in times when it is insane to be rational, and sane to be
delusional. The minimum that must be done is to replace the
automobile with rail as the center of the transportation system, and
to replace fossil fuels with wind and solar as the center of the
energy system: any solution that is proposed that does not include
this solution is not a serious attempt to solve the crises. But such
a solution is completely unacceptable politically.
"The maximum that seems politically feasible still falls far
short of the minimum that would be effective in solving the
crisis" -- Al Gore
materialistic, growth-bound world, the politically acceptable is
ecologically disastrous while the ecologically necessary is
politically impossible” – Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees
We live in times when it is insane to be rational, and sane
to be delusional. In order to avoid the worst of global warming, we
are told, we may have on the order of ten years; it may also be the case
that the production of oil has already peaked, in which case
humanity should undertake a crash program to wean itself away from
My restatement of Al Gore’s quandary is the following: the
minimum that must be done is to replace the automobile with rail as
the center of the transportation system, and to replace fossil fuels
with wind and solar as the center of the energy system: any solution
that is proposed that does not include this solution is not a
serious attempt to solve the crises. But such a solution is
completely unacceptable politically.
This is one of the few times in human history when the large
problems confronting us are not immediately apparent. We face
long-term, exceedingly complex issues now. As I have tried to argue
in this space, the manufacturing decline of the U.S. will lead to
the collapse of the American economy. The enormous trade deficit of
the United States should give pause to most clear-thinking people;
most mainstream “experts” don’t get it blinded as they are by the
ideological spider web of neoclassical economics.
The problems of global warming, particularly after Hurricane
Katrina, are becoming more difficult to dismiss. Similarly, one
might think that oil at $60/barrel might make the idea of Peak Oil
seem more plausible, but even such an obvious idea has been more or
less shut out from the mainstream media. The mantra that “oil
supplies are tight” and there is “greater demand from China” is
about all that is needed to put people back to sleep.
Reading, Writing, and Industry
Part of the solution must involve constructing a high level of
- Unless people know how the “machinery of nature” works, they will
not understand how humans are destroying that machinery.
- Unless they understand how industrial economies work, it
will be impossible to convince vast publics that the market is
destroying the American economy and the global
The dominance of the idea of the perfection of the market leads
to an inability to consider long-term problems or solutions. If the
market will “solve” everything, then why worry? Once the problem
becomes clear, the market will move to the most efficient solution.
And if disaster strikes…well…
Voltaire’s Candide was due in part to his reaction
to the destruction of Lisbon in a large earthquake in 1755.
Philosophers were so enamored with the idea of things happening for
a reason, that they argued that the earthquake’s leveling of a third
of the city had made the job of renovating Lisbon that much
Our latter-day Panglosses can’t prevent “acts of nature” but they
could try to offer alternatives to “acts of man”, preventable only
if the government intervenes in the economy in a very large-scale
way. If we wait until the market takes care of it, it will be too
late. Sometimes, large groups of people have to understand a problem
and collectively act in a coordinated and planned way. This is one
of those times.
Oil, the two-edged industrial sword
The first reality to be confronted is the problem of oil. When oil runs out, not
only will there cease to be a readily available fuel for
automobiles, trucks and airplanes, but the large scale use of
pesticides – and in the case of natural gas, fertilizers – will make
our modern agricultural system unusable.
Petroleum is an almost perfect fuel for all kinds of transport
vehicles, especially for a small-scale vehicle such as the
automobile. Petroleum is easy to transport in ships or trucks; won’t
work overtime to escape a container as hydrogen will; is very
compact (unlike hydrogen and natural gas); is not as explosive as
hydrogen; and up until now, has been found in underground reservoirs
that often don’t even need pumping. Nature handed us a miracle
substance, and we have spent the last century burning most of it.
Half of that burning has occurred in automobiles.
The automobile is horrendously inefficient from a society-wide
point of view, because the automobile is a piece of equipment that
sits around doing nothing for most of its existence.
When we say that a factory runs efficiently, we mean that the
machinery inside the factory has been running reliably, with a
stable output, and without interruptions. If factories used their
machinery for as little of the day as most cars, our economies would
On top of this, when the automobiles are running,
they usually carry only one person. The sight of an SUV occupied by
one person has become a telling one in the United States,
highlighting complete apathy towards either transportational or
A much more efficient way to run a transportation system is to
use a larger vehicle, for as long each day as possible, carrying as
many people as possible. This is what buses and trains do in a
public or mass transit system. Unlike the case of the private
automobile, the drivers are well-trained and the vehicles are
constantly maintained, ideally, at peak performance. Virtually no
people are killed, versus the 40,000 killed each year by automobiles
in the U.S. Best of all, all of these vehicles can be run on
electricity, and the electricity can be made without emitting carbon
Ship of Fuels
But wait a minute! Surely I must be insane – even if the logic is
impeccable – because the implication is that our transportation
systems should be based on something other than the automobile.
