For Purely Technical Reasons

peak-oil

By Dmitry Orlov

Source: Club Orlov

It is tempting for us to think that our technological choices—whether we choose to live in a city, a suburb or out in the country; whether we want to drive a pick-up truck, a gasoline-electric hybrid or ride a bicycle; whether we take a train, drive long distances or fly—are determined by our tastes. We may flatter ourselves that we are in control, and that our choices are reflective of our enlightened, environmentally conscious values. This view rests on a foundation of circular reasoning: we behave in enlightened ways because we are enlightened, and we are enlightened because, to wit, we behave in enlightened ways. As to why what we consider enlightened is in fact enlightened rather than a question of possibly questionable personal taste—that is not to be discussed: de gustibus non est disputandum.

But there is an alternative viewpoint, which seems more realistic in many ways, because it rests on a foundation of physical, technical specifics rather than fickle and arbitrary consumer preference, whim or taste. From this viewpoint, our technology and associated lifestyle choices are dictated by the technical requirements of their underlying technologies, both physical (the operation of the energy industry, the transportation industry, etc.) and political (the operation of political machines that segregate society by net worth and income, relegating wage-earners to a global disenfranchised underclass).

A few years ago I found out that I needed to replace the diesel engine on my boat (the old one blew up definitively) and looked at a number of options, one of which was to replace it with an electric motor and a large bank of batteries. The electric option was touted as being quiet, non-polluting, and having just enough range to get in and out of the marina and to get back to dock if the wind died during a typical daysail. It turned out to be more than twice as expensive as a replacement diesel engine. As to what one might do to take such a boat any great distance (that involves many hours of motoring) the solution is to… add a diesel engine hooked up to a very large alternator, at triple the cost of just replacing the diesel. And so I just replaced the diesel.

Diesel engines have a lot of positive qualities: they can run continuously for tens of thousands of hours; they can be rebuilt many times just by replacing the bearings, the cylinder sleeves, the piston rings and the valves; they are exceptionally reliable; the fuel they use is energy-dense. For these reasons, they are found throughout freight and construction industries and are used for small-scale power generation. They can be very large: the larger ships have engines that are as big as houses, with ladders welded to their cylinder walls, so that servicemen can climb down into them to service them after the cylinder head and the piston assembly are pulled out using an overhead shop crane. Small diesel engines make a lot less sense, and the silliest of them are the ones found on small yachts. There are many aspects of their design that make them silly, but there is also an overriding reason: they use the wrong fuel.

You see, diesel is a precious commodity, used in the transportation industry (by trucks, locomotives and ships), and in construction equipment, with no alternative that is feasible. A cousin of diesel fuel is jet fuel—another petroleum distillate—that is used to power jet engines, again, with no alternative that is feasible. And then there is a fuel that is only really useful as a small engine fuel: gasoline, that is. Gasoline engines beyond a certain size become much more trouble than they are worth.

Each barrel of crude oil can be distilled and refined into a certain amount of diesel and jet fuel, a certain amount of gasoline, some tar and some far less useful substances such as naphtha. The diesel is spoken for, because it literally moves the world; but if enough small engines cannot be found to burn all the gasoline that is produced, it becomes a waste product and has to be flared off at the oil refinery, at a loss. Indeed, prior to Henry Ford coming up with the brilliant plan to build cars cheap enough for his workers to afford, gasoline was dumped into rivers just to get rid of it, because while everyone burned kerosene (a distillate, like jet fuel and diesel) in lamps, cars remained playthings of the rich, and there simply wasn’t a market for any great quantities of gasoline.

Therefore, it became very important to find ways to sell gasoline, by finding enough uses for it, no matter how superfluous they happened to be. And although some people think that the private automobile is a symbol of luxury and freedom and feel the thrill of the open road, the reason they think that is because these ideas were implanted in their heads by the people who were tasked with finding a market for gasoline. Alongside cars, great effort was put into marketing all sorts of other small engines: for lawn mowers, jet skis, motorcycles, ATVs, boat outboard motors… The only semi-industrial use of gasoline is in chainsaws, small generators and air compressors, service and delivery vehicles, and outboard engines.

