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The Human Effort Index looks at how hard people have to work to produce the food, clothing and shelter we need, along with the extra material comforts we crave.

In regions with moderate climate and abundant resources, it’s taken relatively little effort to produce a good living. In more marginal lands with harsher climates, much more effort is required for survival.

In the Canadian Arctic, for example, indigenous people had to work constantly to eke out the barest living, often punctuated by periods of starvation and population decline. Their material possessions were minimal, their food storage capacity low and their educational system completely survival oriented.

The Industrial Revolution: The Work Smarter, Not Harder Era

Contrast this to major agricultural societies whose fertile fields produced a surplus of crops, allowing a large population the time to develop other resources as well as a variety of skills and sophisticated education systems.

These more complex and capable societies were then able to move beyond their agricultural base to develop other non-essential abilities, exploit more resources, and harness more raw energy. First coal, and then oil provided over 100 times the energy per person than had previously been available, which allowed a huge leap of productivity at all levels. They no longer had to rely only on their own physical efforts.

Activity and output literally skyrocketed – more food, more people, more lumber, more minerals, more schools, more production equipment, and more ships. There was virtually no resource which couldn’t be completely exploited by our newly energized capabilities.

3.3 Are We Working Too Hard-01Resource Scarcity Leads To Working Harder For Less

For several generations, this material progress seemed endless. However, shortages have begun to appear in some areas and that means we have to work increasingly hard to extract what the earth once gave us so easily.

Many fisheries and forests have been depleted, requiring harvesting crews to travel further to catch fish or cut trees. Our soils are less fertile, we’re dependent on artificial fertilizer chemicals to control pests and weeds. Oil is becoming more scarce and expensive.

For the first 200 years of the industrial revolution, people were driven by the promise of economies of scale. The larger the factory, coal mine, or oil well, the lower the unit costs of production would be. Now, well into the 21st century, the opposite is true. Now we have higher unit costs for greater production. The more we take, the harder it is going to be to get more, and the greater the environmental cost will be.

Preserving Our Natural Resources 

With increasing scarcity of energy and all key resources, it’s like we are trying to chop increasingly harder wood with an increasingly dull ax. At some point the effort exceeds the output. Instead of working harder, we need to work smarter and preserve our resource base, or in the near future, more will quickly turn to less.

For more insights on this topic, read this Scientific American interview of ecologist Charles Hall, who speaks about EROI and the importance of measuring the ratio of energy output over energy input.

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