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Technological Narcissism: Pay No Attention To Those Bumps In The Road
Mr. Drippy
For those of you still unfamiliar with M. King Hubbert and his now-famous theory of "peak oil," do look up Wiki entries on his name and theory. If you don't, not only will this entry seem curious (if not completely unhinged), but so will reality.

If you're still curious about what this might mean for, well, everyone on earth, you need not look too very far. The economic crisis might have had its antecedents in the Great Depression, but essentially any economy structured as ours is must grow to function. If it stops growing, it will catastrophically deflate. Sadly, that's just the nature of the game.

(One day I'll get into more detail backing up my pretty audacious statement about growth or crisis, but today is not that day. Soon, I promise, I'll get to that. Today's post strikes closer to home, too close for me to ignore.)

The phrase opening the post title is a favorite of author James Howard Kunstler, best well known as a critic of shoddy urban and insane sub-urban design and of energy resource issues. He maintains (and is in good company with those who maintain exactly the same thing) that as our petroleum reserves deplete, that the complex society we have created with oil will simplify whether we wish it to or not. The many tasks we today accomplish with our thirsty technology will tomorrow either be done with less energy-intensive means . . . or not get done at all. To wish otherwise by fabricating a future with endless energy supplies—along with those personal jetpacks we were promised in the '50s—is, according to Kunstler, an act of "technological narcissism," a personal projecting of the infallibility of mankind's technological wonderment triggered by an act of pure cognitive dissonance.

In less technical terms, once most people realize what the world might be like without cars and the goodies they provide us, most people simply cannot accept that, for the first time in 500 years, our standard of living is necessarily going to decline; so we dream of a future world where machines will once again save us.

Ah, but here I am to note that even if we could dream up machines that would soften the bumpy ride our lives will take on the ride down Hubbert's Peak, the fact that our economy is inextricably tied to the fuel we cannot extract fast enough means that the money to make this technologically narcissistic world vision a physical reality won't be around to save the day.

Let me explain.

When I'm not goofing off on the computer, I'm usually working. Right now that means driving transit buses. About six months ago, I qualified on some new equipment, the Orion 40-foot coaches powered by a series hybrid diesel-electric drive. There are many types of combustion-electric hybrids out there; they are not all created equally. My employer, for example, first got hybrids almost 8 years ago (maybe longer, I'm not sure). The maker of that drive system, Allison, promised some pretty spectacular mileage improvements . . . that never panned out. At best, they bumped miles per gallon about 3%, doubtfully covering the added cost of the drives verses the conventional alternative.

(Don't look for this number online. GM, Allison's parent company, is pretty tight-lipped about the actual numbers their drive gave their first customers, since the slightly more improved drive is now offered as an option on some of its smaller trucks. Worse, my employer was pretty pissed about how poorly the drive performed, and about Allison's lack of what proved to be developmental, not just product, support, a lack that led to some nasty back-and-forth that I can't divulge in a public forum. I got the number from inside the org and on the QT.)

Orion buses, by stark contrast, are so far almost doubling the miles a coach can travel on a tank. Thanks to the fact that the diesel engine driving them is half the size of a conventional bus's, they are also quiet enough for the driver to hold a conversation with a passenger on the freeway without either raising their voices. Oh, and don't let that small engine fool; they move up hills faster than the conventionals. These buses are nice.

And they are going to be needed. As the financial crisis deepens, more and more are riding the bus. A financial analyst stumbled upon probably the best graph yet for visualizing the present perhaps post-peak world, one I shared back in late October. Luckily, I took a screen shot of his original October 24, 2011 graph.

Bigger, anyone?

Here we see the nation's average miles driven per person, smoothed on a 12-month rolling average. (Keep in mind that the analyst, Mr. Short, probably had a typo on his graph. His mark of June, 2006" should read "June, 2005"; it does so in the original article, which seems no longer to be available.)

A few months later, I was delighted to find he had updated his numbers. Here's the same rolling per-person average from December:

Anyone? More bigness?

And now, just as I must, I head over to his site and find another update:

Again, Bigger!

Oh, dear.

Oh, and lest you get all excited about that tiny tick upward from month 79 to month 80, let me remind everyone that an increase in economic activity will stimulate demand for fuel . . . which will increase the price of fuel . . . which will dampen economic activity. I call it The Gas Ceiling. Our economy will grow to the size of the available fuel supply, and stay there.

Let's talk about what "technological narcissism" really means. In his original article from October (I originally quoted here, Mr. Short said:

The population-adjusted all-time high dates from June 2005. That's 74 months — over six years. And since the latest data is the lowest reading since the all-time high, the best we can hope for is that August "might" have been the trough.

