Better cars are not the answer

Photo: Philip Brewer

Wise Bread is an optimistic place. There are some people who can't see the congruence between optimism and frugality. I'm talking about the sort of people who point to our progress from 360 square foot houses to 2400 square foot houses and say that, if your vision of the future doesn't have us all in 16,000 square foot houses pretty soon now, it's a pessimistic one. This article, though, isn't about houses. It's about cars.

Posted as part of blog action day.

Why do we care about cars? Because they use energy. Energy which, for the past hundred years has been fantastically cheap, but which over the next hundred years will become much, much more expensive. Energy use which has always produced pollution, but which we can see ever more clearly is a threat not only to our way of life, but our very lives.

Do cars matter?

In the United States, 28.5% of our energy consumption goes for transportation, and most of that (about two-thirds) goes to move people from where they are to where they want to be--mostly in cars and so-called light trucks (a legal category of vehicle designed for light cargo hauling but used for personal transportation because of unwise tax and regulatory policies). (Data from the U.S. Department of Energy Transportation Energy Data Book.)

Hand-in-hand with its fraction of energy consumption, transportation contributes a comparable share to carbon emissions as well (33%, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration).

So, transportation is a big deal, and personal transportation (i.e. cars and things we use like cars) is the biggest chunk of transportation.

Better cars?

A lot of people look at that and say, "Ah ha! What we need are much better cars! Cars that use less fuel, and cars that use different fuels--renewable fuels!" Those people are wrong. What we need--and what we're going to have whether we like it or not--is much less driving.

Of course, we will get better cars. Cars will become more efficient and there'll be new fuels and new technologies--hybrid, hydrogen, and plug-in electric cars; cars burning ethanol, bio-diesel, coal-to-liquid, and other even more exotic fuels. But none of that will preserve our car-driving way of life. There are many reasons. Two big ones are:

  1. We can't solve the climate change problems with a few little--or even big--tweaks to the way we run our cars. It's going to take major changes.
  2. The energy needed to run around in your own car is going to get too expensive. The total world quantity of crude oil produced has been flat for about three years, despite record high prices. If these prices can't draw more fuel out of the ground, farms, and laboratories.... Well, then we'll get higher prices.

Cars could be made a lot more efficient, simply by making them smaller and lighter. That'll happen automatically, once energy gets a lot more expensive. The average car got 22.4 mpg in 2004 (the average light truck considerably less). Among cars currently being sold in the U.S. fuel efficiency tops out at about 60 mpg. Much better is possible--we'll see 120 mpg in the short term, as gasoline prices continue to rise. Making the shift as higher and higher prices force it, though is a slow, painful way to change, with the bulk of the pain falling on poor people, because the higher prices hit them first, and because they don't have the capital to invest in fuel-efficient cars.

Because there are so many things that will help--new car technology and new fuel technology--and so many good ideas and bits of good news being reported--we see a perverse result: People to look at the long list and imagine that surely one (or a few) of these ideas will pan out, and that our car culture will go on in the future much the same as it has in the past. The ideas will pan out (or many of them will), but it won't be enough to preserve our car-driving way of life. The climate change problems are too pressing and the energy supplies are no longer growing--which means that prices will have to rise to balance the still-growing demand.

What then?

We face a world with less driving.

If we accept that soon enough, there's a lot we can do--restore the failing railroad infrastructure, for one thing. Quit wasting money on airports and widening roads and putting up multi-level parking structures. Those aren't things that an individual can have much impact on (although at a local level it's possible, and worth trying).

As an individual, start arranging your life so you don't have to drive so much. Walk more. Bicycle more. Take the bus more. If you live too far from work, think about moving, or changing jobs, or both.

In the short term, also do all the things other articles on saving fuel recommend: Make sure your tire pressure is right. Combine trips. Drive conservatively. If you need a new car, buy a fuel efficient one. But none of that's going to be enough.

Soon--sooner than you think, unless you've been paying attention to the oil production figures--you're going to have to drive less. Plan for that. Arrange your life now, so that driving less won't be a burden.

The sooner you do it, the better off you'll be. It will give you more time to work out the kinks in your personal strategy for driving less. Also, it's frugal to drive less and it's incredibly frugal to live car-free. The money you're no longer spending to buy, fuel, insure, and maintain a car can give you a huge boost to your standard of living and your savings.

Why so optimistic?

This may not sound like an optimistic vision of the future. It is, though.

I look at the future and see cars becoming less common and less important. They'll become smaller and more fuel-efficient as well, but the dominate trend will be fewer of them on the road making fewer trips.

