We saw An Inconvenient Truth two days ago. I’m still processing it, but my dominant thought is that we’re inescapably screwed. It felt like watching my child’s and grandchild’s death in slow motion, not to mention everybody else’s, and that whole civilization thing too. The film does a very good job at laying out just how incontrovertibly real and present the danger is, and how criminally insane or just plain evil are the ExxonMobil-funded naysayers and their dimwit believers. It can’t do any harm to expose that.
I can clap with only one hand, though, because while Gore does drive home what’s at stake, he pulls the same punch so many other US environmental activists do in terms of appropriate mitigation. He wants us to buy compact fluorescent lightbulbs and hybrid cars, and keep the tires pumped up, amid many other little things. Add up all these mitigations and, sure, it’s a tick in the right direction, sort of like getting people to move their beach chairs a yard higher up on the sand as the tsunami approaches. It will be a major political achievement to upset all those dozing sunbathers and make it happen. Think of the sacrifice: drinks will spill and hundreds of square inches of mayonnaise surface will be fouled with sand. But tens of lives could be saved.
Are people, en masse, really so pathetically stupid that they need to be told a progression of less and less bold lies before they’re ready for the inconvenient truth? Is it moral to bill a palatably convenient lie as the inconvenient truth, if the real truth were more likely to be rejected out of hand? Yes, Al is probably right on that one. He’s still a politician who understands that the wheel of a message needs traction before torque can do any good. Pressed specifically on advice to buy hybrids, he says obliquely “right now, the political environment in the country does not support the range of solutions that have to be introduced.” But right now is when we need to act.
I have a bumper sticker on the back of our child’s bike seat that says “environmentalists don’t drive.” It’s not a boast of environmental virtue (I bike for other reasons mainly, and I do drive several times a year); it is a rebuttal to the absurdity of environmental bumper stickers on actual bumpers. It also identifies me, in the eyes even of many self-identified liberal environmentalists, as a completely unreasonable person, or at least a political liability. That’s just sad, because I think times like these call for more unreasonable people.
Reasonable people of the world, wake up: hybrids and high-tech lightbulbs don’t go together because the energy it takes to drive a hypothetical “environmentally friendly” 60 MPG hybrid car is enough to run six-hundred (600) “wasteful” incandescent 60-watt lightbulbs (36kW/h). If you drive to the store in a Prius to upgrade to compact fluorescents, you are likely to cause more carbon emissions than if you bike to the store to get bad old incandescents.* In fact, every single hour that greener-than-thou car operates, it expends about the amount of energy necessary to ride a bicycle about 1,250 miles. (37.5kWh = 1,250mi @ 15Wh/mi, 25% metabolic efficiency). This doesn’t take into account the energy required to manufacture and dispose of a hybrid vehicle, which by some accounts is comparable to its lifetime operating energy costs. Gore’s tip to “reduce the number of miles you drive by walking, biking, carpooling or taking mass transit wherever possible” is like advising people who suffer from crippling headaches to “reduce the number of nails you drive into your forehead by taking up yoga, eating well, and getting enough sleep instead ‘wherever possible.’” Stop driving nails into your forehead altogether, and the other items turn from feeble mitigations into just plain good living. Looking at all household energy consumption in the United States together, driving accounted for nearly 60% in 2001: 1.5 times the cost of heating and air conditioning, lighting, cooking, appliances, etc. combined. Now consider that heating, cooking, lighting and so on are pretty basic conditions of civilization, while the institution of driving, shuttling around strapped into 4,000-lb personal cages at speeds unknown before the last century, is an entirely novel consumer asylum. It doesn’t need optimization; it needs to be phased out.
Now, the energy used by cars isn’t the same as their greenhouse gas emissions, except in reality, and non-realities about how to package enough energy to run anything like a civilization-scale car fleet without vast emissions depend on numerous not-yet-invented technologies and are extremely capital intensive; they depend on wishing. That’s why it floors me that any kind of regular car use can be advocated in the same breath with better lighting (or similar personal energy expenditures) as part of a solution.
Prius, Hummer, and Hypercar are pot, kettle, and Schroedinger’s cat in the dark box, and they’re all pretty black when your perspective of their relative harm isn’t distorted by being a regular driver, an addict among addicts, whose parents, doctors, ministers, teachers, colleagues, employers and employees, neighbors and friends all shoot up with barely a moan every time the needle slouches toward “E.” The moment your idea of a reasonable response to the threat of extinction lets go of common household car dependence is the moment it lets go of wishing, and passes the clean and sober sniff test.
The only kinds of analyses that attempt to sketch out a sustainable future for car culture are the ones that start with cars as a must-have, and sustainability as a nice-to-have. Pull your head out of the last century and make a real choice. The challenge of the present century is not to sustain, but to recover from the devastation of having found a way to squander untold millions of years of petrified solar energy in less than a century, from having invested most of the wealth thereby created in infrastructure dependent on ongoing inputs of similar magnitude, and from having come to believe that lower-energy lives are somehow less advanced, a step backwards.
We must learn to live close to one another again, with the remaining cheap energy we have. Contrary to popular belief, cities aren’t more crowded than they used to be, not even thriving residential areas; they are more sparse because it is no longer typical for several generations to dwell together under a common roof; family values start with home economics, not holiday tripping, shopping, and shipping. Cities appear overcrowded today because their public spaces — their streets — have been given over to large dangerous private vehicles, in motion and at rest. We need to stop investing in automotive infrastructure, and in utility subsidies to automobile-dependent development. We need to revive our light and heavy rail systems, and deploy ubiquitous broadband to support telecommuting for those industries it can support. We need to reform zoning to promote walking commutes and corner groceries. We need local agriculture. We need to replace “minimum required parking spaces” in development codes everywhere with “maximum permissible parking spaces.” Taxing carbon instead of income sounds like a good lever to reward these kinds of changes.
I was fuming (figuratively) about all this while riding my son home yesterday. Coming the other way on one of Portland’s original hundreds of miles of 30-foot-wide multiple use paths (called “streets”) was a woman who looked to be in her forties, on an older bike. She had one child in a child seat, and was hauling a trailer with two more children in it. Behind the trailer were two more kids, perhaps six and eight years old, on their own bikes. I smiled, waved, and passed. About a block later I turned around and caught up to them, and started praising and thanking this stranger. “You must think I’m crazy!” she said. “O no! no!–well, you might be crazy in general, but at this instant you are the sanest person in a radius of several miles at least!” She laughed the laughter of Sarah–even at this late crossing, her line might survive to become a blessing to all nations–and I thanked her again, with a depth of sincerity my voice is incapable of conveying.
Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race. H.G. Wells
*The math gets hazy, help me out here… how far to the store? How many bulbs? How much closer could the store be if it didn’t need a parking lot, auto-engineered access routes and associated zoning? Precision isn’t necessary when the comparisons span orders of magnitude.