By Chris Nelder
Posting in Energy
Energy columnist Chris Nelder muses on the stories we tell about our energy future, and explores some behavioral and cognitive research about the power of storytelling.
I want to tell you two stories.
The first is this: You were born into an exceptional culture of enormous wealth. If you work hard and take advantage of the inherent genius and innovativeness of that culture, you can become wealthy, secure, happy, and comfortable. And if they work hard, your children can have even more wealth than you did.
Here's the second: Right now, you are living at the absolute historical peak of human wealth. In terms of the energy you consume, the variety of foods and beverages available to you, and the amount of physical labor you don’t have to do every day, you are vastly more wealthy than any generation before you. Your children will be much poorer than you, will have far fewer options about what they can eat and drink and do with their free time, and will have to do a lot more physical labor. Their children will have even harder lives, and so on into the future, as wealth per capita declines for the next several hundred years.
Now: Which story do you think is more true?
Then: Why do you think it's true?
And finally: When you thought about which was more true, what thought process did you go through?
How we think
How we come to believe what we think we know is a key question for those who would guide the future of energy, the climate, and the many other challenges that now face humanity.
It turns out that how we think isn't quite as rational as we might believe.
Behavioral scientist Daniel Kahneman has an excellent lecture on this subject, which was highlighted last week on Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth blog. Drawing on the body of scientific research on how we think, Kahneman breaks down our thinking processes into two systems.
What he calls System 1 is how most of us operate most of the time. It's automatic, and draws extensively and effortlessly on associative memory. It's what you use when driving a car. It's what your mind does when you hear "two plus two." It's what draws up a wealth of images invoked by "your mother." It's intuitive, instinctive, and immediate, and it biases what you perceive toward what you already think you know in order to produce stories that "make sense." We trust System 1 because it's fast and efficient and mostly correct. With System 1, the conclusions come first, and then the arguments.
The other way of thinking he calls System 2. It's what your brain does when you hear "17 times 24." It's characterized by deliberate, analytical work. It's what controls your behavior when you have to make a left turn into traffic, or read a map, or fill out an income tax form. It's a logical, sequential way of thinking, which is related to control, attention, and rule-governed behavior.
What research has found is that people generally operate by System 1. It comes up with associations which act as suggestions, which are mostly endorsed by System 2. If your life depends on getting the answer to a question right, Kahneman says, then your System 2 will kick in to double-check what System 1 offers, and possibly correct it. But if your life doesn't depend on it, you'll usually go with the suggestions of System 1.
"What we have is a storytelling system, and the coherence of the stories determines how much faith we have in them," Kahneman observes. "The coherence is associative and emotional. It involves concrete events. You have to assume that System 1 is largely indifferent to the quality and amount of evidence; it is bound more by the coherence of the story than by the evidence behind it."
Because System 1 is associative, when we are confronted with evidence that conforms to our existing beliefs, or with any suggestion that we can process easily, we're biased to believe it is true. Kahneman offers an example in which subjects are presented with two statements identical in meaning, but where one rhymes and the other does not. In this experiment, subjects tended to ascribe more validity to one that rhymes. "Anything that is repeated many times will appear true, or is more likely to appear true than something that is not repeated as frequently," he explains. Conversely, when confronted with evidence that conflicts with our knowledge of the world and violates our pre-existing beliefs, we don't believe it.
And because of the emotional coherence aspect, the source of the message is also extremely important. The source has to be liked and trusted, or else the evidence will have very little coherence. As Kahneman puts it, "the basis of belief for most people is we believe people." We believe people that we like and trust, and this is the basis of most of our beliefs. We don't feel the same degree of belief with people we don't like and trust, because it's not emotionally and associatively compatible. In System 1, belief is not a logical, reasoning process.
