Powering the creative mind is the optimal use for energy. You will get no bigger return from anything else you can direct energy towards.
Consider that a creative mind needs two things, energy and opportunity.
The energy of the brain is glucose. It gets this from the food we eat. When we move, glucose is used up. If we don’t eat, our blood sugar level drops and parts of our brain shutdown while the rest of it will begin to function less effectively. If we are able to keep our blood sugar level stable we have the potential to power-up our creative functioning and manufacture thoughts and ideas that didn’t exist before.
The opportunity for creative expression is a lot more complicated but it really comes down to having a lifestyle that includes time for self actualizing, creative and trivial pursuits. In order for this to happen we need an alternative way to get the work done. Enter oil and machines.
Right now that most useful energy source is oil. Think of it as moderately concentrated stored energy. It is very stable so it can be transported around the world with little inconvenience and is valuable enough to justify massive infrastructure projects that pay for themselves quickly. Contained within it is the energy needed to refine it into hundreds of useful products of which we primarily use it for plastic and fuel – we build and move things around with it. When it is turned into plastic, it maintains some of its energy potential; this can be salvaged through recycling or burning.
When it is used as fuel it can be viewed as a stored form of kinetic energy. When it is combusted, the energy is converted into heat and through the workings of an engine, movement. It exists as kinetic energy for as long as the car is moving and as potential kinetic energy as long as gravity can pull the car down a hill or off a cliff. From a practical standpoint, after it has been burned the energy that was contained within the oil is gone.
How much energy is in oil? Assume that a man can push a car as far as it can drive on a single tank of gas, in one year. Oil can do the year of work for a man in 6 hours assuming the speed limit. Assuming you drive 18000km per year, in two years the amount of work the car has done is the equivalent to the 60 years (the working life) of an able bodied human. Framed in the context of this article, getting a human being to do the work of driving a car for 6 hours a week for two years will be the equivalent to one human beings creative influence – given that all of their time and energy will go to pushing the car. Run the car nonstop and you’ve surpassed a humans’ LIFETIME potential in just over 2 weeks.
The problem our species is going to run into is a consequence of a finite amount of oil given the extreme length of time it takes for oil to form. As it is removed, it is not replaced. It will become more difficult and therefore expensive to extract from the ground. A reduction in supply will result in an increase in price. Over time, oil will become cost prohibitive as a fuel. Unless there is an alternative, trillions of hours of potential kinetic energy will be removed from the global supply. As it stands now we have not implemented a self-sustainable energy source and what we do have in terms of solar, wind and water does little to satisfy the minimum survival energy needs of 7 billion people, let alone supply energy needed to power their creative minds. Until this self-sustainable energy source is created / discovered our species will continue to consume growing portions of the planet that are near the surface and easy to get to. Once they become harder to get to, we’ll begin to see humans return to moving the things that the machines are currently moving. Then we’ll have a lot of work to do, particularly given that 1 week of fuel = 1500 weeks of human effort (~30 years).
Without the energy to move things about the planet, human beings are going to need to sacrifice their creative time in order to get things done.
We will have less of everything and what we have will be a lot more expensive to acquire. The boom days will be gone and the speed of technological advance, intellectual discovers and creative applications and solutions will slow. The drop in the quality of living is going to be a drag but we’re not likely to be starving and shelter-less. We’ll have jobs, some will be the same things we are doing today while many will be similar to those of jobs of 50-100 years ago. It will be different, the pace will be slower, and the different societies will begin to become less homogenized as it becomes increasingly difficult to move resources from one country to another. Information will continue to be exchanged, but the groups who currently process and refine resources on a mass scale (the labor) will not have the chance to do this because shipping resources back and forth across the oceans will simply cost too much.
Oil has given humanity a great opportunity to advance because it freed-up the energy from doing work that lets people to more creative things. The pace has been remarkable and worth continuing.