I view that change with great optimism. I see a future where communities are walkable--where housing, jobs, and shopping are close together. I see a future where people bicycle to work and to run errands. I see a future where light rail links bedroom communities with city centers and industrial centers, so that people who don't want to live in cities can still work in them and so that heavy industries that people don't want next door can still exist and still have workers. I see a future where high-speed rail links my town with the nearby cities--Chicago, Indianapolis, St. Louis.

I'm optimistic, because that's the future where I want to live.

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Julie Rains's picture

I wrote about this topic in Is Infrastructure Destiny?. My priority short-term is to use less energy; long-term is to live in an affordable neighborhood where I can walk safely to an affordable grocery store as well as to the library, restaurants, etc. As our population ages, this arrangement can be both planet-saving and allow people to live independently longer.

Guest's picture

Your post has inspired me to try riding a bike to work. I've a question, though -- has there been much thought given to the impact fuel efficient motorcycles might have on the environment? Might be a good compromise between cars and bicycles.

Philip Brewer's picture

Yes, I'm sure motorcycles, scooters, and mopeds will all be part of people's efforts to burn less fuel, both for the money saving and for putting less carbon into the air.

Guest's picture

Here in Madrid motorcycles are becoming quite common since our mayor changed the parking policy. motorcycles can park free in the street. But you can't park your car in the street for long times so if you want to go to work by car you will need to park it in the outskirts and use public transport

Anyway, you need to give them public transport next to a parking area.

Guest's picture

Up in Phoenix people regularly commute 1.5 hours to work each way in giant SUVs with their AC blasting because its 115 outside, spending $500 ore more on gas each month. They have one of the crummiest public transit systems I've seen. Yet, even if gas goes to $5 a gallon, I don't see people changing their habits. I just see them complaining a lot, continuing their driving patterns, and chalking it up to the cost of living. This is unsustainable on so many levels!

That's why we live in Tucson, where everything we use frequently is within walking/biking distance. A long time ago I used to commute an hour each way to work, and I'll never do it again.

Great post!

Guest's picture
Martin Widmark

Where I live, gasoline costs over $6 a gallon and have for years. This summer the cheapest gas (lowest octane number) was about $7 a gallon.
Five dollars for a gallon of gasoline is cheap. Very cheap.

Guest's picture

I have given this some thought in the past and your article made me think of it again. The world would be a better place if it ran like Disney World. People could just hop on the train and get from point A to point B in the blink of an eye. And the streets would be a lot cleaner too.

Guest's picture

This You Tube video is about a guy that found out how to burn salt water. He was looking for a way to cure cancer and discovered this by chance - wouldn't it be great to find a way to tell the oil companies to shove it.

Philip Brewer's picture

There are a lot of ways to split the hydrogen and oxygen that make up water. Burning the hydrogen you get is never going to give you back more energy than it took to split the water molecules. (I noticed that the meter on the radio energy emitter was labeled in watts, and that they never let you see how many watts it was drawing while it was running.)

This is a good example of how ordinary hopefulness and wishful thinking lead people astray. This particular scheme, I think, is a dead loser--it will never yield positive net energy. But there are lots of other schemes out there that will produce some net energy. None of them are going to produce enough energy to keep the SUVs on the road.

Guest's picture

I find myself unemployed and I've been thinking back to a story my grandfather told me. When he returned from WWII, the only job he could find was over at the nursery near his house. And while it wasn't a great job, it paid the mortgage! Imagine being able to find a job within walking distance that paid the mortgage. I'm in a specialized field and I've been looking at jobs in a 50 mile radius to try and match my last salary... because I have the bills that match that salary. I think driving less is coming, but I think it's going to take other massive changes too.

Guest's picture

Hi, Phil. As you know, I'm an American spending two years living in London. My wife and I don't have a car over here, and although we rented one recently for a special trip, ordinarily we don't miss having a car at all. My wife bicycles to work. London isn't bike friendly for a European city, but there are bike lanes, and government prints excellent free maps advising routes. The tube, bus, train, tram and river-boat systems are all terrific.

I was just in Copenhagen a couple weeks ago, and Denmark is even better for bikes. The typical major street will have a side walk for pedestrians (with a curb) and a bike lane (with another curb) and then the street, so there are dedicated bike lanes on either side of the car traffic, separated from car traffic with a physical barrier.

Petrol in Britain costs the equivalent of $8 USD a gallon. Some people still drive, but the cost is a disincentive, and the excellent country-wide transit system is an incentive to take the bus or train instead. We even hiked either end of the Pennine Way recently, and hikers could get dropped off by bus at one end and pick up a bus at the other.

