Courting Carmageddon: The Real Meaning of Gore’s Nobel Prize

Al Gore has just won the Nobel Peace Prize for making the movie “An Inconvenient Truth.” So far, talk of the consequences, however interesting and important, has entirely missed the deepest meaning of the award: By endorsing Gore’s insidiously wrong-headed film, the Nobel committee has seriously worsened the already terrible ideological climate shielding the reign of the private automobile from the serious democratic scrutiny it requires.

The main thesis of “An Inconvenient Truth” is that individuals can save planet Earth from climate change – tellingly, Gore makes no mention of any of the other major and often much more definite ecological threats to the planet’s ecospheres – by making better choices about what to buy and how to conduct their personal lives, particularly regarding manufacture and use of the personal automobile. Gore’s central suggestion is that, by adopting a package of small personal shifts (ride the bus, walk more, keep your car tuned up and its tires inflated) plus tougher federal rules for vehicular miles-per-gallon fuel efficiency, ordinary Americans can avert ecocide. We simply have to summon the knowledge and courage to downsize our cars, Gore says.

The real inconvenient truth, however, is not that our cars are too big. It is that cars are simply an unsustainable technology, and our overclass is intractably addicted to their continued dominance over life in at least the United States.

Consider some of the key facts that Gore’s movie neglects to mention:

► Petroleum is almost certainly a one-of-a-kind substance in terms of its advantages as an automotive fuel. “Oil,” observes urban critic James Howard Kunstler, is an amazing substance. It stores a tremendous amount of energy per weight and volume. It is easy to transport. It stores easily at regular temperature in unpressurized metal tanks, and it can sit there indefinitely without degrading. You can pump it through a pipe, you can send it all over the world in ships, you can haul it around in trains, cars, and trucks. You can even fly it in tanker planes and refuel other airplanes in flight. It is flammable but has proven to be safe to handle with a modest amount of care….It can be refined by straightforward distillation into many grades of fuel…and innumerable useful products….It has been cheap and plentiful.”

It is extremely unlikely that humanity will soon discover any other energy source that combines all these advantages.

► According to leading geologists, “peak oil,” the moment at which half the Earth’s stock of petroleum has been extracted, has either already arrived, or will very soon.ii When this moment comes, we will have used up not just half, but the “easy half,” of Earth’s petroleum reserves. Thereafter, obtaining more petroleum will be increasingly difficult, expensive, energy intensive, and ecologically destructive.

► This is very likely to remain true even if, as some geologists hypothesize, petroleum proves to be not a “fossil fuel” formed at relatively shallow geological depths from dead plants and animals, but a by-product of possibly more abundant chemical reactions in “the deep, hot biosphere.” Even if this latter, supposedly rosy theory pans out, finding and extracting the hypothesized ultra-deep oil fields is unlikely to be as energy-efficient and monetarily inexpensive as the “cheap and fast drilling” that has prevailed on the upslope to peak oil.

► Converting automobiles to natural gas is possible, and, because natural gas is cleaner-burning than gasoline, doing so would probably reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from autos-über-alles. But there are two big problems with natural gas. First, it is significantly more expensive and dangerous to process, store, and transport than petroleum. Moving natural gas across oceans, for example, requires liquefying it, which in turn requires comparatively expensive and energy-intensive infrastructures. Second, geologists think we are almost as close to reaching “peak natural gas” as we are to peak oil, so such a conversion would probably be a Pyrrhic victory. As energy scholar Richard Heinberg puts it, “in view of the precarious status of North American gas supplies, it seems…likely that any attempt to shift to natural gas…would simply waste time and capital in the enlargement of an infrastructure that will soon be obsolete anyway – while also quickly burning up a natural resource of potential value to future generations.”

► Meanwhile, schemes for converting from petroleum to alternative fuels without radically altering our transportation system are hare-brained at best.