This explains why some people don't believe global warming is real, according to Kahneman. He references research showing that Americans who oppose gay marriage also don't believe in global warming. How can this be? Because we believe the people who offer those beliefs. "In some sense it is impossible to explain rationally because there is no connection between the two – but on an emotional and associative basis, they are connected," Kahneman explains.
Global warming is also too abstract and too distant a threat to cohere with System 1, which relies on stories about highly concrete, individual cases. It is much better at drawing general inferences from particular examples than inferring particulars from an ensemble of examples.
Therefore, Kahneman suggests, in order for skeptics to believe in global warming, "it would take trusted, conservative church leaders being mobilized for that kind of message to penetrate or have purchase." So a community of conservative, churchgoing farmers who are struggling to grow crops against increasingly damaging wild weather, experiencing the effects of climate change up close and personal, are far more likely to begin believing it's a problem, particularly when their pastor offers a sermon about it. But if one is forced to use System 2 reasoning to sort through a lot of complex details about scientific observations and climate models, and that information conflicts with what their System 1 intelligence tells them, then they probably won't believe it.
The same is true for peak oil. It's an abstract study of many interrelated, complex factors which cannot be seen firsthand, and lots of unfamiliar data. Understanding it fully requires spending tens of thousands of hours in taxing, System 2-type thinking. (And having spent tens of thousands of hours on it, I can also tell you that for the most part, it's deeply unpleasant.) The implications of it conflict immediately and directly with most of our experience, especially for those who aren't old enough to remember the gasoline shortages of the '70s. It doesn't have the same ring as "Drill, baby, drill," and it doesn't rhyme. And then, if you're one of those odd autodidactic birds who's gone far out of your way to become literate in the subject, you'll find yourself virtually alone with the knowledge, and most people you know will think you've lost your mind, your sense of humor, and your "optimism."
Being out of step with your community—your tribe, as it were—is no small thing. Volumes of behavioral research have shown that we are fundamentally a tribal species. Being "in" produces pleasurable effects in our brains, and being "out" produces real, physical pain. Further, our brains have evolved to make us want to seek status in our tribes, and to prefer immediate gratification over distant, theoretical considerations that might limit our consumption. (For an excellent, evergreen essay on this subject, see Nate Hagens' post on The Oil Drum, "Fleeing Vesuvius.")
The mere threat of being on the outs with one's tribe can be enough to make us avoid thinking independently and rationally about issues like peak oil and climate change.
To see tribal behavior in action, we need look no further than the current crop of partisan politics. As political scientist Brendan Nyhan recently found, people generally prefer political loyalties over facts, and when those loyalties require them to flip-flop on their views, they're willing to do it. For example, about two-thirds of Republicans currently say that the president can do something about high gasoline prices, while two-thirds of Democrats say he can't. But when George W. Bush was president, a majority of Republicans said he couldn't do anything about high gasoline prices, while three-fourths of Democrats said he could. Flip-flopping itself was a useful cudgel for Republicans to wield against John Kerry in the 2004 election; now it's useful for Democrats against Mitt Romney.
This System 1 behavior is literally hardwired into how we think, and it takes a significant effort of will to put System 2 in the driver's seat. For example, consider the various policy mechanisms that have been offered to address climate change. "Cap and trade" was all the rage among Democrats a few years ago, but after careful consideration, I decided that it was too corruptible and ineffective, and decided to support a carbon tax instead. Breaking with my tribe on that point was politically risky, and gave me some discomfiture. (Although I very much consider myself one of that vanishing species, the centrists, when forced to choose between the two major parties, I generally lean left.) After all, ExxonMobil eventually supported the carbon tax approach over cap and trade, and everyone in my tribe knew that ExxonMobil was evil, so anything they supported had to be wrong. If I made common cause with them, and was outcast by my tribe, but couldn't get in bed with the other tribe either, might that not leave me a political outcast, lonely and in the cold?
