The big global issues of energy can be set out in simple terms if you use units of people and animals. And get a friend to check your figures.

This is what James Watt did in the industrial revolution when he coined the term ‘horse power’ to measure his steam engines, in units in turn named after him. A horse generates up to seven hundred and fifty watts.

You or I might generate around eighty to one hundred watts and the strongest people we know up to a quarter of the power of a horse.

There are now calculations of how much energy we rely on in daily use in these terms. Professor Hans Peter Durr, associated with the World Future Council, has estimated that each person in Europe relies on the equivalent of sixty (strong) people-power – or, as I would extrapolate from his calculations, fifteen horsepower. These are assumed to work six days a week, ten hours a day. The US numbers are still higher – based on 110 people, or twenty eight horses.

Buckminster Fuller described these as the idea of ‘energy slaves’ that allow us to do so much more than our own bodies could sustain.

Sadly, in nature’s terms, this is by no means sustainable number of horses, as we rely on the cheat’s trick of machines powered by non-renewable energy. With my maths kindly corrected by Josef, a sustainable number of horses would be up to less than four each.

The next time someone talks about what should be done about energy, imagine four horses in your garden. That would be a sustainable lifestyle.

It is still a fair pack of muscle to have at your disposal – and somehow more beautiful than our world now being carved up by the fossil fuel guzzling descendants of the first steam engines in the north of England to outpace a stallion.

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Hi Ed,

I like thinking of fields of horses, but I think you may have messed up the math by multiply people need instead of dividing.

You state that:

“You or I might generate around eighty to one hundred watts and the strongest people we know up to a quarter of the power of a horse.”

But then:

“each person in Europe relies on the equivalent of sixty (strong) people-power – or, as I would extrapolate from his calculations, two hundred and forty horsepower. These are assumed to work six days a week, ten hours a day. The US numbers are still higher – based on 110 people, or four hundred and forty horses. ”

Surely if a strong person is a quater of the power of a horse then we’d need less horses than people? Four times less (not four times more as you’ve got in your figures).

So the 60 people equivalent we currently use = 15 horses each.

And the US current use of 110 people would be 27.5 horses.

This all makes your ascertion that 60 horses being the sustainable amount seem rather questionable 😛

Assuming you got to 60 by dividing our current use by four(?), then the sustainble amount (since our current use is actually 15 horses) would be 3.75 horses – no quite as nice an image as a field full of horses (and a LOT less power)

Ur right on all this – 3.75 it is edx

For some reason this makes me think of Citroen 2CVs which I think are 2 horse power. Normally people think of them as not very powerful vehicles, but they’ll go anywhere! They are actually really great off road vehicles (and were designed to be). Afterall, two horses can get pretty much anywhere! 🙂

Hmz, actually, even though the name means ““two tax horsepower” it seems that even in the original 1948 version had a 9bhp engine and by 1970 they were 33 bhp:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citroën_2CV