Many people who delve into presentations of the peak oil problem describe their reaction by allusion to The Matrix. Red pill or blue pill? The red pill is the way of disturbing knowledge, disorienting and traumatic at first. Through the lens of impending energy scarcity, it becomes impossible to view most any scene in our neighborhoods without alarm at how tenuous it all is, how doomed, how sad.
My reaction to the same projections of doom is a little different from most, because I took another red pill years ago, and the effects moderate each other. (I am also highly resistant, as a recovered fundamentalist, to most constructs of quasi-religious scope.) Most peak oil initiates mourn first of all the raw suffering that economic hardship will entail, but second comes a sense of desperate privation at the thought of not being able to drive. Peak oil preparation groups grasp at various schemes to extend gas mileage, replace fossil fuel, or even hoard it. For their cars, or for the next, somehow greenwashed car they suppose they’ll buy. For many people, these are easier to think about than not driving at all. I imagine a band of lumberjacks, closing in on the last stand of trees in sight, fretting whether hydrogen-powered chainsaws will arrive in time to save their jobs.
While I’m as disturbed as anybody at the prospect of violent mayhem, more wars, starvation, etc., I can’t help but rejoice at the idea of cars as we know them going down with the cheap energy that brought them into being, a 20th-century bad-idea blip in human history like Crisco.
The red pill I took before Peak Oil became headline news was bicycling, specifically long-distance, everyday, utilitarian bicycling, as an alternative to driving. I didn’t do this out of altruistic reasons, but because it was fun and cheap, and I enjoyed the little challenges it presented. And the endorphins. Peoples’ thoughts are as influenced by their behavior as the other way around. Over a number of years, without any behavioral commitment to driving, I began to see car culture for what it is, and this reinforced my decision not to own a car even when my family’s distances and loads went far beyond common bicycle scale (excepting the Viet Cong).
Living this way makes car dependence, on the scale it obtains in the US, appear simply monstrous. To the extent that I can even accept it as real, I find it as loathsome as other forms of slavery. As in all master-slave relationships, it’s often difficult to tell who is captive to whom; more than a few of the masters grow fat, feeble, and imperious as they lose the physical dignity and capacity to do even the small, truly necessary part of the work they assign the slaves. Car culture’s enduring institution seldom correlates to moral weakness; its inertia is far beyond that: for most of my fellow citizens driving is a non-negotiable way of life, the antithesis of freedom. As with confederate slavery before, liberation will be imposed from without, by hard circumstance, probably very messily. Our grandchildren will marvel without admiration at how we lived.
Car culture exists to serve car culture; humans are the vehicles. It’s not a matter of how cars are fueled and of the noise and poison they emit: it’s a matter of how much energy they expend in relation to the useful work they perform, where work is understood literally as moving weight a certain distance in a certain time. Forget about efficiency as measured by double or even triple-digit MPG figures. Cars will always be more served than servants, more ends than means to the extent that their own weight grossly dwarfs what they carry. Their heaviness is advised by safety at speed (for those inside, at the expense of those outside), while their speed is in turn “necessary” largely to overcome the distances enabled and imposed by cars and their infrastructure itself, and the delays of traffic (i.e., other drivers). Most shameless of all, cars are sold and bought as a way to experience Nature, as a destination. Strapped in place, encaged, isolated from the subtle signals and enchantments of the outside world, they wield a deadly surfeit of kinetic energy as they careen around, turning former public space or wilderness into kill zones. Children are taught to fear the streets, and intrepid humans moving in them with peaceful grace are advised to wear funny hats and bright clothing if they value their lives. And I am a wild-eyed fanatic to maintain that this is deeply wrong. As Thoreau said, “Men have become the tools of their tools.”
During the last oil shocks of the 1970s, Ivan Illich began to describe our predicament. His talent for alienating ideologues on both the left and right assured his obscurity after the oil markets recovered. He died in 2002 at the age of 76. His works Energy and Equity and Tools for Conviviality are cited frequently by bicycle advocates, but not as extensively as they should be, I think. Some excerpts:
The per capita wattage that is critical for social well-being lies within an order of magnitude which is far above the horsepower known to four-fifths of humanity and far below the power commanded by any Volkswagen driver.
Cars … can shape a city into their image–practically ruling out locomotion on foot or by bicycle in Los Angeles. … That motor traffic curtails the right to walk, not that more people drive Chevies than Fords, constitutes radical monopoly. What cars do to people by virtue of this radical monopoly is quite distinct from and independent of what they do by burning gasoline that could be transformed into food in a crowded world. It is also distinct from automotive manslaughter. Of course cars burn gasoline that could be used to make food. Of course they are dangerous and costly. But the radical monopoly cars establish is destructive in a special way. Cars create distance. Speedy vehicles of all kinds render space scarce. They drive wedges of highways into populated areas, and then extort tolls on the bridge over the remoteness between people that was manufactured for their sake. This monopoly over land turns space into car fodder. It destroys the environment for feet and bicycles. Even if planes and buses could run as nonpolluting, nondepleting public services, their inhuman velocities would degrade man’s innate mobility and force him to spend more time for the sake of travel.
Car-free advocacy is transformed by Peak Oil the same way Christian Socialism was transformed by Marxism; the former relied on moral and authoritarian appeals to one’s true best interests, while the latter posited an inexorable historical process, destined to sweep civilization in its path, directly or reactively. A few more sparks and time is all it will take. Have you noticed how every other hiccup of weather, act of terror, and rumor of instability sends the price of oil to a new record high these days? There’s no give or slack in the system anymore; we’re riding on the rims, and we will feel most every bump down the slope. Peak oil means that we don’t have to succeed in convincing people of the obvious. They will change or be changed; if not now, soon.