Granted, Britain is a lot more densely populated than the U.S., but the U.S. is often aggressively hostile to walking, biking, or mass transit. I've been in many U.S. neighborhoods where there were no sidewalks, and economic development was so poorly planned that you'd have to drive for miles from a residential area to buy groceries. Frankly, I like the way of life here in England a lot better than the car culture of the U.S. I'm looking forward to the changes that skyrocketing oil prices will require in America.

Andrea Karim's picture

It's not just jobs - it's a major values shift. Of course, having jobs that allow us to telecommute one day a week would be great, but it also means not driving everywhere we want to go.

It pains me, but it means that when I have a craving for chili cheese fries, I shouldn't jump in the car and go get some. I save gas, I save calories, I save money. It's just that I'm so USED to being entitled to giving into my cravings (be it for Ethiopian food, a movie I want to see, some paint I'd like for my basement) that I really have to contemplate the idea that going out and buying/seeing/renting stuff whenever I want is shockingly wasteful.

Guest's picture
Peter Jeziorek

The future you describe in the last paragraph is China. Very few people in China have cars. So how do they build hundreds of cities of million+ people? Companies provide housing on-site for all employees. People bike to work, using public transportation, (rarely walking though). In fact, probably half the world already operates with a fraction of the fuel that the US uses.

America is very unlikely to change. Just talk to any American and you'll see we're headed for disaster. Our whole economy, city structures, everything is built upon driving. Where that is going to go, time will only tell.

Guest's picture

Driving is freedom. People WANT cars. They will never stop driving them. The idea that Americans will start riding bikes in mass is laughable. We will certainly get more fuel efficient cars but the cost of fueling them will actually go up. Why? Because world demand for energy is going to far out pace any cost saving improvements that can be developed and brought to market. Oil hit $86+ a barrel today. Some people are forecasting $100/barrel by as early as years end.

And guess what? Oil could go to $200 barrel and Americans are going to keep on driving just the same as they always did. It's a lifestyle that they aren't going to give up. Ever. When given the choice between giving up their cars or driving considerably less or living the lifestyle they want Americans will opt for lifestyle.

Some tree huggers will surely come in here and try to tell me that there is a shift in American culture toward being more energy efficient. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It's the difference between words and action, rhetoric and reality. And the reality is that in the face of all the endless chatter about global warming we have been buried in for the last decade Americans on average are consuming MORE energy per capita than ever before.

Guest's picture

First of all I believe that if every car in the world suddenly went dead, it would not help the pollution problem that much. It might in major cities, especially smog-clogged areas where ten-lane freeways exist, but many of us don't live in such places. Remember that the earth itself spews out pollution (volcanoes) so you can't put all the blame on humans. Also much of the earth's pollution comes from third-world nations where we have very little influence.

Where I live, if cars were to suddenly disappear (or no one could afford to drive them) we'd all be dead. There simply is nothing in walking distance except one "convenience" store (and since you advocate frugality, I would hope you can see the financial peril of doing all your shopping at a convenience store/gas station, not to mention the ill effects to one's heath).

Frankly, I wouldn't want to live in a city where everything is in walking distance, and I'll tell you why: I grew up in one. Remember Paul Simon's song "My Little Town"? He could have been singing about the town I grew up in. We had plenty of merchants, but no chain stores to speak of, so all the local merchants thought it was perfectly okay to mark up everything they sold by anywhere from 50% to 100%. The only reason people were able to survive was that they could drive to other towns 15-20 miles away where prices of just about everything were far more reasonable - and that was before anyone had ever heard of a Wal-Mart.

Then there are other problems. My health insurance only authorizes me to use one pharmacy in my area (otherwise I have to pay out-of-pocket for the prescriptions) and that pharmacy is about a dozen miles away. That same insurance only authorizes a handful of doctors and none of them are within walking distance. That's one reason I say that if I suddenly have no car (and no one around me has one either), I'm dead. We don't even have public transportation out here (not even taxicabs).

The worst of it is that I have a feeling - no actual proof, mind you, but when you hear enough reports from varied sources you just start to believe in the possibility - that our governments are at best holding out on us with regard to advanced energy-efficient technologies, and at worst actively suppressing them to prevent the collapse of the petroleum industry. If they are doing anything like that and it ever comes out, people are going to be mad as hell (except, of course, for those who simply refuse to believe it despite the evidence), and that's probably what's delaying the release of those technologies. The politicians really don't want people to know that we had the solution to the energy crisis as much as fifty years ago and kept it from the public, because not one of those scoundrels would ever be re-elected.

