Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Peek at Peak Oil

Amid a field of rubble in a Vientiane lot, a wrecking crew is taking down a building. The job could be done in a few minutes with a backhoe, by the looks of it; just a few concrete struts supporting the ground and second floor skeleton of what looks like and old house.
But there is no machinery here. A workman with a sledgehammer is wailing on a brace. A few other guys haul away pieces of rubble in a wheelbarrow, hand-loading them into a truck.
This is life in a low-energy society, where labour for a week is cheaper than the oil it would cost to run equipment for a few hours. It may be that this is a make-work project as well... the point being not to do the job fast, but to keep a family fed for a little while longer.
You see this everywhere in Laos- crews struggling mightily with tiny shovels and bare hands, where machinery could do the job faster and easier.
I think of the public works projects in North America- in my hometown. Tons upon tons of earth moved, acres of rip-rap dumped, miles of asphalt paved, steel girders lifted to the top of buildings. All do-able because of cheap oil. We forget in our daily lives the kind of muscle power that has been replaced by the bond between hydrocarbon molecules, and how that has meant smooth sidewalks, tamed rivers, speed and efficiency.
Energy has always been a premium in Laos. They may never suffer from Peak Oil because it's never been an issue here. I wonder how we'll fare, how long our projects will last, when 200 men will have to replace a couple of bored operators behind hydraulic levers.

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