Ditch Digging

Published 2006-07-27

In late 1998, I had a vision about energy. This was at my last archaeology job, in Southern California. I was "monitoring" a large construction project in the Mojave desert, which mostly entailed standing around with a clipboard, taking the occasional photograph, and daydreaming. As I watched this enormous earth-mover scoop up and plop down ton after ton of loose sandy soil, I thought a little bit about how long it would take me to move that much dirt. (I actually did the math — monitoring is hatefully boring.) The short answer: a very long time. I don't recall the exact number, but I think it worked out to:

1 Komatsu earthmover = 300 150lb. archaeologists

(And I was a pretty fast digger.)

As an archaeologist, I knew a thing or two about digging; about how hard it is, how slow it is, and how many strong human backs it takes to move any significant amount of dirt. But modern people have lived for so long now (4 generations and counting) with so much promiscuous energy at our command that we lose track of how hard it is to actually do work. With fossil fuel–powered technology, every modern American has the equivalent of about 200 ghost slaves. Magical, electrical pixies who wash our dishes, mow our lawns, do our laundry, take us to the shopping mall, and (indirectly) grow our food.

That's when I had my vision. It was a simple one, related to a game I used to play as a child where I would imagine a landscape without people, depopulated by the horrific effects of nuclear war. Only in my adult vision, the landscape isn't depopulated, it's full of people. Human beings trying to do the work that machines powered by cheap energy once did for us. How many man-months would it take to dig a 100-mile-long pipleine through the Mojave desert? A dozen mechanized men can do it in a few months. It would take an army of thousands of strong men with shovels to accomplish the same task in the same time. And how do you coordinate that army? How do you feed it? There's a reason Pharaoh made slaves of the Israelites. You can't build cost-effective pyramids (or water pipelines) with union labor.

I play this game a lot when I'm riding my bike through the suburbs. What would this landscape look like if we couldn't buy all our vegetables for a pittance from Mexico? What if Mexican strawberries cost $40/pound? That would create some incentive to grow strawberries instead of parking lots, I'm sure. But of course, you'd have to tear out the parking lots. By hand. The prospect of back-breaking labor doesn't scare me at all. It's the other part, the part about Pharaoh and Moses. I think about that part every time I see the price of oil creep up a few more dollars.

Needless to say, this is a big topic.