The role of stories
Knowing that stories are fundamental to how we "think" and what we believe, it behooves us to consider their import on our dialogue, and how we convey our thoughts to others in different tribes, or who have different experiences. Storyteller Bill Harley offers some useful insights on this in his delightful TEDx lecture. "Stories are how we make sense of our lives, how we explain how we got where we are, how we imagine where we might go," he says. "I think actually that story-making is at the very center of what it is to be human."
It's also at the very center of the current debate on energy policy.
Consider the story now being proffered by the oil and gas industry about an incipient "energy independence" for America. It's a powerful story, which appeals to all of our tribal and cultural myths about our independent spirit, about our exceptionalism, about our ingenuity and can-do attitude. As I have tried to show in numerous columns, it's also a story with absolutely no basis in data. But for those who live and die by telling appealing stories, i.e., editors and journalists of major publications, it's irresistible. Those editors are quite correct in betting that nobody really wants to know about the details of the data anyway, and that their readers just want a good story that will banish the peak oil threat and restore their sense of comfort and security.
Now consider the stories about transitioning energy from fossil fuels to renewables, and transitioning transportation to rail. These are difficult and unappealing stories. They're complex and require a lot of System 2 thinking to appreciate. They suggest that we will have to embrace unfamiliar lifestyles, so they conflict directly with our System 1 responses. We would rather face the familiar prospect of painfully high gasoline prices (at least in the American context) and hope that new domestic drilling will bring prices back down some day, than have to think about giving up our cars, or having to look at solar panels and wind turbines in our own communities when the power plants we rely on today are located somewhere else, out of sight.
Understanding the dense and difficult data about carbon emissions, the money we spend to protect our supply of imported oil, and the environmental catastrophes of mountaintop coal mining and tar sands production requires us to engage System 2 while most people around us aren't thinking about those things at all. It creates painful cognitive dissonance. Whereas the idea that we can drill tens of thousands of new domestic wells instead—preferably somewhere else, so we don't have to look at them or contend with those trucks on our roads—is just a repetition of the past, so it's much easier to process and therefore, more valid. It's also an idea embraced by the tribes who live where oil and gas is produced because it directly profits them, so it coheres in their mental and emotional associations. Why should blue-collar North Dakotans who are finally getting some much-needed jobs from the Bakken bonanza let coastal white-collar elitists tell them that renewables are really the way to go?
Now think back to the two stories I offered at the beginning of this essay, and why you chose the story you did. If you're up for a mental challenge, explore some of the links I've provided here and try a little System 2 thinking about the data, while squelching your System 1 responses. Consider the stories of Prometheus, Icarus and Sisyphus, and why those stories have survived the ages to be relevant still. Think about the story of your own life, and how you like to tell it. Then think about how your great-great-grandchildren might tell your story, in a time when energy has becoming the defining challenge of their generation. Finally, consider the archetypal hero story about overcoming adversity and bringing a boon back to your community, and imagine yourself as the hero of a new story in which you help your tribe achieve real sustainability.
Graphic: From a slide deck on peak oil by Sally Odland, former petroleum geologist. Used by permission.
May 29, 2012
"Why should blue-collar North Dakotans who are finally getting some much-needed jobs from the Bakken bonanza let coastal white-collar elitists tell them that renewables are really the way to go?" - Or vice versa? The only fair thing to do is let it play out on its own. While oil is still cheap enough, people will use it. Natural gas is the new darling and may have a nice run for a few decades. If excess carbon actually starts moving the thermometer, maybe regulation on new nuclear technologies will ease up and usher in a new much better nuclear age. With a few more improvements in efficiency and cost, rooftop solar may get to the point that everyone buys them because the payback will be relatively short, thus decreasing overall demand. It's hard to say what will happen in the future but I will believe that nothing will happen so rapidly that we cannot adjust in some manner. The people need to decide for themselves whether they need to use less of the same and keep the same habits or change how they live their lives. Then again, maybe they won't have to compromise and life just gets better and better.
