Tom Murphy of Do the Math walks us through a topic that’s as crucial to the future of progressive, science-and-communications aided, modern society as anything could be: the comparative energy efficiency of human muscled-powered locomotion.
Corporate capitalism presumes the continuation — and, hence, the sustainability — of present mobility arrangements in at least its core areas. Under that arrangement, a large percentage of everyday, local-area travel is accomplished via automobile. This is due to the unique demand- and profit-stimulating effects (read: wastefulness) of cars-first transportation orders.
From an energy point of view, cars-first transportation means that fueling automotive engines is a major bottleneck for normal social existence. As such, the obvious question is how well does and could the cars-first arrangement compare to its major alternative, the reconstruction of towns and cities to encourage bicycling and walking?
Tom Murphy’s conclusion: On a diet of normal, mixed foodstuffs (rather than pure lard or some other means of maximizing the energy density of the comestible), short-distance bicycling yields an MPG equivalent of 290, or about 6 times the energy efficiency of a Toyota Prius. Walking, meanwhile, delivers about 160 MPG.
There is, Murphy says, one fly in the ointment here: the energy intensity of current agricultural and food delivery arrangements. Factoring that in, Murphy figures that the MPG of cycling drops to 130 and that of walking to 34.
So, even without altering the food system (via increased organic farming, localization of supply chains, moves away from food processing/packaging, improvement of the veggie/meat intake ratio, etc.), bicycles are almost four times more energy efficient than Priuses, and walking is right in the same ballpark. A blend of the two — surely a main feature of any genuinely sustainable, modern human future — would be far more energy efficient than any conceivable cars-first arrangement.
(All this, of course, leaves aside the question of the energy required to build and maintain the infrastructures involved. Cars-first requires huge streets, large parking areas, scattered building patterns, and gigantic, ornate fuel-delivery processes. Muscles-first living would imply much smaller streets, less need for parking, dense building patterns, and comparatively simple fuel-delivery processes.)
Muscles-first would, of course, also be a far healthier arrangement: Using one’s own body, rather than 3,000-pound electrical or fossil-fuel combusting machines, to achieve the desired movements, would have radically positive impacts on public health, as would the accompanying reduction in exposure to the chemicals and large collisions involved in cars-first living and breathing.
Need we mention which society would be more fun and sociable and sane?
First, we had Kurt Cobb saying that the public “agreed to allow the private automobile to become the dominant form of transportation.”
Today, we find James Howard Kunstler, after properly berating President Zerobama for his craven dishonesty on energy policy, saying that “President Obama is merely reflecting the foolish obsession of the public,” whom Kunstler claims “refuse to even think about anything else” other than keeping cars-first transportation going.
How does Kunstler know what the public refuses to contemplate? Has there ever been any serious choice offered or even mentioned? Of course not. From the moment the private automobile entered the historical scene, corporate capitalists have refused to permit robust democratic discussion of basic transportation policy options.
Personally, if I believed that the American public had zero willingness to think about changing our transportation order, I would certainly not be wasting my time and yours writing about it.
As it is, I hope I live to see the day when a social movement for progressive survival puts somebody in high office who offers the first honest assessment of transportation choice in American history. The powers that be, after all, are suppressing that for a reason. The facts, when known, are pretty damned radical.
Interesting report-on-a-report from Jeremy Warner of The Telegraph:
HSBC has calculated what would happen to energy consumption by 2050 given plausible forecasts for economic growth and assuming no constraint on resources, or that humans carry on using energy in the “taken for granted” way they do at the moment.
[D]emand in China, India and other emerging markets soars, but there is also quite considerable growth from advanced economies too. The big picture is that with an additional one billion cars on the road, demand for oil would grow 110%, to more than 190 million barrels per day. Total demand for energy would rise by a similar order of magnitude, doubling the amount of carbon in the atmosphere to more than three and a half times the amount climate change scientists think would keep temperatures at safe levels.
It scarcely needs saying that regardless of the environmental consequences, energy industries would struggle to cope, and more likely would find it impossible. We may or may not already be perilously close to peak oil – or maximum productive capacity – but nobody believes the industry could produce double what it does at the moment, however clever it becomes in tapping previously uncommercial or inaccessible reserves.
We are fast approaching an era when energy will have to be rationed. This can either be done in a peaceful manner, or we can carry on as we are, in which case it is all too likely to end up being settled down the barrel of a gun.
Rather sobering, as we watch the 2008 Marketer of the Year launch War #3.
Turns out the EPA (hardly a tough skeptic on this crucial capitalist push) says the Nissan Leaf, when brand-new, will have a driving range of 73, not 100, miles.
In other words, in its marketing efforts, Nissan exaggerates this key number by 37 percent. (Par for the course in our market-totalitarian “up to” culture.)
Of course, even Nissan admits that the Leaf battery, which stores the burnt coal or natural gas or fissioned uranium on which the Leaf ultimately runs, will, like all batteries, decay over time. Nissan says ordinary decay will take the battery down to 80 percent capacity after five years.
If Nissan is fudging that figure by roughly the same percentage of its range lies, in 5 years, the preening fools who spend the $35,000+ it takes to get a Leaf and a home charger might have a coal-car than can go maybe 50 miles total. Five years after that? Who knows?
Here is the Music Player. You need to installl flash player to show this cool thing!