Surely some other fuel can be found to replace petroleum?
Not cheaply enough to keep the automobile at the center of the
transportation system. Much is made of tar sands, oil shale or the
other types of “unconventional oil”. Calling these fuels oil is like
saying that I have a cup of coffee after it has spilled into the
ground. Technically, I do have a cup of coffee. It’s just that it
would cost a few hundred dollars to turn it back into something I
could use. In the case of unconventional oil, nobody is claiming
that it can be coaxed out of its rock at anything close to 10% of
the global rate of oil use per day.
Turning coal or natural gas into fuel for vehicles would lead to
a fairly quick depletion of coal and natural gas, and even those
fuels would be considerably more expensive than what we have been
used to. Much of the fuel so obtained would be used, as in the case
of unconventional oil, to make the fuel in the first place.
Biofuels, crops grown for fuel, are problematic for many of the
same reasons, plus the additional one that, as Lester Brown fears,
much of the farmland used to make fuel will be at the expense of the
poorest people on Earth. The survival of the farmland, in turn, is
being threatened by the overuse of the land, which a biofuel
regimen, one may suppose, would make even worse.
Finally, hydrogen, as has been touched on, is very voluminous,
leaky, explosive, and at present, very expensive. The reason we
can’t just grab it out of the air is that hydrogen escapes into
space, and if it weren’t for plants holding the hydrogen atoms to
Earth, we wouldn’t have any water (or life). Hydrogen is not easy to
The Automobile is dead, long live the automobile
The internal combustion engine as a mass device is probably
doomed, and with it, the modern, powerful, long-distance automobile
will be doomed as well. If fuel becomes scarce, what there is of it
will be saved for emergency vehicles – police, fire, ambulances –
and for the military. A rational use of oil would also be to make
recyclable plastics and other feedstocks, such as nonpolluting
petrochemicals, eventually to be replaced by oil created from plant
waste (cellulosic ethanol ).
The automobile could survive as a light, relatively slow,
relatively close-range electric vehicle, assuming a robust
renewable-based energy grid. For long distance movement, including
for freight: rails and buses will have to provide the backbone.
However, as a very well-respected, pro-transit transportation
expert advised me, “Never say you want to stop people from driving
their cars, say that you’re trying to give them more choices”. So a
massive transit system would have to be built alongside the
automobile/highway system, ready to work with small electric cars,
with unpredictable ridership for the rails and buses. Unpredictable,
that is, until the oil starts running out or society becomes truly
concerned about global warming, or both.
There are many innovative public transit ideas, both from
existing and theoretically systems. Curitiba Brazil has a rapid bus
system that allows buses to use their own lane, changes lights to
help speed buses along, has fewer stops than in most other systems,
and uses raised bus stops. There are proposals for light
monorail systems that are elevated, and light rail systems made
from vehicles that are fairly small, independent, and run when
people call them, like an elevator.
Another category of vehicles that might replace automobiles
entirely, could be people-mover systems (or personal rapid transit
). High-speed trains spread
throughout the world would mean that airplanes would need only be
used to cross large bodies of water, thus vastly reducing another
source of fuel use. Continental Europe has been built with a
relatively small suburban infrastructure, so it would be easier for
Europe to switch to a dense network of rails with various small
scale electric automobiles, or it may be possible in some areas to
simply use bicycles or other human-powered vehicles, augmented with
small motors as needed. In the U.S., of course, with its vast
suburbs, either a certain amount of centralization of the population
back into towns and cities will have to take place, or a larger
system of electric cars/people movers, or both, would be necessary.
It is hard to disagree with James Howard Kunstler’s conclusion that
the American complex of suburbs, roads, and malls, what he calls the
suburban-industrial complex, is the biggest waste of money in human
history -- except , maybe, for the
American military -industrial complex.
Earth, Wind and Solar
This whole picture – replacing fuels with electricity and
replacing big cars with small cars and rail – hinges on the ability
to make the electricity system sustainable. The other two main
fossil fuels – coal and natural gas – not only have their own sets
of problems, but both fuels are more regional .