[i]Now: Which story do you think is more true?[/i] Right now, neither one is true, because they are attempts to predict the future, not statements about facts that have already been determined. And right now, both are quite possible. The actions of our political bosses in the next few years will determine which future we live in. If they allow the energy industry to continue to supply our needs cheaply, story 1 will happen. If instead, they allow the lying eco-alarmists to hamstring the producers and users of energy with harmful taxes and regulations, they will doom us to story 2, maybe forever. Only one of these alternatives is acceptable -- the first. The other represents treason against the human race.
I am all for power the world with renewable energy for a cleaner environment. The key is that the renewable technology must be cost effective. You cannot have your $200 a barrel oil without driving most of the worlds population into abject poverty. Driving up the cost of current power sources to level the playing field because renewable are too expensive is moronic dogma driven economics. The current global policies of using food for fuel and renewable power at any costs are part of what drove the world economy to the brink in 2008 and a large part of what is dampening the global recovery in 2012. The cost of living in most areas is largely driven by the cost of food. Globally food prices have skyrocketed as people here trumpet the use of food for bio-fuels. In cold climates the cost of keeping warm is killing people who cannot afford it, yet renewable dogma says to damn the fatalities, full speed ahead to $200 a barrel when there is no cost effective alternative. To deny what all of you dreamers are doing to the rest of us is a fool errand. This was a stupid post. Bash me all you want. Click the minus until my post vanishes. I do not care. I am done with this topic.
Interesting story, let's tell another one that can be seen from any window: Europe is broke because the primary activity of Europeans has been driving a car. The entire enterprise was built around cars, just like the US ... same as Japan, Russia, Brazil and China. By enterprise is meant real estate, insurance, finance, manufacturing, military, advertising ... just about everything besides agriculture. The problem is the central activity does not pay for itself. Neither the fuel nor the car can be paid for by driving the car, funds must be borrowed, instead. More funds must be borrowed to subsidize industrial enterprises that also cannot pay for themselves ... all of them. How much is borrowed? Hundreds of trillions of dollars, euros, RMB, yen ... rials, you name it. Who can pay? That is the question of the now. The answer is nobody, Nobody can lend either, all loans are bad loans. The trigger for this lamentable state of affairs is crude oil that now costs more than can be afforded, even with credit. Nobody knows what the future will look like but Greece is a good place to start.
I think the vast majority of people in North America are familiar with the story of Harry Potter. For the older generation, there was Star Trek and Star Wars. The reason the "trekkies" became such a cultural force was that the stories resonated with people. But it wasn't just the stories themselves, it was the stories of where humanity would go, do, and become. The "trekkies" wanted that "future" to be the world they would live in. These were not just stories, they were [i]myths[/i]. Neil Degrasse-Tyson brought up the point that America no longer dreams. Remember the "House of the Future" articles in Popular Science magazine? When was the last time you saw one of those. But those were important because they told people a story, a story of how we would live. So I want people to imagine a future, a beautiful future where people live in comfort, ease, and freedom, but where oil is $200/barrel, and natural gas is priced similarly and climate change is real. IMAGINE being in that world. It's morning. How does the alarm clock wake you up? Does it blast an annoying noise at you? Does it gradually open the curtains and slowly increase the brightness of a light shining on you? What's your bed like? Do you wear a night shirt of PJs or whatever? You crawl out of bed. How do you check on your plans for the day, the weather forecast, and so on? Do you use your 3D tablet? Do you look at a "holo-column" (a tall column that projects info in 3D)? Do you simply look at all the information being displayed to you on "the wall" (wall-sized display panel, possibly transparent when you want it to be, possibly 3D)? It's breakfast time. Do you head to the roof of your ECOndo to the lush berry gardens up there (part of the building's heating and cooling system)? Do you