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Old 02-21-2011, 11:30 AM   #1
shikataganai
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Lightbulb The futility of the Prius and the end of the world as we know it

I sold my only car back in 2008 after having an epiphany that our western way of life is unsustainable. Recently, I've come to a more gradual realization that my reaction to it is futile. Here's how it all came to pass:

The Epiphany

Although I'd read this and that regarding the energy use and petroleum dependence of our way of living for many years I can still pinpoint the exact moment when it sunk in: I was on an "express" bus in the fall of 2007 making its way very slowly up the crowded I-5 HOV lanes on the way up north to see my then-fiancée. The sight of so many people sitting sightless in their near-stationary cars perched atop an artificial desert of concrete, just waiting for the car ahead of them to inch forward so that they could mindlessly do so as well, made things click. It seemed absurd all of a sudden to contemplate how much energy and sheer effort it took to change the wooded landscape to that just so that we could coop ourselves up in a 3,500 lb padded private box on our way home. What is progress good for if our lives are spent this way?

The Reaction

I basically didn't drive after this realization. I'd never commuted by car even before this point due to (deliberately) exorbitant parking fees at my workplace, so commuting in by bicycle was no change in my habits. I did cut out all pleasure driving, however, and did my errands by foot, bicycle, or bus--nothing like coming back from Costco via two buses when a car is parked in one's driveway, just out of sheer obstinance… Autocross, long one of my passions--what young man doesn't secretly want to be a racecar driver?--lost its allure once I looked at it coldly and analytically, so I sold my extra wheels and race tires and put my math-nerd number vinyl number plate (#1729) in a dark corner of the garage. Eventually, I sold the car itself: I didn't drive it any more besides moving it in and out of the driveway at my roommates' request, I didn't enjoy driving it because of my environmental guilt, and the money tied up in it would be more useful for paying for an engagement ring and an then-upcoming cross-country move. In order to get around sans car given my weird hours as a physician (as in getting to the hospital before the buses are even running), I built an electric bicycle, comfortable with the "unnatural" electric assistance with the knowledge that its lithium battery pack is probably more efficient than my own metabolism.

The Green Life, Long Island-style

Fast forward a year or three and my wife and I are living the "green life" as best as we can in suburban New York. Our electricity consumption is a third of the national average; we keep our programmable thermostat quite low indeed and have added insulation to our rented house; we bring reusable bags to the grocery; and we recycle as best as we can. Finally, of course, we drive efficient vehicles: a Prius (46 mpg combined), a Fit (30 mpg combined), or a medium-sized motorcycle (~40-45 mpg observed but with higher smog-forming emissions than either of the two cars). Although gas isn't cheap here, we don't live so close to the financial edge that $5 or even $10/gallon gas would bankrupt us, so our motivation isn't merely financial: We really feel that it's the right thing to do, as our western-lifestyle world's demand for oil can be implicated in so much strife and bloodshed and leads to the enrichment of some truly unsavory characters in the Middle East.

The Realization of Futility

All this up to this point has been my reaction to my epiphany, however. As I stated up front, I've now gradually realized that what we are doing is futile. Inspirational slogans on Seattle bus shelters aside, the actions of an individual, one small family, or even a small similarly-minded minority of people (let's call us "people who like Stuff White People Like"), are not enough to change the world. What is required is that the incentives align themselves differently: much as our current mess in medicine is because the payment model provides incentives to do more procedures and charge more fees rather than to practice low-cost medicine and substitute judgment and thought for waste, our current worldwide system of incentives rewards copious consumption of the cheapest (and dirtiest) forms of energy.

Given that the US, Russia, and China "own" the three largest reserves of coal in the whole world and we, de facto, control or at least buy influence and access to the Middle East's vast oil fields, it's pretty much guaranteed that the taps to these dirty forms of energy won't turn off until the last mote has truly been extracted from the ground. Furthermore, given the tremendous energy demands posed by China's surging economy, which may well be followed in 20 years by an Indian surge should they figure out how to stamp out their endemic corruption, there will be every incentive imaginable to the world's coal miners and well drillers to extract the black gold in order to spin up the compressors of air conditioners and refrigerators throughout the newly-westernized world.