Even if I'm wrong about that, it would take decades to convert our society back to one where everything is either in walking distance, or there is a sufficient level of public transportation that cars are not needed (and please don't discount the fact that the majority of people in large parts of the country wouldn't get on a bus if it were free AND it picked them up at their front door and took them directly to wherever they wanted to go). If your response is that we don't have decades, then I'm telling you flat out that unless new technologies come out fairly quickly, a lot of people are going to die, because society cannot adapt that quickly. Even if everyone suddenly decided that they wanted to move to the nearest major city - and you know that will never happen - there's not enough housing for them. We couldn't even handle the aftermath of one Category 5 hurricane without considerable loss of life - we're certainly not going to survive a major disruption to our way of life (not all of us, anyway).

The cynical part of me says that when everything gets scarce, and no one can afford to travel, there will be civil war. And I don't think it will help much to plan ahead for such times, because it will only prolong the agony and make people a target for their neighbors that feel that when times are bad, they have the right to appropriate whatever they need by force. In a "Mad Max" scenario, once the stores are emptied, the survivalists will be the first to be attacked (even a concrete bunker won't hold up against a mob - remember when the Berlin Wall came down, large chunks were removed by people armed with hammers and pickaxes). I just hope I don't live to see those days, if they ever come, and I truly hope they never do.

So, please don't write off "better cars", if by "better" you mean cars that do not pollute and do not consume petroleum products, because that is exactly what we DO need to avoid serious loss of life down the road. You aren't thinking about the unintended consequences of a major societal shift in a direction that most people will not willingly go.

One other point, I somehow suspect that most of the readers of this blog don't really enjoy being preached at. We may be looking for ways to save money and/or live frugally, but this post wasn't really about that, it was simply a particular opinion being laid upon us. Please remember that marketers preach at us all the time, often telling us what bad people were are (or leaving that strong implication) if we don't buy or use their product or service. You guys talk about how new parents are beset upon by marketers who insist that the little darling absolutely needs whatever product or service they're selling. Many readers of this group, I suspect, are at the point where we turn off that sort of thing, and we also turn off attempts to preach a particular viewpoint and look upon it as just another sales pitch. Please be careful, lest you alienate your readers.

Guest's picture

I would love to have a rapid streetcar or light rail system to get to the gym, doctor or to run smaller errands. But our community sees no value in such a crazy idea because it would cost money.

I would also be all for using a decent rail system to get to other cities for business or vacation. The nearest rail station is 3 hours away in a bad neighborhood with unsecured parking.

I wanted to get one of those neighborhood electric vehicles. I could drive it in the small limited area around my house but beyond this small subdivision I could not drive it because ALL of the ways into town are either interstate or two lane highway. NEV's usually go no faster than 40mph. This means we also can't bike into town.

So I am going to buy a bike next summer so I can at least get to the small grocery and post office in our area. There are still many places in this neighborhood I can't get to safely. It would mean walking on the shoulder of the highway.

I already consolidate my trips and do them in a loop. The urge for take out or getting that can of paint on a whim. Forget it. If it can't wait until the next time I go to town it is an impulse buy.

Philip Brewer's picture

Oh, there's no doubt that people love their cars. They'll go on driving if they possible can.

It's also true that $5/gallon gas won't stop them. As Bruce mentions above, $8/gallon gas doesn't stop them in London. The thing is, though, nothing is going to hold gasoline prices at $5 or $8 per gallon. With the supply no longer growing, the price will rise as far as necessary to hold the quantity demanded at the quantity supplied. I expect that $5 gasoline will mostly just squeeze people's budgets for other stuff. At $8, people will switch out of their SUVs and drive small cars. Another few dollars will get people to move closer to work, and so on: the slow, painful process I mentioned in the article, with most of the pain falling on the poor.

The rise in price won't be unbroken. Once people make these changes--smaller car, house closer to work--demand will drop and prices will follow. But those price drops won't last.

It's also true that buses don't appeal to a lot of people. Before I started riding them, I imagined that they were mostly populated by people who couldn't drive--children, the poor, the handicapped, alcoholics who had lost their drivers license--and you do see plenty of people who fall into those categories on the bus. But now that I ride them pretty often, I also see plenty of people who simply don't want the hassles of parking and driving, plus plenty of people who just want to reduce their contribution to global warming and all the other ills of our car-driving, petroleum-gulping society.

My principle goal in this piece is to give a heads-up to Wise Bread readers that these changes are coming. A lot of the actions that people will want to take (things like changing jobs and changing homes), require lead times of years. Raising the issue now may help some people accelerate their plans in these areas, or start making plans, or simply plant the idea in their head so that a year or two from now an otherwise-surprising spike in gasoline prices might make sense and prompt them to start making plans then.