instead head to the living wall in your kitchen and pick the berries from it? Or do you check the display integrated into your fridge and pull out last night's left-overs? Finished breakfast, you get dressed for work. What do you wear? Do you grab a briefcase, a laptop case, a backpack, or a projection smart phone and a pair of AR glasses? You head off to work. How are you going to get there? Do you have one of those little smart self-driving hoppers [think a Smart Car that drives itself] or will you be taking the municipally provided smart pods (seats 6 comfortably)[Think car-pool version of the hopper], or do you get into one of those old fashioned things like a bus, or do you telecommute? Let's assume that even if you normally telecommute, you need to go into the office today. Before you leave, take a look at the place where you live. What does it look like? Is it a 150-storey eCondo, adorned with solar panels and wind turbines or is it a 150-storey ECOndo whose walls are adorned with fruit-bearing plants, and a real water fall (part of the heating and cooling system), or is it a tiny little energy efficient home in a suburb of tiny little energy efficient homes sprawling across the landscape [and all made of ticky-tak and all looking just the same]? If you're taking public transit, how do you pay for it? Do you toss in some coins, or slide a card through a reader, or touch your thumb and then your smart-ring (think smart card and RFID in a ring on your finger) to the reader? If you're taking your hopper, how do you fuel it, and how do you pay for that fuel? And while we're on the subject of money, what's the currency? Is it the dollar, the euro, or the Watt/hour? [In 1998, the 2000 Watt Society determined that everyone world-wide on average needs about 17500 kilowatt-hours a year [i]to live comfortably[/i]. Given advances in energy efficiency, we're assuming that we've cut that down to 16000kW/hr but the reality will likely be better.) Since you're not driving, what are you doing during your commute? Are you watching the stock market on your AR glasses, or reading the sports scores on your tablet, or catching up on the latest celebrity gossip on your smart phone? What do you do for a living? When you get there, where is it, and what is it like? You have a business meeting with some colleagues in Japan. Are they in the room or are they attending by 3D tele-presence "holo-columns", or did they send robo-presence substitutes? Lunch time rolls around. Where do you get lunch? Did you bring it with you? Do you go to the sushi cart at the front of your building? Do you go to the cafeteria? Do you go to that nice little cafe just down the street that is always so busy but has such a wonderful ambience (sense of place)? What does lunch look like? What does it taste like? I'll let you take it from there. Go through the rest of your day. Supper at home or supper out? Evening entertainment? Go through a typical day as if you were someone living 50 years from now. Now think about all of that for a long moment. Hold on to that vision of the future, a nice future, a beautiful future, a future that is as different from today as today is different from the world 100 years ago (beginning of WWI). That story, "A day in the life of someone 50 years in the future" is the story we need to be telling ourselves today. Just because it's the end of cheap energy, doesn't mean the future needs to look bleak. Our children can have a much better life than ours, if [i]WE[/i] all can dream big and bright enough. But to do that, we need a good dose of reality mixed with heavy optimism [this coming from a self-described cynic]. In the long run, the future is never more of the same. Some things will be the same as they've been the same for a long time, but much will be different. But if we can dream it today, we can make it into reality tomorrow.
Frankly, I couldn't decide between the two stories because I don't have enough evidence to choose. The problems with the second story are that living the same lifestyle won't not require the same amount of energy in the future, and the food choices we have are actually detrimental to our quality of life in terms of heart disease and the huge number of knee replacement surgeries being performed. As far as turning left, many people practice system 1 thinking to accomplish that task, posing a danger to motorcyclists everywhere. (They don't "see" the motorcyclists because only automobiles jibe with the majority of their experience.)
Pretty sure Chris Nelder knows about/understands most of the above. Talk about cherrypicking from among energy realities "in the real world". A lot of "System 1" thinking focused on technology saving the day going on to prompt that comment, I suspect.