► Hydrogen cells? The main problem there is that, contrary to what you you might have gleaned from the murmurs of their cheerleaders, hydrogen cells are batteries that store and emit electricity, not a new energy source. As such, the energy they might make available to cars must come from somewhere outside themselves. Furthermore, hydrogen itself is not cheap to produce. “Extracting useful quantities of hydrogen from water requires a massive amount of energy — energy that typically comes from burning oil or coal,” reports Fox News. Finally, just like all batteries, hydrogen cells are inherently inefficient at preserving the energy put into them.

► What about plant-based “biofuels” such as ethanol, methanol, and biodiesel? Alas, these also require very large up-front energy inputs, including heavy use of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides to grow the plants, highly mechanized harvesting and crop-transport operations, and then complex distillation, refining, and fuel-distribution processes. Research that takes full account of all these up-fron energy inputs for even the most promising of the bio-fuels – corn ethanol – shows that “[e]thanol production using corn grain require[s] 29% more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel produce[s]” when burned.

► Even if scientists someday find a way to coax energy surpluses from biofuels, mass producing them on anything like adequate scale would snatch huge tracts of cropland away from food production. Experts who have studied this issue find that converting the U.S. car fleet to corn ethanol would, by the year 2012, require “all the available cropland area” in the United States….[B]y the year 2036, not only the entire US cropland area but also the entire land area now used for range and pasture would be required. Finally, by 2048, virtually the whole country, with the exception of cities, would be covered by corn plantations.” Even with automobiles twice as fuel-efficient as present ones – the strongest purported solution proffered by Al Gore — the above figures would only be halved – meaning biofuels would eat up half of all our ex-urban land within four decades.

► If you are willing to ponder these realities, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that biofuels are simply a placeholder pipedream, a marketable ruse that may buy a bit more time for non-discussion of the automobile’s increasingly disastrous reign over the United States. “Enthusiasts,” write long-time researchers David Pimentel and Tad Patzek, “suggest that ethanol produced from corn and cellulosic biomass could replace much of the oil used in the United States. Yet the 18 percent of the US corn crop that is now converted into 4.5 billion gallons of ethanol replaces only 1 percent of US petroleum consumption. If the entire corn crop were used, it would replace only 6 percent. And because the country has lost over a third of its agricultural topsoil, no large increase in the corn crop is possible.”

► There is, of course, one geologically-given, concentrated fuel that remains in somewhat more optimistic supply: coal. Some of those who won’t allow themselves to question the transportation status quo have thus predictably started to argue that coal can keep autos-über-alles going smoothly in America for several more decades. But fueling the U.S. auto fleet on either liquefied coal or electricity from additional coal-burning would require construction of a forest of new coal processing plants, and “the coal which would have to go into these plants would involve the largest mining operation the world has ever seen.” Worse yet, processing and burning coal is much dirtier than processing and burning petroleum or natural gas. “[T]he coal-fired power plant,” reports The New York Times, “burns the dirtiest, most carbon-laden of fuels, and its smokestacks belch millions of tons of carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas.” Because of this and other dangers like acid rain and the eventual arrival of “peak coal,” running autos-über-alles on coal might actually shrink whatever chance we have left to craft a humane and sustainable socio-economic system.

► Even solar-power technologies, if they could ever be made compact, lightweight, and quick-charging enough to power road-worthy automobiles, will likely always require uneconomical amounts of up-front energy “embedded in the manufacture of…solar panels.” Furthermore, because sunlight energy is so diffuse, even with the best (and very expensive) current solar technology, it takes a truly huge, raw-materials-intensive contraption to gather enough of the Sun’s radiation to compete with the gas can in your garage. According to its builder, Cal Tech energy chemist Nathan S. Lewis, in an entire day, the whole advanced, very expensive structure pictured below produces only “the energy equivalent of about one gallon of gasoline.”

