Julian Spector is a former editorial fellow at CityLab, where he covers climate change, energy, and clean tech.
If humans had to power their own showers, the world would be a much smellier place.
One of the benefits (and dangers) of modern living is that we can use energy without having to work for it or think about where it comes from.
To make it easier to contextualize the energy usage of basic daily activities, researchers at the online energy marketplace SaveOnEnergy.com converted these tasks into units of human activity. Any physical action—walking up a flight of stairs, lifting weights, taking out the trash—uses energy, just like turning on the light switch. Comparing those units, though, shows just how much we benefit from electric power permeating our lives.
Checking your email and reading the news on a laptop is the least energy-intensive routine activity on the list. Still, it requires the same energy as climbing almost 29 flights of stairs, equivalent to walking up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. That’s nothing, though, compared to the energy it takes to make a cup of coffee. That vital, life-giving task requires the same energy it would take to scale 383.3 flights of stairs, equivalent to the total height of two Empire State Buildings. Want to get ready for work with a 10-minute shower and a quick blow dry? To power that little indulgence you’d need to hike Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Everest—at which point, you’ll really need a shower. (For comparison purposes, a flight of stairs is two meters tall.)
The numbers get more shocking when they jump to collective electricity use. Powering all the casinos in Las Vegas for a month equates to everyone in the U.S. besides Texas, Florida, and California running a marathon. Powering the whole United States for that long would require 12 times the world population to run a marathon. Worldwide electricity use for a month adds up to the energy used if more than four times the total number of humans who ever lived ran those 26.2 miles.
These comparisons are fanciful. Nobody’s going to have to drop down and do 720 pushups to microwave their lunch at work. But they do illustrate just how much of a force multiplier electricity is. This invention, quite recent in the story of human existence, makes it possible to do things that would have been unthinkable had they required direct human effort. That intoxicating power led our civilization to build a vast energy infrastructure, which we now know pumps gases into the atmosphere sufficient to alter the world’s climate. Research like this guards against taking for granted the seemingly endless supply of power available at the flick of a switch.