Sunday, April 23, 2006

Fueling Ourselves

To hear it on the "news", gas prices are at the top of everyone's concerns right now. Not enough, mind you, that they're economizing or anything, hell no. Just enough to bitch about how much filling up the ol' Hummer costs these days.

And their preznit, friend to profiteers and bungler of Middle East diplomacy that he is, has a solution ready at hand: hydrogen cars.

WEST SACRAMENTO, Calif. - President Bush had an Earth Day message for drivers worried about soaring gasoline prices: The nation must move more quickly toward widespread use of hydrogen-powered cars.

Running vehicles on hydrogen fuel cells would help reduce oil consumption, as the technology does not require gasoline, and lower pollution, as they emit only water. But the technology is far from being a reality in the marketplace — the cells are prohibitively expensive and require a new distribution system to replace today's gas stations.

Bush is proposing to spend additional federal research dollars to help speed that process — but it still would be many years off.

At this point, we can only assume that Bush is simply too dim to apprehend the enormous ramifications of automotive manufacturers (assuming the American manufacturers even survive another generation) developing viable prototypes and re-tooling equipment and operations, and of either developing or revising regional and national systems of refueling stations. Throwing a few billion in research grants to fuel-cell development -- some of which will almost certainly be grifted by the usual defense-contractor weasels -- really isn't even a start. It's something that should have been done thirty years ago.

Is Bush getting rid of the Hummer tax credit? Is he urging Americans to conserve and economize? Does he understand how playing nuclear chicken with the Iranians affects oil prices? Has he asked oil companies to maybe do their part, seeing as how they've reaped record profits lately? Is he developing a plan to address the other major culprits in fuel consumption -- industrial production and distribution of goods? Is he aware that on average, Americans' food has traveled an estimated 1000 (most estimates are closer to 1500) miles before reaching final destination, that even the CIA considers that a national security problem? Does he have an agenda that can at least attempt to bring ordinary individuals and business leaders together to work for a common good, to reduce aggregate demand and work toward real energy independence?

Do we really need to even ask any of those questions? Of course not. Fuel cells, ethanol; fuel cells, ethanol. Never mind that fuel cell technology is still many years and many billions of dollars (guess who'll subsidize all that automotive re-tooling and the new breed of refueling stations) away; never mind that the EROEI on ethanol is utterly pitiful and also a boondoggle of subsidization. All Bush knows is fuel cells and ethanol, because as the (sadly correct) meme goes, that's how it was explained to him.

So it's up to us to start rethinking how we consume, as well as how much we consume. That's really the biggest problem, that our consumption patterns don't seem to show that we realize there's a problem, not in the aggregate. As I've said before, it's nice that hybrids are steadily gaining in popularity while SUV sales are finally stalling, but the demographics do not correlate; the Prius buyers were not driving Excursions before, nor are the Excursion drivers likely to make their next choice a Prius. (A corollary to that argument is that I am most likely preaching to the choir on all this.)

So the equation must be put to a hard-headed populace by a responsible government: It is unsustainable to drive a vehicle the size of a hotel room to the post office or the grocery store by yourself, period. You do not need it, you want it. And that's fine, until we have to spend $2 bn per week and thousands of lives to protect your ego. I'm sorry, Mister Hummer Driver, I really am. I wish you had a bigger cock, too, though probably not as much as your girlfriend does. But playtime is over, and we need some real adults to step up and say what needs to be said, before we're all fucked and have to ride bikes to work.

It doesn't take any revolutionary thinking, nor does it require us all to move to communes and stop bathing. We just have to be sensible, just have to quit being stupid and greedy, convinced that we can have it all. We can't have it all, but we can all have a lot, if we smarten up a bit. Maybe drive a smaller truck that gets decent mileage and does something besides glorify your pitiful ego. Maybe hit a farmer's market once in a while; the produce is better and frequently cheaper. Maybe ask questions about where all the food comes from in the era of refrigeration and cold storage and massive hub-and-spoke transportation/distribution networks, and stop pretending that the meat fairy just deposits slabs of shrink-wrapped chicken and steak at the supermarket each day. Shit, it used to be something to buy local, rather than sniffing out every fucking 2¢ deal at Walmart.

But our energy woes and our unsustainable consumption patterns are symptoms of a much larger problem. I imagine the British can sympathize with some aspects of our current plight. In his book Untied States, Juan Enriquez offers a compelling thesis. In 1905, the British dominated the world; the sun never set on the holdings of British dominance, much as it never quite sets on our current collection of adventurism, as non-colonial and bien pensant as it all may be. Fifty years later, the British Empire was almost completely gone.

This is not a moral argument; that ship has sailed over the horizon. When a nation clearly prefers to find excuses for torture to demanding its cessation, there is not much point in appealing to moral standing. This is a financial argument. Empires are very expensive to maintain, even back in the days when warfare was relatively static and predictable, when a big dog could piss on a hydrant without having to worry about the backsplash.

The current American demographic shows just enough people addled and distracted by dispensational rapturist mumbo-jumbo and warmed-over mythic exceptionalism to keep the machine going a little longer. But eventually the bill comes due. The population continues to age, productivity gains taper off, wages continue to stagnate, prices continue to rise, the Chinese decide to start cashing in their T-bills while cultivating other markets, and our current accounts deficit keeps ballooning. Then what? Something has to give, and energy is the weakest link in the chain.

(Not to mention the issue of the environment, that overdevelopment and global warming are real and getting worse, that the Louisiana marshlands that used to help absorb and mitigate the impact of storms like Katrina have been stripped and developed, to the long-term detriment of the ecosystem, and that the aggregate damage is only going to continue to increase.)

It is safe to assume, given current conditions and reasonable future speculation, that the era of American primacy will have passed by 2055, and probably much sooner. Maps will have been redrawn, leaders will have come and gone, some populations will have come to their senses while others will just be entering that batshit stage. One of every three human beings lives in either China or India, and that ratio is only increasing. That is an unstoppable dynamic, economically, demographically, diplomatically -- and at some point in the not-too-distant future, perhaps technologically and militarily. This is not a Chicken Little doom-and-gloom prediction; this is what every reliable analysis of available numbers and trends points to. The empire is simply unsustainable long-term. The numbers don't lie; we just keep lying to ourselves about what the numbers mean.

So the question becomes how best to cushion the landing, to ease our eventual transition from guns to butter. And where it starts is with people examining their individual and group role in the world at large, whether they want to start leading by example or continue to wallow in toys and bullshit financed by ascendant powers. It's a hell of a lot easier to address these issues while it's still relatively voluntary, because we won't always have that luxury.


Ron said...

I'm so amused by the idea that President Fucktard is concerned about soaring gas prices when his own muddled strategy in the Middle East has caused the crisis in the first place.

He's hung up on hydrogen when many other models that are already workable around the world like alcool(sugar ethanol, Brazil), LPG(propane, South Korea, others) or even natural gas(public bus systems in Texas and many other places) are available. We don't need to wait ten years for research. There's stuff out there now that will allow us to diversify our energy sources.

Converting to any new energy source will take time, money and effort in the carmaking and fuel industries, but dammit, let's bend the federal subsidies to stuff that already works and is renewable, since hydrogen would still need a fossil fuel to electrolyze water.

Eternity said...

Right to the point, clear and informed. Congratulations.
Also, there is Brazil, who has alcohol fuel for its vehicles since a lot of time ago, and now it's more than the 40% of the vehicles that are using it. (I had a cousin there, using one of those engines in his VW car).
They said Brazil is going to be fully fueled by those engines in the near future.
Why not U.S.? I guess because there are a lot of tycoons making money out of oil ; whole generations of them !