When it comes to talking about carbon-free technologies that can be used to generate electricity, the public seems familiar with many of the alternatives – wind, photovoltaics, concentrated solar power, and geothermal. But when it comes to transportation, we run into a cultural and political blind spot. As the old saying goes, “Be here now”, and in transportation, when it comes to electric vehicles, “being here now” means thinking about trains. Despite the existence of this dynamic, increasingly high-tech alternative, we hear a lot of wishful thinking about how to rid ourselves of oil.
A good example of this took place a few weeks ago, when Ezra Klein was being interviewed by Rachel Maddow. Klein was trying his best, I think, to figure out a long-term solution to the problem of being dependent on a substance that is currently destroying the Gulf of Mexico:
“Look, when we don‘t have a price on carbon, what we‘re left with is attempting to rely on innovation. We need a Bill Gates somewhere sitting in his garage, doing for energy what Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did for computers and listening to music while you walk places. And the question of whether or not we get that will be a lot of luck and a lot of questions about the actual technology, but also, it will be about whether or not we fund it...We at least need to start getting started on plan B, which is trying to fund these thinkers and these research scientists to figure out a way - figure us a way out of this if we can‘t do it through our political system ”
Er...well, the history of technology is not so clean and neat. Bill Gates didn't sit around in his garage -- in fact, Microsoft bought their first operating system, DOS, from a software company down the street. They'd need an airplane hanger-sized garage to change Windows now. I once worked for Apple, and they weren't developing things you could cook up in your garage either. Even renewable technologies require some pretty sophisticated labs for their development. And as Paul Krugman once pointed out, the technological progress on moving people around hasn't been changing very much – in fact, the most recent major advance in transportation technology has been high-speed rail. You couldn't invent that in your garage either.
I have nothing against garages – they make good places to store things in, particularly the device that is soaking up about 50% of the country's oil, the automobile. But except for the occasional wizard, they aren't particularly magical. To steal a phrase from Grist.org's Dave Roberts, hoping for a technological miracle is like hoping for a “magic pony” that will come down from the sky, delivering its basket of technological marvels. At best, this kind of thinking delays seriously considering alternatives that work now, and at worst, it leads to the kinds of arguments that The Breakthrough Institute makes against important legislation.
The easiest way to solve the oil problem would be if we could wake up one morning and find out that all we have to do is replace an oil-based engine with an electric one. If all Mr. and Ms. Public had to do was plug their car into an electric outlet, or maybe easily swap out their battery, and if you could do the same thing with trucks and planes – well, forget about planes – we could guarantee the least amount of political and cultural turmoil. But as Kris De Decker shows, people have been working on electric cars for a very long time, without much luck.
We definitely need a Plan B, as Klein asserts, but shouldn't we at least include, as part of the conversation, a technology that has proven itself for almost 200 years, the train? Wouldn't it be a good idea to have the choice of using trains for passenger and freight travel if we want to get serious about cutting carbon emissions and if we want to avoid the worst of the end of the era of cheap oil? Let's pour resources into plug-ins and all-electric cars, and into trains – there's no reason that the two technologies should be competing for money. We need them both.
I think one of the reasons the mainstream media (MSM) have a hard time discussing the train alternative is because they think that discussing the construction of, say, a 17,000 mile high-speed rail system, would imply that they are anti-car. It means no such thing. Freedom to choose should mean the freedom to choose different modes of transportation. The other reason that the MSM is probably afraid to broach the subject is because it would require action by the government, and well, we can't talk about that, can we?
Which is a shame, because constructing modern rail networks, and building the trains and rail that they use, would probably have the same result as it had 150 years ago – it would lead to a decades-long economic boom. We have dozens of boarded up automobile factories. In fact, we have an entire treasure-trove of abandoned factories, and more importantly, we have a virtual cornucopia of skilled manufacturing workers who could help lift the economy as well as decrease our dependence on oil – finally – and put us on the road to decreasing carbon emissions. That sounds like a political winner to me.