How the Human Race is Addicted to Oil

Think you’re not an addict? Think again

One barrel of crude oil – 159 litres – represents the same ability to do physical work as 12 big, strapping slaves toiling 40 hours per week, for a year. It is, literally, 25,000 slave-hours, gift-wrapped. You can whip it out of the ground in Iraq for about $1.50 and sell it on the open market for a 5000 per cent mark-up without falling afoul of the human-rights regulators. And you can do it about 1000 times a second, 24/7. It’s a business with real potential…


Oil is slavery, canned, but there’s no need for the lash. The labour oil delivers is utterly willing.

Each barrel of crude produces about 74 litres of petrol – call it about 12,000 slave-hours. Or, if you prefer 12kiloslave-hours (12ks-hr). That’s about the same as a full tank for your Falcon or Commodore. Each litre is effectively access to the work of 162 slaves for an hour (162s-hr or 0.162 ks-hr).


Many people bitch and moan about the price of petrol, yet they seldom consider the value of it. And, it must be said,petrol represents unbeatable value. Everyone complaining about the price should kindly shut up right now.

Say Mum loads up the three rugrats and backs the XR8 out of the garage for the 10km round trip to Woolies to forage for the weekly groceries. Even at 20L/100km she’ll burn only two litres of petrol (that’s ‘only’ 324 slaves for an hour). It’ll cost about $2.40 – less than a coffee. Even in the third world you’d be prepared to pay more for the equivalent trip in a rickshaw, which would not be as comfortable, dignified, or fast.

Petrol represents unbeatable value.


There’s a bigger problem afoot, worthy of much more airtime than complaints about price. This stuff we’re addicted to is running out, and there are no truly viable alternatives. There is nothing in your house or office that does not owe its existence or presence to oil. Everything made of metal, plastic, chemicals, paint, everything that was transported by land, sea or air. All the clothing, drinking water, gas, electricity, the dog, iPod, cosmetics, weed killer. Everything.

Newborn babies interact with oil as they emerge from the womb. After we depart this life we are either buried in holes dug by oil or immolated by flames fuelled by oil. Everything in between: oil. We worship the stuff (oil has a much higher profile than, say, the Catholic Church).

The car in your driveway requires about 45 barrels of oil to make (1.125 million slave-hours – which is why it’s so nice to ride in, as opposed to, say, riding 100km on a donkey). The computer in your office owes its existence to the consumption of about 10 times its own weight in fossil fuel.

Look down at your lunch. Every kilojoule you eat in the western world owes its presence on the plate to the 10kJ of hydrocarbon energy burnt getting it there.

Hydrocarbon energy is so cheap it’s almost free. (You pay $1.20; you get 162 slaves for an hour. That’s cheap.) It’s merely because our capacity to waste energy so profligately knows no bounds that paying $80-odd to fill your car up seems galling (1200 slaves for 10 hours is excessive, even by Roman standards).


As long as the developed world remains rich and energy stays so cheap, there is no imperative for energy conservation. In the US between 2008 and 2009, petrol prices nosedived by more than 50 per cent (down from US$4.11 per gallon to US$1.92). The auto sector was hit hard by the global financial crisis, but in particular Hybrid sales flatlined. The LA Times reported that hybrid sales went “from 60 to 0 at breakneck speed” and said “the slowdown had been particularly brutal for hybrids”. The New York Times noted that six months ago a typical Prius spent 1.6 days on the lot, awaiting sale. After oil nosedived again, it loitered on the floorplan for 76.6 days. The wait to sell a typical Camry Hybrid has extended from 4.6 days to 156 days.

Perhaps the free market isn’t the best place in which to determine the energy policy of the country that consumes 25 per cent of the world’s oil (with only 4.5 per cent of the world’s population and just two per cent of known global oil reserves). Cheaper fuel puts thirstier cars on the ‘to-do’ list for more punters because wasting energy is more satisfying, short-term, than not wasting it. It’s that simple.


During the 1970s oil crisis, US petrol stations ran out of fuel, and panic over the perceived future of the American way of life set in. Then-US President Richard Nixon said, in a national address: “If our energy resources are properly developed they can fulfil our energy requirement for centuries to come. What is needed, now, is decisive and responsible action.”

Fast-forward 35 years. The earth’s power consumption is 10 terrawatts. (10 thousand-million kilowatts. Think: rather a large light bulb.) China and India are only just coming to the party, and the keg marked ‘oil’ is half empty. A graduate student at the California Institute of Technology asks Professor of Physics David L Goodstein: “Will my grandchildren ever ride in an aircraft?” In an interview he describes the question as “gripping” because “the answer might well be ‘no’”. The things we take for granted could well be reserved for only the world’s super-elite in just a few decades.


“Worldwide demand now is something between 25 and 30 billion barrels per year and it’s increasing at an alarming rate,” says Goodstein. Alternatives? “The demand is so huge, and there is nothing that we can imagine to replace oil in those quantities.”

It makes you wonder if, in 100 years, anyone will visit the Mitchell Library (provided it still exists). If they do (and if it does) what do you suppose they’ll make, in the post-oil-addicted world, of the unbridled passion we all shared for turning hydrocarbons into speed and noise?

And who do you suppose they’ll assume the slaves really were?

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fuelJohn Cadogan1 Comment