliding down Hubbard’s [sic] Peak.”

3 Responses to “Buddy can you spare 25,000 man-hours?”


    [...] polar bears (and the human race) it’s small relief only. Fact is, gas prices, which purchase the equivalent of many hundreds of man-hours per Canadian dollar, are much too [...]


    [...] tenets we hold true. “Be prepared.” In a world where we take for granted the slave labour of many thousands of man-hours per year provided by the oil economy, but one in which oil is creeping into the mystery zone of post-peak [...]


    [...] cost us over $800. It has an 8-speed internal hub and a coaster brake. With a barrel of oil (read 25,000 man-hours of labour) now costing below $50 US, we thought about sniffing around for a wrecky old car instead. We [...]

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