Human thought is more complex than the system 1 and system 2 explanations; but it is a good start. This complexity is the source of a few weird riddles like "no matter how sharp a sword is, it can not cut itself." Then there are the arguments whether we have free will or just chemical controlled automatons. I chose both stories as having some truth. The first story of being born in a wealthy place and time reflects the time of the 50's and 60's where the ideal was to start a job and stay with that company until retirement. This also was a time when anyone could become president of the US and hard work was the path to a good future. The second story explains why the first story is no longer true, wealth is harder to get and it is the rare person who can spend a lifetime working for one company with all the mergers and changes in businesses and it takes boatloads of money to become president. On one hand we are living in great times, but how can we compare our times to other epochal times? Most of history is distorted by dominate groups; the Romans defeated the Carpathians and what we are told was that the Carpathians were evil people who were cannibals, history as written by the victors. Archiology helps show a different aspect of a culture and the times by sifting through what is left and building a picture of that culture in its time. The best analogy to our current situation is the events that happened on Easter Island prior to discovery. This is the culture that is famous for those huge heads lined up on the shores of Easter Island. The island had abundant trees that were cut down to transport the heads from the quarries to their current locations. The problem was that this process wiped out a forest and the trees could not grow back due to the demand. Easter Island does not have a lot of resources and when the situation got worse, there was no escape because there weren't any trees to use to make boats for an ocean crossing. The heads were part of the religion and towards the end, that religion failed and a new cult arose that rebelled against the old religion. The Europeans who found Easter Island found a miserable group of people who survived the civil wars and rebellion but would not talk about it with them. Fossil fuel is limited, we are better at extracting it only because the easy fuels are used up. What will happen when the cost of oil is higher than the market can handle? How can we prevent the collapse of all we know when oil is too expensive for the output we will get? The best thing is to be prepared for a greater interruption to oil than we experienced in the early 70's.
Pretty sure the process for the past 5 years or so (since he was pushed out of his real job) was "look at the news, ignore everything that's positive, cherry pick everything that's negative". Let's look at a few things in the real world, shall we. I think we can all agree that it's nice to have a "clean, well lit place". So let's look at housing --> Air conditioners and heat pumps are much better than they were just 20 years ago. --> New homes are built to a greater standard of thermal efficiency than they used to. In the case of SIP building, much, much higher thermal efficiency. --> The technology for creating reading light is much more efficient than it used to be. CFL and LED bulbs are absurdly long lasting and efficient. --> The technology for converting natural gas to electricity (to run your heat pump and CFL lights) is much more efficient than before. That is to say, it takes around 30% fewer BTUs of gas to generate a kwHr of juice. --> The technology for extracting natural gas is much better than it used to be. The US is producing more natural gas than ever before in it;s history, and the production chart for natural gas just keeps shooting skyward, even as the price of natural gas plummets. This is why you need less man-hours than ever before to enjoy your "clean well lit place". Because of better technology. Better tech for turning gas to electricity, for turning electricity into light and temperature control, and better thermal insulation to maintain your nice temperature. It's possible that Chris Nelder's thought process **could** understand such things. But scientists have not yet detected any evidence that the Nelder brain is capable of such reality-based thinking.
