From Oil Age to Soil Age

Categories: Big picture
Published on: December 13, 2016

John Thackara / 21 November 2016

In 1971 a geologist called Earl Cook evaluated the amount of energy ‘captured from the environment’ in different economic systems. Cook discovered then that a modern city dweller needed about 230,000 kilocalories per day to keep body and soul together. This compared starkly to a hunter-gatherer, 10,000 years earlier, who needed about 5,000 kcal per day to get by.

That gap, between simple and complex lives, has widened at an accelerating rate since Cook’s pioneering work. Once all the systems, networks and equipment of modern life are factored in – the cars, planes, factories, buildings, infrastructure, heating, cooling, lighting, food, water, hospitals, the internet of things, cloud computing – well, a New Yorker or Londoner today ‘needs’ about sixty times more energy and resources per person than a hunter-gatherer – and her appetite is growing by the day.

To put it another way: modern citizens today use more energy and physical resources in a month than our great-grandparents used during their whole lifetime.

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