Tuesday, April 8, 2008

No More Driving

I was listening to The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC this morning and it reminded to me to do a screed on how clueless even the smartypants public radio set are about Peak and its ramifications. Brian couldn't believe when the New York Times guy he was interviewing explained that Archer Daniels Midland had sold the greenies a bill of goods with the idea that using corn for fuel was somehow "green." There is no net energy savings. That corn was grown using fertilizers and pesticides made from natural gas. Why bother making the corn in the first place? May as well use the natural gas to heat homes or power motors. Adding the step of making it food first is all smoke and mirrors to make people believe that driving could be "green." "I'm not burning nasty petrochemicals; I'm burning MAIZE!" ...which was grown using nasty petrochemicals. It actually costs quite a huge chunk of the energy originally available in the natural gas to convert it to food first, a net loss.

The result in the real world, by the way, is that human bellies are now competing with automobiles more directly. The stomach and the gas tank have been competing for as long as there has been oil-based industrial agribusiness. As long as humans have (temporarily) been increasing the food yield of the soil with natural gas-derived fertilizers and making that food energy more available to humans by use of natural gas-derived pesticides, refrigeration and long-distance overland transport, then our stomachs have competed with the engine and bidding up the price of the same stuff. On the ground now in this age of ever escalating fossil fuel scarcity, that translates into the poorer nations being outbid for food. Americans are still paying whatever it takes to keep the car-dependent postwar way of life going. Meanwhile a billion Chinese have traded their bicycles for BMWs and are eating more beef (which takes monstrously more fossil fuels for the same caloric food yield as non-meat foods, though admittedly it is sort of value-added since animal flesh is much more nutrient dense than everything except eggs). Oil = food and Oil = industrial way of life dependent on constant shuffling between zones of separate use. Oil is running out and the price is still being bid up by increasing populations and certain populations who are now just rapidly industrializing (read "driving, driving, driving").

The New York Times guy's proposed immediate solution was increased foreign aid to poor countries where the hungry are rioting. Whether our government prints more paper or uses the more obvious method of raising taxes to get dollars to send, the equation stays the same; Scarcity and demand push up prices. Scarcity and demand are both growing. The only "policy" that will help is one of mass willful powering down. If a few million of us in the industrialized nations would be less industrial, would give up our cars and start building walkable neighborhoods, then the price of oil and therefore food would stop climbing and maybe even reverse. Of course I laugh at this notion even as I type it . We're not going to change a damned thing about our lifestyles until we have no other option, until we're the nation with the poor, hungry rioters. I guarantee there will be any number of murders at gas stations across the country, particularly in those places where not having gas in the tank means not being able to get to work or to food. Of course, if things are that bad, there may not be very much work or food anyway. I expect sanity will prevail a bit longer in those places with transportation options, including walking a couple miles to work, and with some prospects of local agriculture and manufacturing. I wouldn't want to be in Greater Orlando or Atlanta in 2020.

A few days ago some truckers staged a protest to decry the high cost of diesel. How are Americans going to get their toilet paper, they wondered, if independent truckers can't afford the fuel to stay in business? How indeed. So being 1000 miles away from the source of one's food and one's basic conveniences doesn't seem like such a bright idea anymore, does it? In my neck o' the woods, the nearby farms were paved over for urban sprawl and then suburban cul-de-sacs while the factories that used to dot the neighborhoods have been replaced with big box retail or condominiums. Localism only goes so far, though. No matter how local the agriculture or production of goods, a place like New York, NY, is too big to succeed in the energy-scarce scenario that is developing. As I've said before 10,000,000 souls on 400 square land miles is only a possibility when fossil fuels make it possible to command resources in a thousand-mile radius. And of course New York is just the biggest node in a conurbation that runs from Maine to Washington, DC. This Northeast Corridor City may be better off than its more car-dependent counterparts in other regions, but ultimately it is just as doomed a megalopolis.