What use, then, are incremental steps such as that embodied by the Prius and our "green lifestyle"? A car that gets 50% better fuel economy than its competitors yet still runs on gasoline may forestall the world running out of oil from the year 2090 to 2095, but that doesn't really change anything at all. Even electric cars aren't the answer: Although they may allow for an additional, say, 50% reduction in CO2 emission per mile driven compared to a Prius under ideal circumstances, the electricity generating capacity that they require is still fundamentally tied to oil and coal and will be for the foreseeable future due to simple economics.

Basically, these cars (and all the related energy-efficiency jazz: CFL lightbulbs, Energy Star this and that) are all small incremental steps, and will only forestall the inevitable. They do offer an economic benefit if energy prices are very high, but we haven't reached that point on the supply and demand curve, and the political reality in the US and especially the still-developing world will prevent any kind of high carbon tax from being enacted. Until we actually do start to run out of these supplies, which probably will not be within my lifetime, their existence merely serves to assuage the guilty conscience of the collective white world.

Beyond Thunderdome

When we do run out--and we will run out, it's just a matter of whether it's in my lifetime or that of my descendants--is when the true changes will be made. When gasoline becomes so scarce that we can't buy it at any cost, no matter how much military muscle we possess, is when our lifestyle will truly change and we'll see the concrete jungle that we've constructed--concrete having a very high CO2 cost--crumble. A nation that has built up its hydroelectric, wind, and solar power generation capabilities back in the (current and mid-term future) era when power was cheap will prosper if they can protect themselves from military bullies, but much if not most of the world will not be ready for this new world order. Chaos will ensue, and lives will get a whole lot simpler, for better or, likely, worse.

I used to think that the scientific evidence showing our effects on the global climate would be enough to convince the population and its politicians that an energy tax would be necessary, and that this energy tax might slow down our rate of energy consumption to a sustainable level. I now believe that achieving the political and inter-nation consensus to make this happen is impossible, and that we as a world will draw down our fossil fluids at an ever-increasing rate until they're simply gone. Therefore preparing for some utopian near-term world where the incentives are changed to reward energy efficiency, as I have so madly done (and as embodied by the image of the Prius), is pointless. There's no point being a martyr to a cause if the world is literally stacked against oneself. Instead I think it makes sense to party while Rome burns, to take advantage of our low energy prices that do not account for the externalities such as climate change, and to enjoy the fruits of our petroleum-derived society while it's still around to enjoy.

Of course, it might also not be a bad idea to build an underground bunker with an electric car, water purification setup, and enough solar panels to be self-sustaining. 100 years from now my great-grandchildren may well be able to live like a king (a sheikh, even) if they have such equipment for their use when Mad Max roams the barren earth above…
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:31 AM   #2
shikataganai
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IBtl;dr

It's coherent despite being long. Read it, if you dare. Otherwise, post up a funny gif: this is teh OT, after all…
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:33 AM   #3
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I think I just had an epiphatree, too.
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:33 AM   #4
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I love shika's brain downloading threads!
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:34 AM   #5
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Agreed. The entire system is broken.

The more I watch Fight Club, the more I think that Project Mayhem is not a bad idea.
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:35 AM   #6
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I'd like to be in your bunker.

Your turn signals get me randy.

PS: You're right.
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:36 AM   #7
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We need a nuclear reactor on every corner. Problem solved. Throw one in my trunk while you are at it.
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:37 AM   #8
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How is sitting in traffic on a bus any better than sitting in a car in traffic?
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:37 AM   #9
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I usually remove the catalytic converters from my cars to help speed up the process. I do go out of my way to increase my 'carbon footprint'.
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:39 AM   #10
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there are always alternative resources, alternative methods of propulsion, and we will not only find them but make them cost-effective. if not on earth, elsewhere.

i don't subscribe to the doom and gloom no hope future model.
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:42 AM   #11
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I've been saying this for years. The Prius (and all other "green" cars) are nothing more than eco-masturbation. We will burn every last drop of oil on planet Earth. It doesn't matter if it takes 10 years or 10 thousand. It will happen.

I'm using as much as I can now while it's still cheap. Make hay while the sun shines and all that...
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:42 AM   #12
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I'd read that, but I'm too busy driving my H3 to care.
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:42 AM   #13
markman
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Quote:
Originally Posted by cwb124 View Post
How is sitting in traffic on a bus any better than sitting in a car in traffic?
1 engine consuming fuel and polluting for 50 people vs 1 engine consuming fuel and polluting for 1-4 people.


