Death by Car

capitalism's drive to carmageddon: news & comments

oil_age How much lead would it take to build enough lead-acid batteries to enable construction of an all-wind-and-solar electrical grid to power the present energy use of the United States?

My new hero Tom Murphy reports:

Putting the pieces together, our national battery occupies a volume of 4.4 billion cubic meters, equivalent to a cube 1.6 km (one mile) on a side. The size in itself is not a problem: we’d naturally break up the battery and distribute it around the country. This battery would demand 5 trillion kg (5 billion tons) of lead.

How much lead exists in the Earth? 1.5 billion tons, or less than a third of what would be needed to build that cubic-mile battery.

This crucial point ought to be of particular interest to those of us who see the special problem with cars-first transportation within the looming catastrophe we are (not) facing. Since, according to the recently de-funded U.S. Energy Information Administration, transportation currently accounts for 27 percent* of overall U.S. energy use, it follows that there isn’t even enough lead on Earth to allow humans to run the planet’s existing automotive fleet on wind-and-solar-only. Indeed, even if so-called “electric cars” are twice as energy-efficient as present automobiles, it would take half the Earth’s remaining lead supplies to make a battery infrastructure capable of meeting the power-storage needs of an all-electric fleet in just the United States.

This, of course, is merely the half of it, because the above is just the story on the electricity-generation side. It says nothing about what a fleet of 250 million “electric cars” would also mean for the Earth’s supply of lithium, the element that is the basis for on-board storage of the electricity that gets extracted elsewhere.

Let’s all repeat the DbC mantra: Cars-first transportation was a capitalist pipe-dream.

*The EIA treats production of automobiles and their fuels, roadways, and various peripheral goods and services as part of the manufacturing sector, so its estimate of transportation-induced energy use is a serious under-statement of actuality.

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Electric Bulldozer

evils I just received an email from the transportation research department of the state university where I teach sociology. It was an announcement of an upcoming conference called “Leading the Charge.” Its theme? “To prepare for the arrival, deployment, and adoption of electric vehicles.” Attendees include the University President and one of the state’s U.S. Senators, plus a phalanx of capitalist promoters. Not exactly the usual faculty chalk talk. In fact, exactly zero faculty members from our school will be speaking. This, you see, is the bosses coming down to tell us what’s next, not some search for truth and democracy.

Debate? Public input? A chance to consider whether it’s sane to continue to accomplish daily locomotion via 3,500-pound machines that sit idle 95 percent of their lives?

Nah. We don’t do that here, never have. The public will “take the charge,” which is coming whether they like it or not. Arrival, deployment, and adoption are what the 500-pound parrot wants, so “prepare,” ye of humble wallet and voice.

The “leadership” does, of course, make sure to peddle the illusion that it’s all public. The capitalists laying out the terms, for instance, make sure to do so via shell groups with “.org” extensions. Such as the conference attendee electrification.org, for instance. Feast your eyes on that .org’s grassroots nature

Naturally, the diagnosis of these men — and we do mean men: look again at that line-up — of the people is that the problem at hand is “our nation’s dependence on petroleum.”

The cars-first transportation system that explains 80 percent of that dependence, and also guarantees vast and massively unsustainable waste of whatever “alternative fuels” our overclass eventually manages to cobble together and force upon us? That’s a major business opportunity, so we certainly won’t be talking talk about that.

In America, you spell “transportation” c-a-r-s, the planet and the society be damned.

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lehner The Natural Resources Defense Council, the woefully mis-named Big Green group, thinks cars-first transportation is compatible with a decent human future. While noting the preciousness of petroleum, NRDC Executive Director Peter Lehner peddles the notion that getting to work and fetching groceries using 1.5-ton steel, plastic, and lithium boxes is somehow something that doesn’t scream NATURAL RESOURCES WASTE.

Pathetic.

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electric fire The head of Toronto’s electricity and internet services provider reports that Toronto could not handle a serious increase in electric car ownership:

“If you connect about 10 per cent of the homes on any given street with an electric car, the electricity system fails,” Anthony Haines told an audience at Ryerson University Wednesday. “It basically can’t handle that load.”

Plugging in a car battery to charge it up draws about triple the amount of power used by a typical home during the daytime, he said. Compounding the problem, most people will want to plug in their cars after work in the early evening, which is just when household demand for power hits its peak.

“You connect this huge load on the grid, and the grid simply won’t handle that type of load,” said Haines. “We need some innovative solutions.”

