I recently saw a YouTube post (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYSLyvbR_1w) featuring Bill Maher dissing the young for their widespread “hypocrisy” regarding climate change. There is something that rubs me entirely the wrong way about snide old men, who “love comfort and capitalism,” mocking younger people as hypocrites.
The problem is not climate change. The problem is our lifestyle.
The solution — the only solution — is to change our lifestyle.
Let me first brush the “alternative energy” concept out of the way. It isn’t that there aren’t alternatives to oil, or more generally, petrofuels (coal, oil, and natural gas). There are many alternatives. But there are no alternative sources of energy that can support our current lifestyle.
I’ve written at considerable depth about the hypothetical “cold fusion,” for example, and this would, indeed, be an alternative source of energy that could not only support, but expand our energy usage orders of magnitude. It’s been floating around as a concept since the 1990’s, and has come to nothing.
It’s perhaps (barely) plausible to think that the oil industry, combined with a sclerotic scientific establishment, somehow suppressed research and development into this magic bullet in the 1990’s. But Peak Oil was predicted back in the 1950’s, and its estimated peak date converged on 2005 back in the 1980’s. We’re now nearly 20 years past the peak, and are beginning to see the expected price volatility of the downslope. Within a century, at most two, we will no longer have an oil-based economy: oil will be too expensive to burn. There is no oil company in the world that does not know quite clearly that it has no long-term future. If cold fusion were viable, the oil companies would have patents and ownership rights locked in, and would have been introducing pilot plants as the Next New Thing for the last two decades.
In fact, had there been any economical alternative to oil, including nuclear energy, the oil companies — which have called themselves “energy” companies for some time — would have been advertising, introducing, and scaling up those alternatives for years. They’d be in the lithium battery industry. They’d be investing in solar panel production. They’d be digging up Magic Crystals from Atlantis. They’d be preparing to downscale oil production, shift mass-market revenues to the new tech, and raise prices on oil.
They haven’t done any of this. Instead, they’ve been fracking for oil. Which is like going through peanut shells on a tavern floor, looking for stray peanuts. That’s telling.
There are certainly energy alternatives to petrofuels. But no combination of alternative energies provides a way to support our lifestyle.
This was, in fact, the point of Maher’s article. It’s the lifestyle, stupid.
So what does an appropriate lifestyle look like?
Well, the last time we didn’t have oil powering everything, was (roughly) 1900. Let’s look at a few key features of life in 1900.
- There was no air travel. The Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk was in 1904, and used a gasoline engine. Zeppelin flights didn’t start until 1928. Hot-air balloons had been around since the 1700’s, but drifted wherever the wind took them, and weren’t terribly useful.
- There was no significant automobile traffic. The first automobile was invented in 1886, but automobiles didn’t become widely accessible to the public until 1908, and these used gasoline.
- Commercial electric plants first became available in the 1870’s, using coal-powered steam engines. By 1900, electric power was common for street lighting (arc lamps), and for electric motors of various kinds. House wiring of any sort was avant garde.
- The principle form of transportation was a good pair of shoes, and supported a maximum sustained speed of three miles per hour.
- The main form of local goods transportation was the horse-drawn cart, with a sustained speed of 7-15 MPH, depending on load, terrain, fitness of the horse, and so forth. The pony express averaged only 8 MPH (1900 miles from St. Joseph, MO to Oakland, CA, in 10 days).
- The fastest form of transportation was the steam-engine train, which averaged 25 MPH in the US, but could achieve 60 MPH over short runs under the right conditions. It was also the main form of long-distance bulk transport, such as grain and cattle.
There are a great many things that changed in the modern world as a result of petroleum use, which you spot instantly if you travel in the older parts of Europe, the most notable being the closeness of everything in Europe. Cities do not spread out over dozens of square miles, like Houston or San Antonio, and are not hundreds of miles apart. Towns are close to each other, and are separated by small farms and forests. Parishes and neighborhoods in larger cities are more distinct, and more diverse. City centers are readily accessible to foot traffic.
This was also true of the US in 1900. Daily life lay within a physical distance accessible by a half-day’s journey. Twenty miles takes nearly seven hours to walk: fourteen to travel there and back again. My grandfather’s farm in Oklahoma, built in the late 1800’s, was one mile from the nearest neighbor, and four miles from the nearest town. If you look at any US map of older blacktop roads in the plains states, you’ll see that every road is littered with ghost- or near-ghost towns every twenty miles or so, places that served as a necessary travel-stop and point of community contact in the early 1900’s, but ceased to serve much of any purpose at all by the early 2000’s.
A lot of support services went away during the 1900’s. The supermarket replaced the local grocer, because the automobile brought the supermarket within reach of a much larger local customer-base, and the trucking industry brought enough daily goods to keep the supermarket stocked for all those people. Corner stores scaled back or went out of business. Suburbs spread out into places that were wilderness in 1900. Horse-drawn wagons vanished. Horses mostly vanished. Carriages vanished. Ice trucks vanished. Families dispersed across the country. Family gatherings changed from weekly, to yearly, to not-at-all. The parish, the grange-hall, the community center all unraveled and became quaint historical monuments.
A lot of household-management technology went away, as well. The original idea of Home Economics in school, as I understand it, was to preserve and pass along the rapidly-vanishing art of managing a household. Cooking, of course. Food management: preserving, storing, unpacking, rationing in hard times. Basic nutrition. Sewing and clothing repair. Care of infants and small children. Basic medical diagnosis, treatment, and emergency care.
Shop classes taught basic manufacturing skills and tool management. I remember tempering my own chisel in shop class. Folding sheet metal. Working leather and copper. Measuring, cutting, and finishing wood.
My point is not to sing a paean to the hand-forged chisel, or to glorify the horse-drawn cart. My point is to call to mind how much has changed since the last time we knew a world without oil-powered trucks and automobiles.
As much will need to change in the next century as the oil economy winds down, and with that change will naturally come all of the new infrastructure that is needed to survive and thrive in a world without gasoline-powered cars and air travel.
This is infrastructure that currently does not exist. We spent a century dismantling huge pieces of it. We don’t know what pieces we’ll need to recover, and what pieces need to be invented. Even if we tried to anticipate this and get a head start on this infrastructure, no one would use it. Not while an oil-powered alternative still exists.
So to take your tone, Mr. Maher: Exactly what the fuck do you expect of the young? What behavior, exactly, would relieve them of the onus of your contempt for their hypocrisy?
Do you want them to voluntarily start raising chickens in their back yards, and putting up their own potatoes and bacon for the winter? Do you want them to walk two miles to school? Do you expect them to love comfort — or what is marketed as comfort — any less than you do?
Perhaps they do admire a woman who has a room full of clothing she has only worn once. How many of them actually have anything they have only worn once? How many Medieval daughters swooned over the idea of a silk gown? How many Medieval sons longed for a sword made of Damascus steel? How many actually burdened the world with such extravagances?
What people dream about rarely has much to do with how they live. It’s kind of the point of a dream.
Do you really expect the Zoomers to be any wiser than you were at their age?