10 01 17 What is Efficient - Really

Last week I compared the relative efficiency of walking and driving.  Which we consider more efficient depends on the criteria we apply: if it is time expended, driving is more efficient; if it is energy expended, walking is more efficient.

            Today any discussion of efficiency is distorted or biased in favour of time efficiency because we always have the possibility of using fossil fuel,  To understand this, let’s remove the fossil fuel possibility for the moment.  I have been reading Ralph Friesen’s recent book about Steinbach: Between Earth and Sky.  He recounts how in 1877 the Steinbach pioneers began the construction of a windmill.  When it was complete, the mill was able to mill about 40 bushels per hour.  This mill was built with hand tools.  Even the necessary iron was reworked in a fire fueled by charcoal from local poplar trees.

            So was this mill efficient?  I don’t know, but I expect it was very efficient, both in terms of time and in terms of energy.  Substantial human time and energy went into the construction of this mill.  This time and energy could have gone into milling the grain by hand, but those working on the mill construction assumed that the human energy saved by allowing the energy of the wind to mill the grain more than made up for the energy going into the construction of the mill.  I expect they were correct in their assumption. Those people made informed, rational decisions with respect to the use of their time and energy.

            Or consider a person in those days, needing to get from point A to point B.  He had two choices: ride his horse or walk.  Were he to choose riding, he would consider the time taken to actually make the journey, but he would also need to consider the time taken to get the horse ready for the trip.  It is likely he would make an informed, rational decision.

            Are the decisions we are making today rational and informed with respect to time and energy?  I submit they are not, because we have trivialized the cost of oil.  Most of the time it seems we have unlimited access to this marvelous, cheap fuel.  One litre of oil will do as much work as what a man working hard for 3.4 days can do.  Since that litre can be purchased for less than $1.00, why would anyone expect a man to work for 3.4 days?  No sensible person would!

            But it is not a rational, informed choice.  The 1877 family needed to decide whether to apply their limited human energy directly to the milling of grain by hand, or to the construction of a machine that would eliminate the hand milling.  In other words, they needed to decide whether they were willing to make a time sacrifice early to gain more time later. Today things are different.  Today we decide whether to use our limited human energy to complete a task, or whether we use fossil fuel to do the task.  Today the energy equation is skewed because we have no idea what the fossil energy is really worth.  The only thing we know is how much energy is needed to extract it from the earth.