Clearly, shifting car-charging time into lower-use periods is among them, but someone has to figure out just how to go about it.

If this is the case in Canada, it’s got to be much worse in the United States.

Bottom line: The electrical infrastructure for widespread electric car ownership does not exist.

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beinjing jam

Under its state capitalist regime, China has certainly managed to capture a serious chunk of the world’s wealth.  Unfortunately for China and everybody else, thanks to the imperatives of the economic system its market-Stalinist overclass has adopted, it has also managed to build its way into the cars-first dead end.  Apparently, there has been a 9-day-long traffic jam in the Beijing suburbs this summer…

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The Buffalo-Bill-in-a-K-Mart-suit at left is the eminent Randal O’Toole, a “senior policy scholar” specializing in transportation issues at the unintentionally hilarious Cato Institute.

Cato, you might know, is the “think tank” and lobbying group that says its mission “is to increase the understanding of public policies based on the principles of limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and peace,” all while endorsing virtually every corporate capitalist scheme that comes down the pike, despite the blatant, active, intentional, and intractable incompatibility of actually existing capitalism with small government, free markets, individual liberty, and/or peace.

In any event, one such scheme that Cato insists is somehow a product of limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and peace, rather than lavishly orchestrated Big Business insistence and coercion, is the United States’ cars-first transportation order.  Just ask Senior Scholar O’Toole, who states that “the automobile…is accessible to almost every family in the nation and provides unparalleled access to better housing, low-cost consumer goods, a choice-driven affordable life, and freedom.”

According to O’Toole, who earned his Senior Scholar in Transportation status at Cato by studying the highly relevant disciplines of forestry and economics, the main problem with our cars-first system is not its radically wasteful, patently unsustainable, war-encouraging energy requirements, but merely traffic congestion (itself allegedly caused by poor public policies rather than the mechanical and spatial logistics of cars-first travel).

The answer to that, our one and only transportation crisis, in the analysis of O’Toole?  Shift money away from public transportation projects and into “adaptive cruise control” and eventual perfection of the “completely automated vehicle.” Robot cars, in other words, will save the world.

Among other things, Cato apparently now pays O’Toole to travel the country and implant his melange of fantasies and lies into tea-baggers meeting at suburban country clubs.

If we survive capitalism’s implosion, our grandchildren will want to study this remarkable stuff as evidence of how utterly batshit crazy our society was driven by its ruling class’s self-flattering, reality-denying ideology.  It’s entirely as deluded as anything Nero or Montezuma or Louis XIV ever imagined, and far more dangerous, given the stakes involved, which are now planetary in scale.

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Mainstream environmentalism is very often as bad as the disease it thinks it’s busy curing.  Unwilling to risk their funding by attacking capitalism, the big green groups ignore as many hard facts and propose as many impossible solutions as worshipers of “markets” and technology.

Take the case of Opportunity Cost of the Tar Sands, the latest report from the British branch of the World Wildlife Fund, and apparently a basis for the forthcoming companion movie, Dirty Oil.

One of the major notions being peddled by the WWF and (one assumes) this movie:

The money that oil companies want to pump into tar sands [in Alberta, Canada] would cover the cost of the proposed Desertec Industrial Initiative, linking North African solar plants into a supergrid supplying 15% of Europe’s electricity by 2050. Or it could fund a Europe-wide shift to electric vehicles.

“A Europe-wide shift to electric vehicles”?  You mean the ones that, to the extent they aren’t vaporware, cost $50,000, have a range of 40 miles, fry out existing electrical circuits, and promise to burn rapidly through the planet’s remaining supplies of key minerals and non-renewable energy sources?  The ones that would continue to facilitate the bat-shit crazy practice of using a 2,000-pound assemblage to accomplish virtually all daily commutes?  Electric or not, if that’s a sustainable  arrangement, I’ll eat this desk.  But, of course, to mention the massive unsustainability of cars-first transportation would be financial suicide for the WWF, wouldn’t it?

Meanwhile, using the North African desert to send electricity to Europe?  One might think a group devoted to ecology might be familiar with the severe limitations that the laws of physics impose on the transmission and storage of electricity, not to mention the substantial, unsolved EROEI questions involved in solar electricity generation.

But more disgusting, to me at least, than the sight of the WWF suppressing such issues is the mindless neo-imperialism of its advocacy of the unconscionable Desertec land-grab.  As Noam Chomsky recently remarked, given the history between Europe and Africa, one might imagine future resource flows running in the opposite direction to the familiar one breezily suggested by Desertec and the WWF.

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