The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Grateful for Gas
This year, for the Thanksgiving holiday, I'm going to direct my thoughts and prayers in an unusual direction. I'm going to be grateful for gasoline.
Rather than taking that liquid energy for granted, or grumping about the high price of petrol at the pump (a complaint rarely heard this fall, but certainly a loud chorus last summer when the prices were 50% higher than today), I will try to be attentive to what a remarkable and valuable gift this is.
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A few months ago, a conference speaker planted a dramatic image in my mind. His goal was to illustrate how much energy is contained in the gas we use so blithely. Here's the way that I carried away his message.
My car, an aging Geo Prizm, gets close to 30 miles per gallon in town, and has been known to get over 40 MPG on the highway. He encouraged me to think what it would take to move my auto those 30 or 40 miles if it had to be pushed, instead of using gas.
As I ponder such a task, I'd be inclined to hire out the labor, instead of doing it myself. I'd want to stay in Denver for this imaginary expedition, to have the advantage of fairly flat terrain. (Those dramatic mountains rise from the plains just west of us.) Here in town, then, I probably be able to get by with two burly workers hunkered down behind the car. If they really threw themselves into the task, and averaged about two miles an hour, they could push my Prizm around a 28 mile course of city streets in two long days.
This isn't highly skilled labor -- and for this mental exercise we'll ignore larger questions of economic justice -- so I'll pay my laborers the US minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. Two people, each working 16 hours at that pay level will cost me $164.80.
Compare that with the $2.17 that one gallon of gas would cost me to travel the same distance. Hiring workers would cost me about 75 times as much as using the chemical energy stored in the gasoline. And, of course, there's the added value of convenience -- the gas lets me do a 28 mile loop of errands in about an hour, instead of spending two days at it using only muscle power.
As the vast disparity between those figures first ran through my head during last summer's lecture, I became vividly aware that I hadn't adequately appreciated the remarkable gift that is contained in every gallon of gas.
Realizing what it would take to replace a gallon of gas does make me more grateful. Each time that awareness catches up with me again -- while I'm topping up the tank, or cruising down the highway -- I'm glad that I have a new and more honest insight into the value of the energy that I'm using.
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A gallon of gas is cheaper than a gallon of milk. It is often cheaper than a gallon of water in those stupid store-bought bottles. At those sorts of prices, we're not assigning it an appropriate economic value. When gas is that cheap, we're not appreciating the astonishing gift, the almost miraculous bundling of possibility, that sits in our gas tanks.
What we have in fossil fuels is stored energy. Plants and animals millions of years ago converted solar power into chemical energy that is stored in complex carbon-based molecules. During long eons in the earth, the remains of those trees and dinosaurs were transformed into the coal and petroleum that we use in such great quantities today. Our modern society is draining this planetary storage battery, and we're doing so millions of times faster than it was charged.
It is easy to see how the rapid use of so much concentrated energy has made the explosion of the global economy possible. Cheap energy -- in gasoline, or converted from coal into electricity -- allows us to power great machinery, plow and harvest huge fields, haul goods long distances, serve the needs of sprawling cities, heat and cool our homes and offices, and perform countless other wonders.
The incredible prosperity of today's affluent societies is a fairly direct product of fossil fuels. It would be impossible to live this way if we had to do all of our work with the muscle power of people and animals, and if all of our fuel energy had to come from the current growth of plants.
The image of two strong guys pushing my car helps me understand the challenges of developing alternative energy sources. If we are going to successfully wean ourselves from fossil fuels, we will need to harvest vast amounts of power from biofuels and wind and solar collectors. This isn't a trivial project!
My awareness of the amount of energy stored in a gallon of gasoline moves me to deep gratitude. It is the sort of appreciation which discourages me from wasting that gift or using it for trivial purposes. Gas may be cheap in dollars, but it is profoundly valuable.
Jesus -- sermonizing from the Mount about themes of self-awareness and humility and valuing what is good -- said, "Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine." If we treat things that are of great worth like trash, and if we blindly discard what is immensely valuable, it is an insult to the one who has provided the gift, and it diminishes our own spirit.
Being grateful for gasoline is an odd Thanksgiving approach. But I think it is a good spiritual discipline for us, though, this week and at all times.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
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