Don’t Fight The Powerful Trends Now Underway
June 23, 2009
By Charles Cresson Wood
The Obama Administration has been desperately trying to prop up and maintain the petroleum-dependent American personal car industry. Unfortunately these efforts are a lost cause, because this way of life (a transportation system primarily based on billions of personal automobiles) is no longer a viable option. It’s ridiculous for America to be spending billions to keep Chrysler and General Motors on life support, when these car companies are going to die soon anyway. These dinosaur companies have very high costs of production, have emphasized the production of the most inefficient vehicles (such as SUVs and the Hummer), and are dangerously out touch with the fact that the world is running out of inexpensive petroleum. If the Administration could only put short-term political considerations aside, if it could only look to the needs of the future, it would probably have spent all this car company bailout money in a very different way. The money would much more productively be spent supporting small new companies offering innovative transportation products that do not depend on petroleum. I’m talking about companies like Aptera, Miles Electric, Venturi, Universal Electric Vehicle Corp., and Zen Motor Company.
It’s time that decision makers admitted that putting band-aids on a dying patient is not going to prolong the life of the patient, or even significantly improve the patient’s painful transition experience. The petroleum-age is over, we are on the downside of peak oil, and it’s time that we admitted it and go on with the transition. It is time to switch to a new way of looking at transportation, time to adopt a new set of transportation models, time to adopt and evolve a new set of transportation technologies, and it is time to switch to a transportation system that is both ecologically and economically sustainable.
While the Obama Administration was swept to victory on last November’s election day based on a platform of change, it has recently been looking very much like a maintainer of the status quo. The Administration still has not come clean with the American public: it still has not told the truth about the real situation when it comes to peak oil. There is no chance that America will be able to make the transition to a post-petroleum economy in an orderly fashion if its leaders won’t even publicly admit the truth about what’s happening today. It gets worse than that. The Administration is in fact causing serious trouble with its efforts to keep the old-fashioned oil-dependent transportation system going.
The trouble comes from three major areas. The first of these involves wasting resources on unnecessary activities. The billions spent on GM and Chrysler need to instead have been spent on activities that create new transportation infrastructure, new transportation technology, and new ways of operating our transportation systems. For example, instead of trying to broker the sale of Chrysler to another company, the Administration should be supporting standardization efforts that facilitate the development of and adoption of new technology. A more specific example of this — and the author is by no means endorsing this approach — is provided by the company called Better Place. This company is pushing a standard for electric car batteries that are interchangeable. Thus an electric car could simply get a ten minute battery replacement, rather than having spend four to eight hours charging up its own battery. Long distance trips via electric vehicles would thereby become more practical and efficient, even though major new breakthroughs in battery technology have not yet arrived. In general, standardization facilitates research and development, and facilitates the introduction and adoption of new products. Standardization also facilitates buyer understanding of new technologies, which in turn accelerates the adoption of new technologies.
The second source of trouble created by the Administration is that by attempting to shore-up old transportation systems, the focus is placed on the maintenance of, and fixing of the old system, when the old system instead needs to be converted or abandoned. If we don’t admit what’s going on, if we don’t start having a public and open conversation about it, it’s exceedingly difficult to effect a transition to new technology. If we don’t create a new way of thinking about our world, that incorporates peak oil, and the peak resource constraints that we face (such as peak metals), then it’s highly unlikely that we are going to be able to responsibly manage the remains of these resources in a manner that successfully moves us in the direction of transition.
In the postponement of this important transition, in the continued focus on the old, we as a society may miss most of, if not all of, the window of opportunity to transition to a truly sustainable transportation system. With this focus on the old system, we are likely to simply keep going with the old system as long as we can, and then crash in a crisis because we cannot, at that point, go on any longer. It remains to be seen what, if any, residual assets we will have at that point in time in order to accomplish this gigantic transition to non-petroleum-based technology.
The third source of trouble is that this approach creates what the insurance industry calls a “moral hazard.” If the government gives money to dead and dying petroleum-dependent car companies, it encourages management at these rescued car companies, and other car companies for that matter as well, to act irresponsibly. By this I mean ignore the future, and fail to transition to new energy technologies. The government thereby gives managers the message that they will be bailed out if they fail to respond adequately to the peak oil crisis. The government thus allows these companies to somehow avoid the discipline of the marketplace, which would otherwise have dictated that GM and Chrysler go out of business.
So consider the recent developments in our economy as markers of the trends that are already set into motion. For example, perhaps the current worldwide recession is a harbinger of a new way of life where we are all required to have a much lower level of economic activity? A variety of economists are already taking positions that the recession was caused by the run up in oil prices occurring in 2008. It would be far more cost-effective, and far less painful, if we would simply downsize and reduce our level of economic activity, rather than attempting to build it back up to unsustainable heights that were only made possible by low-cost and abundant fossil fuels. So instead of resisting the current trends, instead of hoping to reestablish the old order of things, consider whether recent developments are the beginning of new trends. Then evaluate whether you want to fight against these trends, resist them, deny them, or the much easier and recommended alternative: go with them.
Charles Cresson Wood, MBA, MSE, is a sustainability management consultant based in Mendocino, California. His book entitled Kicking The Gasoline & Petro-Diesel Habit: A Business Manager’s Blueprint For Action provides a step-by-step plan that organizations of all types can use to transition away from petroleum (more information at www.kickingthegasoline.com).