A secondary goal is to prompt a few more people to advocate for a world where expensive energy won't be as painful--a world where trains and buses let people get to where they want to go.

Finally, I agree that the complete transition will take decades. We'll be burning petroleum-based fuels for another hundred years. But for most of that time we'll be burning very expensive petroleum-based fuels. Some people will arrange their lives so that they don't have to burn as much. Those people will be much better off.

Guest's picture

i do love trucks, big big trucks, and i love driving them off road and doing all sorts of truckish things with them. this is one of those things i struggle with, as i do love my many trucks dearly, but i hate how terrible they are for the enviroment. i truly do.

for this reason, i try to drive the least ammount as possible, and instead ride my bicycle for errands instead. i live out in buford, GA, which is now a suburb of atlanta, complete with a wasteland of gigantic McMansions, strip malls on every corner, and a walmart at every exit, not to mention a total lack of public transportation or sidewalks. all of this tends to add up to almost force people to drive their vehicles to get anywhere, even if it is just the neighborhood down the road to go visit a friend. a fine example of this mindset of having to use the car for every thing is a neighborhood called Hamliton Mill. well, not a neighborhood, but a 'community'. this is acres and acres of gigantic houses on small lots. this isnt your regular neighborhood, no, this is much much larger, and spans for miles. businesses arent allowed inside the confines of hamilton mill, except for their golf country club, which is somehow outside the definition of a business. hamilton mill doesnt have very many sidewalks connecting its various individual 'communitites' which are like small neighborhoods within neighnorhoods. this, along with crazed teens hyped up on energy drinks with their first car(truck) speeding along tends to make it hard to walk or even bike places. this i know, as i previously mentioned, i ride my bicycle a lot.

now, its hilly here, which is probably another factor contributing against biking a lot, along with no sidewalks or bike lanes, along with people who seem to have personal vendettas against bikers (ive been sideswiped once, and had my front tire clipped by someone who decided they dont need to stop for 'yield' signs). my legs and arms can attest to these peoples existence (no broken bones yet, amazingly, just a lot of skin missing, and some bone scraped off as well.) in the mornings, i ride to my local high school where im a senior, rather than driving, as most people do, or riding the bus, which comes waaaay to early for anyone to awake at (5:45 in the morning- insanity!) i ride my bike into school, where the only sidewalk i ride on is out in front of the school, and that extends for less than a 1/5th of a mile. and of course, the school cant be bothered to have a bike rack anywhere. as far as i know, im the only person who rides a bicycle into school, and i ride about 3 miles in the morning to and back in the afternoon. maybe less in the afternoon, but i ride on the hillier route back. now, riding in to school is dangerous becuase of the people who drive to school in the morning- they resent me for whatever reason, and enjoy honking at me, throwing things out the window at me, trying to hit me (suceeded once- a huge white SUV hit me, i went down and lost quite a bit of skin on my left side , but still managed to make it on time!). the roads here are generally in a state of disrepair, and as a biker, i try to ride with the white sideline on my left side, allowing faster traffic to pass me, but with the roads the way they are, all thats left of side of the road is usually crumbled into nothingness and only the white line remains, or even that is gone too. buford is a strange mix of suburbia and rural georgia, as it was basically cow pastures about 6 years ago, until the Mall of Georgia decided to plop down.

despite almost everytihng working against me , my athma, crazy drivers ( the dump trucks are the worst- i swear theyre off the road half the time going full speed), and crumbly roads, i still ride as much as i can. my range is about 20-25 miles and growing, and my average speed is about 17-18 mph. i suppose im an early adaptor, and i am planning on doing engine swaps with most of my trucks to diesel becuase of the fantastic tourqe and biodiesel option.

Guest's picture

I really do believe that within my lifetime, there will be a time when gasoline/fossil fuel burning cars will become obsolete from a dearth of fuel.

And I think thats about when those who pooh-poohed for so long will actually "get it."

Guest's picture

I am always surprised by people who state things to the effect that Americcans simply WONT change. Car culture, and car based communities are less than a century old! Everything predating world-war II was designed to be walkable. The poster who said "there's nothing but a convenience store anywhere around" fails to take into account the American entrepeneurial spirit--if the market is there, stores will move in. At first there will be big zoning battles, like the absurd fights people have to have in order to hang their laundry on a clothesline in many communities, but as the price of energy keeps increasing, the will to maintain high-consumption lifestyles will crumble. It would be better if it were a planned, well-thought-through process, with public support. THAT is what is unlikely with the American mindset! But it will happen.