Because oil is so transportable and contains so much energy, it
is relatively easy to move it to wherever it is needed – although
where oil comes from is the stuff of modern
geopolitics. Natural gas is, for all practical purposes, restricted
to transport over land. Natural gas, like oil before it, will
deplete globally as it is happening now in the U.S. But the
Americans have large deposits of coal which will eventually run out,
particularly if used to replace oil and gas; it has the added
problem of being very dirty and carbon heavy. Some have advocated
pumping the carbon dioxide waste underground. That means, among
other things, that the electrical grid should be of the highest
quality, so that if coal is used and the carbon “sequestered”
underground, the electricity will easily get to the rest of the
It may be that the quality of the electrical grid will be
critical to an electrified transportation system and therefore to a
sustainable economy because of the scattered nature of the two most
important sustainable energy technologies, solar and wind. According
to a study at Stanford University, there is enough energy available
from wind for all of our energy needs, not just electric. However,
much of this wind is in remote places like North Dakota. Similarly, some have
claimed that the Mojave desert could provide enough energy from
solar energy to power the entire country, which points to the uneven
distribution of solar energy as well. Since so much electrical power
is lost from transmission, it would be critical to have highly
efficient electrical grids.
Cultivate your garden, Candide
Besides obtaining electricity from remote areas and transporting
it, we could also build a sophisticated local set of energy systems,
all different, depending on the local circumstances. The first order
of business would be to follow the example of Japan and Germany and
mandate the government to install solar energy systems on a large
set of buildings. This should be followed by plans to install solar
energy systems on all buildings, on as much of the surface as
Judging from the Japanese and German experience, mass production
will lead to massive reductions in cost of solar, as well as wind. The alleged
“market” for energy is full of subsidies, even for oil, so it is
absurd to not use wind or solar because it is a few cents per
kilowatt/hour more expensive than coal or natural gas. To wait for
the market to use solar and wind would be to drive civilization off
a cliff because of a suicidal attachment to a harmful
Wind power, it appears, may be able to provide more power
ultimately than solar – like trees – they need deep roots – and they
are more like trees in a rainforest, because they need to be as high
as possible, or objects below them will lessen the amount of wind
that can be captured for energy. Thus, it may be that each
neighborhood could have a large windmill, or maybe each town or city
would have to have a wind farm or farms located at some distance,
dependent on an efficient electrical grid to make such systems
The big problem with wind and solar is stability of supply. This
will require a more decentralized resolution, one adapted to local
conditions. A certain percentage of daily electrical generation from
solar and wind could go into local generation of hydrogen and
hydropower potential from pumping water up a water tower. When
needed, the hydrogen could be used either for household fuel cells
or to directly power a furnace or tiny turbine, and falling water
could be used from a water tower to generate electricity.
This all assumes that, not only will the transportation system be
much more efficient than it is now, but that household and factory
energy consumption will be much more efficient, in terms of
appliances, heating, and cooling. The government will have to
intervene and enforce efficiency and not wait for the market to do
the right thing.
To dream the impossible dream
These transformations need to be done soon and need to be done
globally rather than nationally, particularly if the continents are
to be spanned by electrical and rail grids. The implication of this
logic is that a global political party should be established, whose
main goal would be to put rail at the center of the transportation
networks and solar and wind at the center of energy systems. Perhaps
the symbol of the party could be the famous picture of the soldiers
planting the flag on Iwo Jima, except that instead of a flag, they
could be erecting a windmill. One might use Barak Obama’s phrase,
“The audacity of hope”, but I would rather use
Frank Zappa’s phrase, “unmitigated audacity”. How about the Insanely
You can contact Jon Rynn directly on his jonrynn.blogspot.com .
You can also find old blog entries and longer articles at
economicreconstruction.com. Please feel free to reach him at
This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need
Policy Address at
NYU , September 18, 2006.
From “Our Ecological
Footprint: Reducing human impact on the Earth”, 1996.
According to Dr.
James Hansen, see the following link .
Steingart, writing in Der Spiegel , wrote on the coming dollar
 The title of a book by
Paul Erlich (1987, Simon and Schuster) of Population
Bomb fame, who is an ecological scientist.
Political Economy of Energy in the Second Half of the Age of Oil
 My discussion of oil
sands, natural gas, coal, and hydrogen are based mainly on Beyond
Oil by Kenneth Deffeyes, The Party’s Over by
Richard Heinberg, and The End of Oil by Paul
See Lester Brown’s
discussion of biofuels in Plan B 2.0, pgs 30-36.
David Suzuki, The
Sacred Balance , pgs 58-59.
My own idea would be to put an electric and communication cable
in a slit in every street, and have a light, small vehicle hook-up
to both cables when it is running. The users would not need to drive
but would let the communications cable and computers run the cars,
thus presumably virtually eliminating the massive death rate and
allowing people to do other things than driving while moving. This
might allow most suburbs to survive as well, although not in the
fast and powerful splendor that their residents had hoped, but good
enough to avoid widespread hysteria and chaos.
 James Howard Kunstler,
The Long Emergency , 2006.
 See http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/%20,
and in particular, http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/winds/
 Interviewee in
HBO’s documentary about global warming, Too hot to handle
 See The End of
Oil, Paul Roberts, 2004, pgs194-95.
David Sirota gives a
on his blog.