Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

What Car Do You Drive?

by Richard Heinberg

The Ecologist (May 2008)

The question inevitably arises soon after readers or lecture audiences first become acquainted with global oil depletion and climate change. I must be asked it at least once a week. Sometimes I reply by reciting how I didn't buy my first car till age forty, how I later drove an old diesel Mercedes while belonging to a local biodiesel co-operative, how I scrapped that fume-belching heap of metal and replaced it with a Toyota Yaris to protest the Brontosaurian dimensions of the typical American SUV, and how I now often get around town on an electric scooter. But that answer, while respecting the query's intent, fails to advance the conversation. The question presumes a continuation of car-centered culture, and that is precisely what must be called into doubt.

In many parts of the world (especially North America), automobile ownership is a given. Throughout the last century, the petroleum, automotive, and road-building industries amassed and exerted enormous political power, systematically foreclosing all other transport options through efforts either to starve rail and public transit infrastructure of funds, or to buy them up and dismantle them. Bucking the current massive system of highways and short-lived personal dream machines often requires courage, dedication, and planning. Very few individuals are sufficiently motivated.

Thus it's understandable that the first policy response to depleting petroleum reserves and the climate threat has been a rush toward biofuels and coal-to-liquids technologies - rather than a questioning of the auto-centric system itself. Yet if either of these alternative fuel sources is expanded enough to replace oil, the car (rather than the atom bomb) may end up being the invention that destroys the world.

Our transition away from fossil fuels will require a societal effort at a scale and speed never before seen; given the limits on our time and money, we cannot afford to waste both investment capital and precious years pursuing false solutions like alternative fuels. Electric cars may be a better idea, since there are lots of promising renewable sources of electricity. But when we step back and compare auto-based transport systems with rail-based options, even electric cars come out looking like resource gluttons. We don't need alternative cars; we need alternatives to cars, starting with ways to reduce our need for travel in the first place.

Perhaps those of us who have arrived at this conclusion may be forgiven a less-than-joyous response to the recent unveiling of Tata Motor Company's $2500 Nano, an auto being marketed to tens of millions of previously car-free Asians who can now afford a scaled-down version of the object that half-a-billion inhabitants of wealthier countries take for granted.

Doesn't everyone deserve the comfort and convenience enjoyed by Americans and Europeans?

It's an insidious question. Like the title of this essay, it presupposes a great deal. Only by unpacking and ruthlessly picking apart our assumptions about the future of transportation can we hope to overcome the sinister logic of universal car ownership - a logic that leads to universal destruction. Are biofuels a bad idea in every single instance? Probably not. Should car owners be demonized? That's neither polite nor helpful. But until we collectively, through coordinated policies, reverse course and stop both building roads and looking to alternative fuels for a solution to environmental problems, we're all on a highway to hell.


It's Happening

by Richard Heinberg

from MuseLetter #193 / May 2008

There is a surreal quality to the experience of seeing the unfolding of unpleasant events that one has predicted. Plenty of times over the past few years I've said, "I want to be proven wrong!" Who in their right mind would wish to see economic collapse and famine? But it was obvious that, given the direction our society is headed, these must be the consequences. Now, with oil at $117 a barrel, the US economy teetering, and food riots erupting in Haiti, Egypt, and Asia, one could perhaps gain some satisfaction in saying "I told you so". But what faint compensation that would be. We are all going to have to share the bitter fruits of our society's century-long growth binge, whether we have criticized it or participated wholeheartedly. The only silver lining is the possibility that now, at last, as the trends (Peak Oil, the failure of growth-based economics, the failure of industrial agriculture, climate chaos, and so on) are becoming so starkly clear, policy makers will begin seriously to contemplate a Plan B (or C, as Pat Murphy insists). For those of us who have been lobbying in that latter direction for some while, this is no time to let up, but rather the ideal moment to redouble our efforts.

Read more about Richard's book, Peak Everything at

Post Carbon Institute - 6971 Sebastopol Avenue - Sebastopol - California - 95472 - USA

Bill Totten


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