Guest's picture

Sure, stores will move in if there is a market... but will it be the sort of stores people want to shop at? People want to shop at the large supermarkets and box stores (around here it's hard to find a place to park at any of the larger stores - their massive parking lots are nearly full for large part of the day) because of the weekly sales and lower prices. I don't think that's going to change. People may buy more fuel efficient cars, and they may try to combine trips, but nothing on earth is going to make me do my shopping at some local grocery store operated by some opportunist who thinks he can gouge people on prices because he's within walking distance and the other stores are not (those are the types of folks who tended to set up shop in a couple of smaller towns I've lived in during my lifetime).

If the technology did not exist to build solar-powered cars, or to use wind or water or the temperature of the earth to produce energy, I would say maybe there's some reason to accept our fate of a future without plentiful energy. But such is not the case. Free energy abounds on this planet, much of it generated directly or indirectly by the sun. The problem has always been that it was too expensive to tap into it, and laws and government policies have always disfavored alternatives to petroleum-powered vehicles. Viable electric cars HAVE been built, why don't we see them on the road?

Please stop thinking that people are going to give up their cars and walk or bicycle everywhere. For one thing, many people (especially those of us no longer as young as we used to be) don't have the physical ability to do that. For another thing, it's not necessary - if gas prices go high enough it wouldn't surprise me to see American in rural areas doing "unauthorized" conversions to their vehicles to make them use less fuel, or to run off of cheaper fuel. I'm not suggesting anyone break the law, but you know it will happen.

If gas ever hits, say, $10 or $20 a gallon, I don't think people are going to say, "Oh, well, I guess I'll give up driving to work and to shop, and walk or bike instead" - especially not in rural areas, or hilly areas, or in the dead of winter in northern climates. What I think you may well see is an outbreak of civil war, and I'm serious as a heart attack. It sometimes doesn't take much to get people in cities to riot, and in most cases they aren't in danger of not having food or other needed supplies (such as medicine). What do you think will happen when people can't afford food, or to go get food, due to transportation costs or their own expense in getting to the store?

If you want to make positive change, please, encourage the exploration and development of alternative energy sources. Nobody is going back to a 1900's lifestyle willingly. There are a lot of people who'd rather be shot dead than live like that. Please give that some thought before you assume we'll all be willingly led down whatever path the anti-vehicle folks would like to take us. I'm not saying people won't endure some hardships and cutbacks in lifestyles, but unfortunately if fuel costs get out of hand it won't just be "some" cutbacks, it will be worse than the Great Depression, and even the folks who lived through that period probably are unwilling to go through that again (and we weren't nearly as reliant on modern technology back then, either).

Let me give you one thing to think about. Many electric power plants run on coal (especially in areas were there isn't adequate water flow for hydroelectric power). How do you suppose the coal gets to the power plants? It's not carried by horse and buggy, nor even by coal-burning ships. Now, if the coal can't get to the power plant, how will people wash their clothes? Do you really think modern folks are going to use an old-fashioned washboard, or go down to the (probably polluted) stream and beat their clothes over rocks? Start thinking about things like that, and you might understand why NOT developing alternatives to petroleum-based energy is simply not an option.

Guest's picture

I am fortunate to live within easy biking distance of farmers' markets and grocery,bank and post office. I have a recumbent trike with big basket on the back, and can attach an insulated bag to the basket in order to transport perishables. I have a lightweight trailer that can be attached for larger loads.

Guest's picture

James Howard Kunstler has called the coming times "The Long Emergency" and it's the title of his most recent book. I read the book a few years ago around the same time as I read Paul Robert's book "The End of Oil" and blogged about it.

The poster above who says "you might understand why NOT developing alternatives to petroleum-based energy is simply not an option" is engaging in a peculiar kind of wishful thinking. Kunstler calls it the "Jiminy Cricket Syndrome" -- when people insist that if they wish hard enough new technology will somehow allow us to maintain our current lifestyle after peak oil. As the poster admits, our whole infrastructure is based on oil. Current Ethanol production uses so many petroleum inputs (in fertilizer, farming, transport, and processing) that its completely unsustainable without fossil fuels. Even coal and nuclear energy are actually run by having oil-fired equipment to dig, transport, and process the raw materials. As oil gets more expensive, all of these things will become harder to do. In fact, our whole landscape of suburbs and big-box stores that are predicated upon cheap energy will become increasingly unlivable as the cost of energy increases.