By riding the bus you reduce your carbon footpring by quite a bit, but you know what they say- small carbon footprint = small carbon genitals.
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:42 AM   #14
The Motel Fella
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Quote:
Originally Posted by chicken n waffles View Post
there are always alternative resources, alternative methods of propulsion, and we will not only find them but make them cost-effective. if not on earth, elsewhere.

i don't subscribe to the doom and gloom no hope future model.


That wasn't his point.

He's saying that we won't aggressively develop alternative fuel/propulsion until forced to do so (having expended our FF). Which is true. They're trying now...because they want to.

Not because they want to stop our reliance on FF.
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:43 AM   #15
cnw
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Originally Posted by hotelprowrx View Post


That wasn't his point.

He's saying that we won't aggressively develop alternative fuel/propulsion until forced to do so (having expended our FF). Which is true. They're trying now...because they want to.

Not because they want to stop our reliance on FF.
i thought everyone already knew that, though.

that's not exactly a revelation.
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:45 AM   #16
The Motel Fella
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Quote:
Originally Posted by chicken n waffles View Post
i thought everyone already knew that, though.

that's not exactly a revelation.


He was fighting the good fight only to find out he's one against 10000.
So he's decided to swap sides to make it 10001.

CN: Tunnel vision...she's a bitch.
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:47 AM   #17
WhiteKnightSTi
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Quote:
Originally Posted by chicken n waffles View Post
there are always alternative resources, alternative methods of propulsion, and we will not only find them but make them cost-effective. if not on earth, elsewhere.

i don't subscribe to the doom and gloom no hope future model.
This too.

For a long time the predominant source of heat and light for the developed world came from whale oil. Eventually we hunted almost every last one of those gas tankers with fins to the brink of extinction.

Did the world end? Nope.

One industry (whaling) collapsed, and another one rose up to fill its place. The same thing will happen when we run out of crude. The world will still turn, the lights will stay lit.
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:49 AM   #18
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Quote:
Originally Posted by chicken n waffles View Post
i don't subscribe to the doom and gloom no hope future model.
Me neither. Humans are amazing creatures, and we adapt quickly to an ever changing environment. Look how much our race has changed in the last 100 years. From basically living on farms or bunched up in cities where 95% of people lived and died within 20 miles of where they were born. There was little transportation to get anywhere. Now you can get anywhere on the planet within 24 hours. We have experienced massive change by way of the ease of transportation we have experienced over the last 60+ years.

We would without a doubt adapt and thrive throughout the transition to a post petroleum society.
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:49 AM   #19
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Quote:
Originally Posted by hotelprowrx View Post
CN: Tunnel vision...she's a bitch.
great tits, though, depending on perspective.
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:50 AM   #20
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*ducks out to go work on his two stroke dirtbike.
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:50 AM   #21
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don't worry about everybody else, let other people take care of other people.

As the ballsiest president said: do what you can, with what you have, where you are.
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:51 AM   #22
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its our destiny to kill the planet...deal with it!
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:52 AM   #23
cnw
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Quote:
Originally Posted by cwb124 View Post
Me neither. Humans are amazing creatures, and we adapt quickly to an ever changing environment. Look how much our race has changed in the last 100 years. From basically living on farms or bunched up in cities where 95% of people lived and died within 20 miles of where they were born. There was little transportation to get anywhere. Now you can get anywhere on the planet within 24 hours. We have experienced massive change by way of the ease of transportation we have experienced over the last 60+ years.

We would without a doubt adapt and thrive throughout the transition to a post petroleum society.
the ever-increasingly cynical world sometimes forgets that human kind is at its potential best when faced with catastrophic crisis. we tend to put aside the smaller matters and focus on the big picture.
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:53 AM   #24
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Energy, :shrug: I don't really worry about it.

Thing I try to reduce is trash, so much flipping trash everywhere. Everywhere.
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Old 02-21-2011, 11:54 AM   #25
cnw
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Quote:
Originally Posted by lag View Post
Energy, :shrug: I don't really worry about it.

Thing I try to reduce is trash, so much flipping trash everywhere. Everywhere.
the thought of a wall-e like future does kind of scare me.
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