“Capitalism to the Rescue” — such was the title of an article in this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.
The article is mainly boilerplate tripe about how the glories of “the private sector” will save the world from impending eco-collapse.
Much more interesting, though, is that the piece tips Al Gore’s hand. In his much-hyped “Repowering America” speech, why didn’t Gore mention the huge problem of cars-first transportation in the United States?
Now we know, don’t we? Gore, you see, has become a major investment partner in Kleiner Perkins, a Silicon Valley “venture capital” (read: speculation) firm that tries to makes profits by pushing supposedly green technologies.
Gore rationalizes his insistence on continuing to put money-making at the top of the social agenda with this irrelevant claptrap:
[Gore] became involved in private-sector climate solutions because, he said, “more money is allocated in the private markets in one hour than in all of the budgets of all of the governments of the world in a year’s time.”
How does that kind of fatalistic (poor old government – it just can’t do anything!) illogic sound in this week of financial implosion and trillion-dollar bailouts for the super-rich?
In his capitalist green delusions, Gore suppresses basic facts as he belittles the problems we face. Better cars are as stop-gaps, but, as Richard Heinberg explains, the inescapable truth is that “when we step back and compare auto-based transport systems with rail-based options, even electric cars come out looking like resource gluttons.”
Cars are inherently inefficient. Yes, we can make them smaller and lighter; we can power them with renewable electrons instead of nasty old hydrocarbons. But in the final analysis, pushing a ton or three of steel down the highway just to move a two-hundred pound person to and from a shopping mall is both wasteful and plain stupid in a multitude of ways.
Consider just two: tires and asphalt.
The prosthetic hooves on that high-tech chariot are made largely of non-renewable petroleum, and after 40,000 miles or so they tend to wear out (Americans discard them at a rate of one tire per person per year).
Then there’s the stuff that roads are made of. We build roads compulsively so as to give our precious cars more places to roam, but those roads also soon wear out, so we have to constantly repair them; this requires enormous amounts of asphalt (25 million tons annually in the US). But asphalt is, once again, a petroleum product, and as oil gets scarce the building and maintenance of roads becomes unmanageable.
Electric cars are a sparky idea if you consider only what they are designed to replace. But we really need to be thinking about how to reduce our need for motorized transport altogether by redesigning our cities and shortening our supply chains. And where something more than a scooter is necessary, we should move people and freight by rail or water rather than by highway.
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 40, 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.
I would add to this that car-dependence is not just a cultural phenomenon or a psychological “given.” It is also (and more so) the product of a massive, long-running market-totalitarian push by a range of big businesses on behalf of their shareholders — a.k.a. our WAY-over-privileged, outdated, world-endangering overclass.
Gore, of course, won’t touch these realities with a ten-foot pole. He’d rather see the world destroyed.