By Sarah (Steve) Mosko
Special to the Surf City Voice
There’s no shortage of finger pointing as the now worst oil spill in U.S. history continues its assault on the Gulf Coast’s ecology and economy.
A USA TODAY/Gallop Poll taken in late May, for example, found that 73 percent of Americans feel that British Petroleum (BP) is doing a ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ job of handling the crisis, and 60 percent evaluated the federal government’s response in the same unfavorable terms.
Confronted with images of birds swathed in crude oil and prognostications that the Gulf region’s fishing and tourism industries might never recover, the urge to form a posse,
so to speak, to rout out those responsible and hold them accountable is all too human.
But are we Americans shocked enough yet by the enormity of this calamity to own up to our personal role in it? After all, it’s ultimately our nation’s energy-intense lifestyle and attachment to fossil fuels that gives companies like BP and our government the implicit go-ahead to pursue oil at the risk of the very kind of disaster now ensuing.
Unless you’re a physicist or energy wonk of some sort, hearing that the average yearly per-capita energy consumption in the United States in 2008 was 337 million Btu probably tells you little about your energy footprint. Knowing that a Btu is an energy standard equivalent to 252 calories – about what’s contained in a Snickers candy bar – is probably of little help either.
That’s why Professor of Physics Richard Wolfson of Middlebury College has been giving demonstrations for the last decade which impart a real gut-level, hands-on feel for the energy it takes to support the typical American lifestyle.
His demonstration is simple but ingenious. A volunteer is asked to turn a hand crank which, through a geared system, drives an electric generator connected to two 100-watt incandescent light bulbs.
The upshot is that a typical person can turn the crank fast enough to light one 100-watt light bulb, but not two. To add to the muscular feel for the effort required to turn the crank, Wolfson points out that it takes roughly the same energy output as doing deep knee bends at a rate of one per second. Read the full story