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Serious Stuff

Beyond Hybrid-Car Tech

September 8, 2011 by Somebody Else

In my last article on the subject of hybrid cars, I ended by promising to reveal to you, in an upcoming article, a vision for a world where our energy needs might be met exclusively through renewable energy resources, basically, the next stage beyond the purely symbolic gesture of hybrid-car technology. So, here is the promise fulfilled.

The academic approach to this topic has, in my view, tended to unnecessarily complicate what is essentially a rather cut-and-dry issue, which is that non-renewable energy is our inescapable destiny. It's not a question of if, but when. And the question of when is very closely linked to the delicate matter of why. In other words, the sooner we collectively realize why the transition is imperative, the sooner it will happen.

Some people paint a doomsday scenario of a world without non-renewable energy resources such as coal and oil. They say our societies will fall apart without them. There are even those who go so far as to call us "Petroleum Man," meaning that without gasoline, our world population would never have reached the huge level it has now attained. Take away our non-renewable resources, so the argument goes, and billions of people will die off in a famine the likes of which the world has never seen.

Ah, we love our end-of-the-world predictions, don't we? Maybe we take a certain degree of perverse comfort in them, supposing that if everyone has to perish all of a sudden from some kind of global catastrophe, then I won't have to worry about my unpaid credit cards, my looming colonoscopy, the torment of being single or the agony of being married, and the constant existential angst of just being me.

Also, if the entire human race gets wiped out, there's no legacy for me to bequeath to anyone, so the whole issue of personal long-term responsibility is completely out the window. Leave the planet tidy and spotless or leave it a wreck and a dump, so the unspoken argument goes, it's all the same. There'll be nobody left to care. So, I'm off the hook.

Let's take a closer look at those frequently unspoken, axiomatic arguments.

Humanity has done quite well for thousands upon thousands of years using renewable resources as primary sources of energy. Are our large present-day numbers really entirely attributable to coal and oil, or could other factors be involved? Would the spread of modern medicine to developing areas of the world have anything to do with it, perhaps?

Where have the largest gains in population been made in the world over the last several decades? The answer is, in the developing world, in nations with minimal infrastructure and limited or non-existent education, in areas where the mass of the people get by on less than a few dollars a day.

Generally speaking, have more non-renewable energy resources been made available to such people? Not particularly. Most of them do not own cars or even a motorcycle. In rural areas, they may not even have reliable access to any kind of public transportation, and when they need to travel, they must depend upon paying a small sum to the occasional pickup truck or bus coming through their village. For the most part, their lives continue on as they have for the last several millennia, with one important exception, which is access to limited medical care.

Lest we forget, it has only been within fairly recent memory that the most basic kinds of preventive medical care have become available in the poorest nations. And, granted, this highly restricted and shamefully underfunded care leaves much to be desired. But nevertheless, what a tremendous impact it has had.

In areas where, in the not-so-distant past, a woman might have given birth to ten children and expected one or two to survive infancy, the rate has now in some cases gone as high as eight or nine in ten. And all of this is owing to the currently widespread availability of vaccines.

So, now that they can be vaccinated, how is life for such people? It is still precarious at best, and not infrequently tragic and agonizingly heartbreaking. In years gone by, the frequent loss of infant children did bring with it a certain grim benefit, which is that there were fewer of the living, and thus there was more agricultural land available for those who survived.

But with populations now skyrocketing, living off the land has become much more difficult, especially when the amount of land available for feeding yourself and your family has shrunk so much over the last few generations.

Several years ago, I was in Guatemala and saw a vivid example of this fact. Riding a bus through the rural highlands, where the vast majority of the population dedicates itself to subsistence agriculture, I noticed a hillside in the distance where cropland had been divided up into a patchwork of curiously small parcels, some of which seemed no bigger than the typical small garden plot behind a suburban American home.

An elderly indigenous gentleman sitting next to me was also looking out the window at the same countryside. I remarked to him that the plots seemed rather small.

He replied, "They weren't always like that. When I was a child, the plots were so much larger. But now, there are so many people. My father owned all of that area over there."

With the sweep of his hand, he indicated a large portion of the hillside.

"But I have seven siblings and lots of nieces and nephews, plus my own eight children. That land was enough for my parents and my siblings back in the day, but it's been divided up several times among the latest generation."

"So," I asked, "are they able to make do with so little land?"

"No, not really," he replied. "That's why almost all of the young ones have gone to the city."

What awaits most of these poor rural migrants in the large cities of their native countries? Well, it's probably enough to say that it's an out-of-the-frying-pan-and-into-the-fire kind of situation. Hopes and dreams for a better life are all too often mercilessly snuffed out by the harsh realities of life in the inner-city slums of the world's metropolises.

Thus, we might categorize the planet's consumers of energy resources into the following broad categories:

  1. The relatively wealthy, those who live in the most economically advanced countries and whose birthrates are relatively low. This category of people proportionally consumes the greatest amount of energy per capita.

  2. The rural poor, those who live in what we commonly refer to as the developing world and whose birthrates are relatively high. This category of people proportionally consumes the least amount of energy per capita.

  3. The urban poor in the developing world, many of whom migrated to the cities from impoverished rural areas. Birthrates for this category of people remain relatively high. They consume slightly more energy per capita than the rural poor, but considerably less than the relatively wealthy.