Cal Tech Solar Collector
And, because it is electrical rather than chemical in form, solar energy for automobiles will always face the classic problem of all batteries: storage. In the words of Lewis, “if we [ever] succeed and make really cheap solar cells, that alone will not solve much in the big picture of energy. Because as Johnny Cochran might have said, ‘If it does not store/You’ll have no power after four.’ Solar cells convert sunlight into electricity. And there’s no good way to bottle up and store vast quantities of electricity.” Hence, while solar energy may be promising for powering electric trains and meeting the relatively smooth and diffuse needs of household heating and electricity, it is like to remain a very poor candidate for powering individual automobiles.

► A New York Times report summarizes the big energy picture: “The problem for biofuels is that they compete with petroleum, an extremely high-energy biofuel already created over millions of years by geologic activity. To [organic chemist] Ralph Nuzzo, the problems biofuels pose arise in nearly every alternative-energy plan. ‘When you look at the problem, which is how to move a person long distances at 60 miles per hour, there’s an energy cost that is well understood. Gas does a very good job. It has high density, it is easily transportable and it is easy to convert into mechanical functions. Anything that displaces it will have to have those properties and be consistent with the scale of the problem.’ In the United States there are 221 million registered vehicles on the roads. Cambridge Energy Research Associates reports that the average American drives 13,000 miles a year. ‘You need multiple terawatts to drive the global economy,’ Nuzzo says, ‘and there is no source other than fossil fuels big enough, except the Sun. Every other source misses by orders of magnitude.’”

► And — cough, cough, ahem, ahem — what about war? In 1953, the United States deposed Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. The reason? In the eyes of the powers-that-be in the United States, Mossadegh had committed the ultimate crime: He was a legitimately elected, secular oil-state democrat who wanted to focus Iranian politics on oil revenues, rather than religious and cultural disputes. Backed by a clear majority of Iranians, Mossadegh quickly moved to nationalize Iran’s oil industry, so that Iranians could henceforth retain most of Iran’s oil revenues for the use and benefit of (gasp!) themselves. Moving quickly to stamp out this threatening example of sane, secular independence atop “our” Middle Eastern oil, the CIA overthrew Mossadegh in August of 1953. His U.S.-selected replacement? The infamous Iranian king, Shah Reza Pahlavi, who had fled to Rome during the coup, but then returned and proceeded, over the next 25 years, to jail and kill off virtually all of Mossadegh’s political allies.

► This massive, momentous (and, in the United States, still virtually unknown) international crime was merely the beginning of the United States’ staunch opposition to secular democracy in the Middle East. Cutting the sweetheart deals you can only get from kings and autocrats, and using Jewish and Islamic theocrats to keep the region’s masses otherwise occupied, the United States has proven itself quite willing to risk entire foreign and domestic populations in order to preserve its favorable access to the world’s most import reservoirs of nature’s one-time gift of petroleum. The ensuing horrors and perversions of life in the Middle East have been vast and obvious. As they persist, blowback from them continues to grow in size and reach. According to a Republican Senator’s survey of 85 top mainstream U.S. geopolitical experts, “the odds of some type of a nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological attack occurring during the next decade are extremely high….[T]he estimated combined risk of a WMD attack over five years is as high as 50%. Over ten years this risk expands to as much as 70%.”

► In the United States, once itself the world’s leading oil exporter, domestic production of petroleum entered permanent decline in the early 1970s, just as M. King Hubbert, the original “peak oil” theorist, had predicted. As autos-über-alles in America continues to exist, doesn’t it progressively raise the likelihood of military conflicts over remaining oil supplies? In a fractious and heavily-armed world, shouldn’t this give us pause? None other than Albert Einstein, after all, once said that while he wasn’t sure what weapons would be used in World War III, he was certain World War IV would “be fought with sticks and stones.”

By endorsing Al Gore’s obscuring of these (and the many other) deadly insanities inherent in our capitalist-dictated autos-ueber-alles transportation order, the Nobel awarders have pulled another Kissinger. They have lent their famously respected name to a figure who represents, in however friendly and even inspiring a form, not just the opposite of peace but the end of decent human civilization, to boot.