It's been interesting to me that our political system (and the oil companies) have been clearly aware of the coming emergency for 30 years -- it is, after all, the same emergency that Jimmy Carter warned us about. The complete disinterest the current administration has shown for actually trying to govern the country, and their rapacious efforts to leverage money out of the system make me believe that they understand largely what's going to happen and are simply trying to cash out. They want to ride the country down into the ground and end up with as much capital as they can squeeze out, since having a bunch of money will probably make the coming Long Emergency much less unpleasant -- at least for a while.

Guest's picture

Steven Brewer, you say people like me are engaging in "a peculiar kind of wishful thinking." I believe I am engaging in realistic thinking. If the changes that you envision were to take generations, people might accept them - however I am confident that if we had that long, we'd develop alternative energy sources. But what I think some of you are expecting, or possibly hoping for, is a major change in people's habits and lifestyles imposed on them all of a sudden. What I'm trying to explain to you is that this simply isn't going to happen without bloodshed, especially in the areas where there are no alternatives to the automobile (whether that's because they are too expensive to build, or because people don't want them).

In most states you are lucky to have rail transportation (of ANY variety, including subways and light rail) available in maybe one or two of the state's major cities. What, then, are the people who live in the rest of the state supposed to do? Are you going to try to herd them like cattle into the major cities, and force them to give up their homes? Or do you think they're just going to sit in their houses and peacefully starve to death or die of hypothermia because they cannot afford fuel? If you say that people like me who are saying that we MUST develop alternative energy choices are thinking like Jiminy Cricket, I can say that you're thinking like Pollyanna. You think you're going to force people to accept a huge change in their way of living and that everyone will just go along and accept it. Most of you who talk this way probably already live in or near a major city (and more than likely, one on the West Coast) and you already use public transportation at least some of the time (or you walk or ride a bike or some such thing), and you are thinking that everyone else could adopt the same lifestyle you do.

So, then, how do you propose that the rural family that lives 200 miles from the nearest city with public transportation, and ten to twenty miles from anything that could reasonably be called even a small city, make their trips to obtain food to feed their family, needed medicines, and other needed supplies, and to go to their places of employment? People who are used to a rural way of life are not going to fit in well in a city, but nowadays the vast majority of rural dwellers do not have the skill set nor the inclination to be totally self-sustaining. You Pollyanna types think that if the price of oil goes high enough they will be forced to live the way you think everyone ought to be living anyway, and they'll simply accept their fate. I guarantee you that isn't going to happen. If things get THAT dire, I fully expect there will be civil war (rural dwellers vs. city dwellers, perhaps) and other forms of insurrection. Maybe the governments will be able to put it down and maybe they won't, but either way, there is going to be a lot of bloodshed.

If you want to try your little social experiment (of making energy so expensive that people cannot afford to travel) and see what happens, you'd best accept the fact that some (maybe many) of your friends and loved ones will perish before you expect them to. On the other hand, if you want to be part of a solution that does not include bloodshed (and does not attempt to force people to accept vast and sudden changes in their way of living) then you will demand that alternative energy sources be fully developed with all possible speed. The thing I fear is that the governments will wait until AFTER the energy war (a.k.a. World War III) and only then, when they realize that they can't turn back the clock and get people in developed nations to live as if it were the 1800's, will they seriously throw their resources behind the development of other forms of energy.

We do NOT have an energy shortage on this earth - there is so much energy on this planet that goes to waste every day that we couldn't possibly begin to tap it all. The problem is that every time we try to tap it, some do-gooder or NIMBY type finds a reason not to do it. For example, we could get all the energy we would ever need from the wind, but every time some company is willing to explore wind energy the first people they get flak from are those who don't want the wind turbines anywhere near THEIR homes (they don't even want to be able to SEE them), and they you get the types who have a fit because an occasional bird might fly into the turbine blade (instead of maybe getting eaten by a larger bird or some other predator). And they are going to keep thinking like that until they are starving to death and shivering in the cold, and by then it will be too late.

By the way, has anyone ever stopped to think about the fact that trains and buses also need fuel? Do you really think petroleum companies are going to build refineries and ship oil around the country if their ONLY market is trains and buses? And do you think that with potentially millions of abandoned cars, nobody's ever going to try to steal the fuel out of those vehicles and repurpose it? Heck, you have idiots cutting into live electrical lines because they can get a few bucks a pound for copper. If they will stupidly risk their lives in that way just to make a few bucks in relatively good times, what do you suppose will happen when Bubba and his drinking buddies are cold and hungry, and one of them knows the location of the fuel depot for the local public transportation system?

Of course, if the trains run off of solar cells on top of the cars then there will be no fuel to steal - BUT then there is also no reason those same solar cells couldn't be used to power the family car and other vehicles.

