“The family are having a leisurely afternoon, but our cyclists are paying for it, big-time.”
Here’s a story of a single day experienced very differently by two groups on either side of it. It’s part of a wacky demonstration cooked up by a British documentary film crew. I dare say that, as we creep into a post-fossil-fuel world, Human Power Station is reality television everybody, but everybody, needs to see.
Group One is an average family — businessman dad, schoolteacher mom, two teenage daughters —enjoying an average Sunday. They’re lolling around the house, fixing meals, noodling on the computer, taking showers, brewing tea. They’re having a totally forgettable day (except for the strange circumstance of living it on camera, in a specially built house).
Group Two, on the other hand, is having a day they will never forget. They are eighty in number, recruited from local gyms. For them it’s a work day. They have secretly been hired to power the house. Early this morning they reported to a huge room filled with stationary bikes attached to dynamos. For twelve hours they will ride — some of them continuously so as to keep appliances like the fridge and freezer going, and some of them on standby to meet the surge demand when, say, Dad takes a shower or a daughter fires up her hairdryer.
So the Little Day of the first group, you could say, is happening on the back of the Big Day of the second. And the first group has no idea.
Over the course of the show, the camera cuts between the front-of-the-house fantasy and the back-of-the-house reality. Only once does the human power station fail to keep this family’s vivid and continuous dream of consumer capitalism aloft. That’s when Mom takes the roast out of the oven, and the exhausted cyclists ease up. Then Mom puts the crumble in. Boom. Blackout. It only lasts a couple of seconds before the “grid” stabilizes (“Go go go, riders!”), and I don’t even think the kids notice. But the limits of human power, and maybe human patience, have been revealed.
In the era of cheap fossil fuel, we took energy for granted. We plugged things into the wall and didn’t think twice about the power that was magically supplying our needs for light and food and amusement. But as that era limps to an end, we’re increasingly going to have to rely on renewables – if not eighty cyclists spinning behind the bedroom wall, at least less predictable sources like wind or sun, which can’t hold a candle, in terms of pure concentrated energy, to fossil fuels. It took the titanic sweat-equity of eighty people grinding for twelve hours to keep the Collins household running for a day. At the end of the show the host reveals the fossil-fuel equivalent: a small bucket of coal or a flask of oil. We consumers didn’t realize how cushy we had it. Now we’re going to have to get both thrifty and crafty if we hope to get out of this global-warming predicament alive. There will be sweat.
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this show. When I pop the toast in for a second time, to top up the browning, I think of the collective groan that issued from those eighty cyclists when the Dad casually did the same. I never realized how much power is sucked by leaving things plugged in. Or the difference between the energy demands of various appliances. Anything with a heating element sucks a lot of juice. Those old incandescent light bulbs we’re meant to be phasing out, they create so much wasted heat that the host of the show cooked a chicken with a couple of them. There are little things we can do, we’re reminded, that won’t feel like a sacrifice but that make a big difference in the long run – like turning the thermostat down one degree.
Feels like 1973 all over again, right? Back then the “energy crisis” was that fossil fuels were running out, so we needed to dial back to stretch the resource. Now we need to dial back progressively, and eventually permanently, because this resource isn’t the miracle we thought it was. Kind of the opposite.