And so people were sold on the idea of driving their own car, whether they needed to or not, and spending lots of time stuck in traffic—all so that they would pay for gasoline. By causing all that excess traffic congestion, they also created the need to widen roads and highways, generating demand for another borderline useless petroleum product: road tar. And since there was a problem with cramming all these cars into cities (where cars are generally not needed if the cities are laid out using proper urban design, with sufficient numbers of tram, light rail and subway lines, etc.) the solution was to move everybody out to the suburbs. And so the reason half of the US population now lives in suburbia and drives has nothing to do with their needs, and everything to do with the need to sell them gasoline.

Some people may react negatively to the idea that their suburban castle and their magic chariot are all just part of a plan to make them spend much of their life paying for the right to dispose of toxic waste in unsafe ways. Rest assured, their preprogrammed negative reaction is part of the plan. Every effort has been made to program people to think that this waste disposal job—carried out at one’s own expense—is, in fact, something that should be considered a sign of success. The most efficient way to motivate a slave to perform is to convince him that he is free. To this end, driving is celebrated in music and film and portrayed as a way of life. Calling it what it is—being a slave to a machine—is bound to cause cognitive dissonance, all the more so because driving a lot destroys one’s mind: in the immortal words of a character from the movie Repo Man, ”The more you drive, the less intelligent you become.” In this respect, most of the people living in the US are far past the point of no return, and it is pointless to attempt to impart to them any ideas that are discordant with the dead-end lifestyle into which they have been unconsciously coerced.

Getting back to electric vehicles, such as what my boat would have ended up if I were gullible and made of money: they are obviously a defective idea. Their range is limited, they take longer to charge than it takes to fill a gas tank, and they use expensive and dangerous lithium-ion batteries that need periodic replacement. There is not enough lithium available to continue making batteries for laptops and smartphones (which periodically burst into flames), never mind providing for a giant expansion of battery-building to support lots of electric cars. Perhaps most importantly, they shrink the market for gasoline. So, what’s the reason behind the push?

It certainly isn’t part of any particular effort to electrify transportation in general, because no electric solution exists for ships or planes, and electrifying rail freight is an impossibly expensive proposition. It certainly isn’t part of an effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions, because most of the ways electricity is currently generated is by burning coal and natural gas—and will be, while supplies last, because electricity is hard to store, and no matter how many solar arrays and wind farms are installed something will be needed to power the electric grid on overcast, windless days.

No, the push for electric cars is motivated by a different sort of technology—political technology. You see, the oil age is drawing to a close. Last year the oil companies only discovered 1 barrel of oil for every 10 barrels they produced; at the turn of the century it was closer to 1 for every 4. At the same time, most of the easy-to-get-at oil has already been produced, and now it takes 1 barrel’s worth of energy to produce something like 10 barrels, whereas at the dawn of the age of oil it was closer to 1 for every 100 barrels. Such a low level of net energy production is turning out to be insufficient to maintain an industrial civilization, and as a result economic growth has largely stalled out. And although large investments in oil production have succeeded in keeping large volumes of oil flowing, for now, this is turning out to be an ineffective way to invest money, with many energy companies, once so profitable, now unable to pay the interest on their debt. And even though constant injections of free money are currently keeping developed economies from cratering into bankruptcy, it has been clear for some time that each additional dollar of debt produces significantly less than a dollar’s worth of economic growth. Growing debt within a growing economy can be very nice; but if the economy isn’t growing as fast, it’s fatal.

As the oil age winds down, personal transportation, in the form of the automobile, is bound to once again become a plaything of the very rich. But then, when it comes to electric cars, it already is! And I don’t mean Tesla: the most commonly used electric vehicle worldwide is the golf cart. And who uses golf carts? Members of golf clubs; guests at resorts; residents of posh gated communities; employees at corporate and academic campuses… And what do all these people have in common? They are all members of the salaried elite; they are definitely not members of the wage-earning class. To them, the electric car offers a way of preserving a semblance of the status quo for themselves while setting themselves apart (in their own minds) from all of the gasoline-burning riffraff. Let the great unwashed in the flyover states, with their pickup trucks complete with gun racks, burn what’s left of the gasoline while overdosing on synthetic opiates while the salaried elites and individuals of high net worth, ensconced in their campuses and gated communities, will create a different future for themselves, replete with wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars (until they all get shot by all those they have disenfranchised).

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