"Everyone world-wide on average needs about 17500 kilowatt-hours a year [i]to live comfortably[/i]." You missed that part, didn't you? Too bad. It may be the most important part. As Doc Brown would say, "You're not thinking 4 dimensionally". If the price of fuel were to hit $200/barrel tomorrow, or even next year, and stay there, it would be a human catastrophe of unimaginable scale. But if it were to hit that price 50 years from now, it could simply be a minor inconvenience. It's all a matter of preparation. If people prepare now, then the crisis you pre-suppose can be easily averted. This is, I suspect, the reason Chris writes this column. He wants to get people preparing for the future because there is only one direction that liquid fuel prices are going to trend to, and that's up. Given that life in the 1930s was not much like life in the 1980s, why should we expect that life in 2060 will significantly resemble life in 2010? To think that, (something many people do) is to be egotistical in one's thoughts. Why do we think the future will be just like today (only more so), even though today is quite different from the past? If one looks back at the 30s, many people didn't earn enough money to be able to afford the basic necessities of life, but for the most part, they still figured out how to survive. (Barter, home gardens, etc., lots of alternatives to the way they had done things in the 1920s.) Civilizations have risen and fallen, over and and over again. And yet, humans have always bounced back, somehow. Humans have shown themselves to be a very resilient species. The world will get ugly before it gets better. You only need to look at the current economic news to realise this. We're in for some big changes. Large numbers of people are going to be desperately poor and are going to struggle hard before they find solutions. Some of the solutions, like the ones I used, are already in the pipeline. Others have yet to be invented. So by saying that as the cost of liquid fuels rises (as the laws of supply and demand dictate that they will), we'll automatically have a massive crisis with fatalities all over the place, shows that you are either stuck thinking like 20th century fundamentalist, or that you lack faith in humanity's resilience. Humans can do better, and often do. I live in a rural area. My 135 year old home is heated, for some reason, by oil-fired forced air. The room where I am sitting has no duct work to it because it's impossible to get a 4" diameter duct up here without blocking the front door. But soon, all going well, this home of mine will have a hydronic system, heated initially by electricity, and later with a wood-fired boiler. (I can easily get a pair of 3/4" CPVC pipes up beside/behind the front door.) As an entrepreneur, because I pour most money back into the company, I still make minimum wage at this point, so I'm not rich by any stretch of the imagination. To boot, my spouse doesn't work so I'm the sole wage earner. Roughly $80/week is what I put into the home renovations. It's slow. But in the end, I'll have a home that's cheaper and easier to heat and cool. There is a lot of DIY here simply because I can't afford to hire people to do the work. It's an act of desperation on my part. At $600/month, this house is already too expensive to heat in the winter. And that puts the lie to your supposition on deaths because of the high price of liquid fuels. Through desperation, people will find ways to decrease their energy consumption so they can afford the necessities. Technology is simply making this easier to do. People lived without oil at one time, and we can do it again. The question is not "can we", but "how will we". And that's what I'm trying to encourage people to look at. No one is saying it's going to be easy. Because if it were easy, we'd already have done it. The hardest part of the whole equation is not the technology, it's human neural pathways or thought patterns. Like paths across a lawn, they get beaten in so that everyone uses them out of habit. Only out of necessity does someone step off of the path and create a new one. To make the changes we're talking about requires us to break out of those habits, to stop thinking like late 20th century humans, and to start thinking like a human in the future. And to do that, we need to dream. I was given a button that says "Those who say it is impossible should stop bothering those of us who are making it happen." So I invite all others to step off the beaten path, to dream a better future, to figure out how to make it happen, and then to make it happen. And then when oil does hit $200/barrel, no one will care.
"Car"?! That's North America all right. But if you travel to Europe, the car isn't the centre of their existence. In Paris, only those people from outside of Paris actually drive. Those who live in the city take public transit because you'd need to be insane to actually drive in Paris. Besides, there is no place to park! And for the record, Montreal is much the same way. Go visit someone in the area called Verdun and look for a parking spot. There might be 1 spot for every 12 homes. Only the crazies drive in Montreal. It's the same problem with very old cities. They were built before the car, and they were not designed for the car, and so owning a car in such a city is a bigger problem than not owning one.
"Europe is broke because the primary activity of Europeans has been driving a car." Show us some evidence. Europe is broke because it has the world's most comprehensive welfare state, and has had it for the longest time, along with labor laws that make it extremely expensive to hire workers for any purpose. Naturally, jobs and industry have been leaving those countries for many years. These policies are unsustainable (in the only true meaning of that word, the economic one) and kill prosperity. Now Obama is enacting them in America. If he gets another 4 years, we're hosed. At the rate things are going now, the collapse of the dollar will be only a few years behind the collapse of the euro. And it's because of those policies.