Obviously, the current energy paradigm cannot endure forever. Thus, we cannot continue to bring increasing numbers of the population up to the level of the relatively wealthy -- a trend that has been especially pronounced in nations with rapid economic development such as China and India -- and maintain current levels of non-renewable energy consumption indefinitely. Therefore, we must necessarily envision a new energy paradigm to replace the current one.

Such a vision must be fair and just as well as realistic and practical. Is it reasonable, then, that the greater part of humanity stands deprived of the comforts, conveniences, and opportunities that the relatively wealthy remainder enjoys? Some may argue that this has been the way of the world since the beginning of recorded history, and that, as the Bible states in Matthew 26:11, "The poor you will always have with you."

True, some will always be poorer than others for reasons that have nothing to do with injustice, such as varying levels of ability and motivation. But as for the worst kind of grinding poverty in the world today, there is no excuse. There are enough basic necessities to go around for all, but apparently, compassion for the needy is in short supply, and checks on the avarice of the wealthy and powerful are sorely lacking.

In the context of a renewable-energy paradigm, we would most definitely possess the ability and resources to raise up to an acceptable level the standard of living of all our brothers and sisters throughout the world. Our only real obstacles to accomplishing this goal are the unwillingness of world leadership to apply itself to taking on the challenge, and the timidity of the masses when demanding fundamental changes to the status quo. 

Also, there has been considerable worry about our mushrooming world population and the strain that this has put upon global food supplies. So, what is the best way to stabilize our numbers worldwide?

The answer is, through socioeconomic development. In the most economically developed countries of the world, birthrates are almost even with mortality rates, and in some cases, such as in Italy, the national population is actually in overall decline because of the low birthrate. Once the developing world reaches the socioeconomic levels of nations like Italy -- which was itself once notorious for its large nuclear families -- its birthrates will similarly stabilize.

All well and good, but how can the momentous task of equalizing socioeconomic levels throughout the world be accomplished? Clearly, it cannot be done according to the present-day energy-consumption model, since we cannot achieve limitless results with limited resources.

In order to fully unleash humanity's untapped potential, we must think long-term. We must devise and implement a system of energy consumption that is sustainable throughout the coming millennia, and not just for the next several decades.

So, where is this renewable energy to come from? Surprisingly, the answer to this question is not as important as you might think.

Rather, we should ask ourselves how we have been able to live and prosper throughout most of our human history without relying primarily upon non-renewable energy resources. In other words, what can we do without? How can we minimize our need for energy and yet retain the most beneficial aspects of our technological civilization?

In the homes and buildings of the relatively wealthy, the greatest demand for energy comes from heating and cooling, whereas in the developing world, many if not most homes and buildings have no heating nor air conditioning. Clearly, it would be impractical to do without heating in New England in the winter, just as much as the American Southwest would suffer tremendously without air conditioning in the summer. With that in mind, how can we make homes and buildings more energy efficient? Also, maybe we should consider shifting much more of our population to areas that need neither air conditioning nor heating.

Perhaps the greatest challenge that we face in our efforts to transition into a renewable-energy based paradigm is our stiff-necked dependence upon our current system of transportation, which relies heavily upon petroleum. This system is highly resistant to change, not so much because of any purely practical considerations, but rather because of ideological and hence political ones. As for vested corporate interests, we already know too well the usual story, so I won't go there.

The United States in particular has long celebrated an idealized and romanticized vision of its past, in which rough-and-tumble pioneers independently forged their own destinies thanks to the hallowed and cherished individual freedoms bestowed upon them by an enlightened government.

The emblem of such freedoms is the American cowboy, mounted upon his noble steed, free to ride wherever he might wish upon the wide open plains. Over time, the wild-west cowboy became the suburban cowboy, and the steed became the full-sized pickup truck or suburban utility vehicle. But the idea remained the same. Think of the lyrics to a well known Bon Jovi song: "I'm a cowboy and on a steel horse I ride."

So, do you want to take away the suburban cowboy's steel horse? You might as well try taking away the wild-west cowboy's stallion. The end result will be the same. You've made a decision to tangle with a rattlesnake.

Sure, we can come up with a great system of long-distance electric trains to crisscross the entire country. We might devise a way to make electric cars widely available and imminently practical for short-distance trips. All of this might greatly reduce our energy needs and thereby make renewable energy resources more viable.

However, we can't do that until we can get the suburban cowboy out of his gas-guzzling vehicle and mount him once again upon the back of the magnificent horse of his ancestors. Then he'll be free to ride beneath the endless expanse of sky to his heart's content and can curse the electric trains and electric cars all he likes.

At this point, it is not clear how we will best meet our energy needs through renewable resources. Will it be primarily through solar, wind, geothermal, hydrologic, fuel-cell, or some other method? Right now, it's hard to say. But in any case, time is running out for us to find solutions.

One thing is for sure, however -- we won't solve the energy crisis by acting like cowboys. Like it or not, the future of renewable energy is a collaborative and collective one, not one defined by a solitary tough guy riding around in his muscle truck, ready to kick butt in order to defend his sacred freedom to pour endless gallons of Arabian oil into his tank.

"Won't you tell me where my country lies?" said the unifaun to his true love's eyes...