And yes, we'll always need lubricants to run machines, that is true. But not all lubricants need to be petroleum-based, and in any case the demand for petroleum for lubricants is only a small fraction of the total amount of petroleum used each day.

I think the problem is that in this thread we have a slightly lopsided ratio of social activists to scientists. Social activists are sometimes necessary to effect change BUT when they set their mind on only one solution (or a small handful of solutions) to the exclusion of all others, they can be dangerous indeed. Scientists, on the other hand, are trained to look at all possible solutions, but sometimes they don't select the ones that are best for all concerned (for example, if they work for large corporations then they may only be looking for the least expensive solution at that point in time). I, for one, am not about to let social activists with their own agenda and a rather myopic focus dictate how I must live the rest of my life, and I say that even though I personally believe in resolving conflicts peacefully if at all possible. There are a lot of other people who will pick up their weapons of choice and go to war the first time they feel their lifestyle is threatened.

Philip Brewer's picture

I don't want to try to speak for Steven, but I will make two observations.

The first is that I'm not advocating for an expensive-energy world. I'm suggesting that an expensive-energy world is in the cards whether we want it or not--and saying that it's not going to be as bad as the average person might suspect.

The second is that I'm not nearly as pessimistic as you seem to be about the danger of a violent result. Gasoline will continue to be available for the foreseable future, it'll just gradually get more and more expensive. No doubt some people will steal it--people already do--but lots of things have become suddenly expensive in the past, and it has hardly ever produced the sort of collapse of social norms that you seem to fear.

A world were energy is more expensive will be a harder place to live. People can make it easier on themselves if they anticipate the changes and arrange their lives with those changes in mind. Helping people do that anticipating--and making the case that it isn't such a terrible future as all that--is my main goal in writing this article.

Guest's picture

For all of you people who say that people will never reduce their driving, I say - THEY ALREADY DO!

I live in a suburb of a city. My house is about a mile from a light rail line. I work downtown. My son attends daycare downtown a few days a week. I drive on the days he goes to daycare. I park across the river where parking is cheaper and walk the rest of the way most days when I drive. On days when I'm sick or the weather is horrible, I park downtown. On the days when he is not in daycare, I walk to the train, take the train to work and home, and then walk home. (I hope that once my son gets a little older, I'll be able to take him on the train most days, too.)

I used to live across the river from dowtown - on nice days, I'd walk; on others, I'd take a bus; and when I was pregant and violently ill, I'd drive (but carpool).

As you can see, I'm not attached to driving, and a variety of factors influence the calculus of when I drive. If the cost of driving increased, I would certainly stop. The thing is, I'm not alone. The buses are ALWAYS more crowded when it rains, because people prefer that to walking in the rain. The train is more crowded on nice days, and the traffic is worse when it rains, because people don't like to walk to, and then wait for, a train in the rain. There are a lot of people who have flexible commute options, and make their choices based on a calculation of factors.

And if the simple inconvenience of RAIN can make people decide whether to drive, walk, or take public transit, MONEY will certainly be an ever bigger factor in their choice!

There are always an awful lot of women with families on my trains. Many of these women work as support staff and don't make a lot of money. At a certain point, if the cost of working gets too high, it doesn't make sense to keep working. These women aren't making a lot of money, so it doesn't make sense for them to buy, insure, fuel, and park a car just to get to their jobs when a train pass is so much cheaper (and can be paid for from your pre-tax income, mitigating your tax burden, too). If the cost of getting to work gets high enough, these women will drop out of the workforce if there's no affordable way to get there.

When the price of gas and parking goes up, more people take public transit. When the price of public transit increases, they lose ridership. Thus, as the price of transportation goes up, people like me with flexible commute options choose to NOT drive. It's not going to be hard to convince these people that driving is worth ditching in favor of cheap, reliable, fast, easily accessible public transit.

The problem, as the author says, is making sure such infrastructure is built. I am lucky to live in an area with fairly expansive public transportation, and I chose to buy a home within walking distance of my son's future school and a train that takes me to my job. My neighbors already know this is a valuable asset. More people need to start demanding to have access to the same.

Guest's picture

It seems to me that guest's non-negotiable way of life is threatened. As a professional engineer, I must sadly tell you that most of the "solutions" proposed to date are simply magical thinking at quantity of recycled french fry oil or zero-point energy is going to replace fossil fuels in the quantity required to continue operating civilization as it exists today, much less as forecasted to be required in the near future, and no amount of magical thinking/Jiminy Cricket syndrome trumps the laws of physics and thermodynamics.