Steve, What you are describing is the end of growth in the Century of Contraction. Without growth there can be no interest, ergo, default, capitalism falls on its face, socialism as well. So what? Resource depletion, overshot population and climate change means that nothing can stop it. Greece may be the first country to have to roll with the punches, getting kicked out of the world as we have known it when there is still time to do something about it. We'll all have our turn and probably take different paths, unless Greece has time to show us the way. (grin)
Before we go off into la-la land fantasizing the end of cheap energy, how about some evidence that cheap energy will or should end? I believe Julian Simon proved otherwise. If there are energy shortages in the future they will be deliberate crimes by those in power, just as all famines in the 20th century were.
mheartwood, First thing in the morning I pee. The future vision has to wait. The next thing I must do is sweep up the dead leaves on the kitchen floor from the strawberry wall, so that I don't trod them to dust underfoot. Then..., I might could eat a few strawberries before replanting 10% of them and sweeping up again, just in time for my morning constitutional. Yeah, I'm being an ass, but only to remind you that dirt, sweat and loss, as part of the human and Eaarthly condition, need to be part of any realistic vision, Hogwarts or Enterprise not withstanding. Nonetheless, bravo, for taking a stab at it.
Utilities are an important but not a dominant factor in the cost of living. They're not mentioned directly and are, at best, implied in the post. There's no question that Nelder appreciates the advance of technology. The possible debate would be over which source of energy deserves investment in new technology in the long term.
You said "The technology for extracting natural gas is much better than it used to be." I don't need System 2 thinking to know that fracking isn't better for extracting natural gas than it used to be!! It might be better for those that are extracting the gas, but it certainly isn't better for the environment.
You had some good things to say, Mr. McMurtry, but you sandwiched it with personal attacks, seriously diminishing the value of your points.
"Last night's left overs"? You still need to go into work?! If my vision of the future seems overly utopian to you, you're even more cynical than I am. Despite the roomba, I'm not seeing a robot in every household (yet). Despite the recent invention of a bed that makes itself, I'm not expecting people to have those either. (And the reason I didn't mention making the bed is because I suspect a lot of people don't.) My proposed future is as different from today as today is from 50 years ago. All the technology and urban planning proposed has shown up at some point on SmartPlanet. All of it is low-energy. Because of the work I do, I have "too many computers". The older ones are energy hogs, requiring 600W power supplies. The newer ones, just as capable, are relative misers, requiring 80W power supplies. My first car, a T-bird, got terrible gas mileage. A Prius gets comparatively great gas mileage. All over, we're seeing improvements in energy efficiency. However, there is one place where this is happening at a significantly slower rate, and that is in human behaviour. Too many of us have our thought patterns stuck in the late 20th century. (http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/intelligent-energy/grumpy-old-womans-energy-tips/16315) If we're going to move forward, we need to break out of those thought patterns. Dreaming of a better future, bug bites and all, is what allows us to do that. First we dream, then we plan, then we build, and then we can live it. It won't be perfect, and it won't be easy. But then again, nothing worth doing ever is. And looking back, I forgot 2 very important modes of transportation to get you to the office. You could bicycle. Also, because you live in the city itself, you might walk. And maybe, instead of the bus, you take a commuter train or subway.
Considering that Obama dedicated a good chunk of his most recent SOTU speech to extolling the benefits of fracking, I think it's pretty safe to put the fractivists in the "dust bin of history" - along with the "vaccines cause autism", "GMOS cause cancer" and "flouride in the water is stealing our essence" fruitloop types. I hope you all enjoy floating around in the milk together while the rest of the world fracks its way to prosperity.
The attacks are pretty thin, relative to the rest of it. It's not like Nelder himself refrains from mocking and sarcasm.
All you need to think about is cult of personality and partisan political narrative. Worried about negative effects? We know how STORIES of that TYPE are bound to end.