Good thing he qualified his accounting with those scare quotes. Either Mr. Short didn't know about Hubbert's Peak, or he just ignored it. Call it a graveyard whistle.

Oh, I forgot to mention. The fact that Mr. Short's "population-adjusted all-time high dates from June 2005" follows another interesting date: "the all time high crude oil production of 74.30 million b/d reached in May 2005." (How could I not embolden that?) Of all the technological narcissists, investment analysts tend to be the most shiny-minded of the positive thinkers, wouldn't you say?

Of course, they aren't alone. Lots of people are still pursuing that wily cold fusion. Many are brave to simply note its continuing possibility on forums dedicated to peak energy issues, the brave souls.

Ah, but let me toss my final monkey wrench into those brave thoughts. Remember my excitement over the new Orion coaches? One of their chief investors in the hybrid technology, Daimler, has decided that increasing bus fuel mileage is simply not profitable:

Daimler Buses North America no longer will manufacture buses at its Orion facility in the Oneida County Industrial Park, officials announced Wednesday. . . .

“Daimler Buses considered all possible options for reconfiguring our transit bus operations in North America,” said Harmut Schick, head of Daimler Buses. “But at the end of the day, Orion is facing a situation where the cost position is not competitive, the local market is in a continued slump and growth opportunities are not available from selling the product overseas.”

It's not because these buses won't prove cost effective in a future with ever-rising fuel costs. That's not it at all. It's because an era of ever-rising fuel costs will force everyone to reorganize their expenditures. Businesses that rely upon cheap fuel will cut back or go out of business, and closed and/or downsized businesses can't pay as much in taxes.

Taxes pay for buses.

So just when they need to cut back on their own travel expenses, many workers will see a shortage of buses available to get them to and from work.

So the world simplifies, one swirl around the bowl at a time.

I don't mean to be all gloom and doom. It's just easy, given this information. There are ways to prevent an economic ride down the energy slope from getting so bumpy that the shocks just break up society (a very real possibility, one with historical precedent). We can restructure our economy to allow for funding needed changes to our infrastructure without adding costs to taxpayers. Doing so would gore some pretty sacred cows; but not doing anything will lead to an every bumpier ride down from the peak.

X-posted to talk_politics.

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Yeah, transit in my city is on a slow downward slide, I find. Well, except for the prices, those keep going up. I moved to the west end to be close to work (I can walk or bike easily in good weather), but a fair bit of my social life etc. still demands that I go downtown, and driving still saves more time than the fuel costs. There is a failure of thought which is leading city politicians to imagine that transit should be downscaled until it's not so expensive; they aren't considering the real cost-benefit of buses versus cars, so they are headed toward the break-even point where they have no buses, so no expenses equals no revenue is a win, right?

There is a failure of thought which is leading city politicians to imagine that transit should be downscaled until it's not so expensive. . . .

Ah, a good point. The answer is yes, that is exactly what's happening. Your following point about the "real cost-benefit of buses versus cars" doesn't apply to the transit officials, though, since they don't pay for the cars.

Remember, most municipal transit agencies started as for-profit alternative transport competing against horses, stages, and horse and electric trolleys. Only later were they de-privatized, once cars began to compete effectively and the for-profit no longer made profit. Much of the profit mindset of operations still exists.

We'll see how much taxpayers are willing to shell to keep transit alive. It will depend, I think, on how difficult it becomes to do business without it.

No disagreement from the cheap seats over here. Downsizing is the name of the game atm, for those of us in retail, it's a particularly tough road even such a lovely blessed place as Aussieland, but I am hoping the government keeps going the direction its going: Carbon Tax comes in in 2 months, and they're doing a damned sight more than NZ to head in the correct direction, even with pulling all the stuff outa the ground.

Also, I'm planning on getting my backup/secondary electric bike fixed this week.

I forgot about your electric rides. I do envy your relatively flat terrain.

I'm finding optimism in those vehicle-miles charts; it's exactly what needs to happen, and exactly what you'd expect to happen if price signals work. Adaptation can be messy, but it works better than prediction. (Meaning, strategies that are based on predictions (=assumptions) about the future are less robust than those based on observations.)

The news that Orion is closing, on the other hand, exposes a flaw in the system: reliance on government for these kinds of services. I predict that something else will emerge to help people move about, but I have no idea what that will be.

I would disagree that a reliance on government is the problem with mass transit infrastructure funding. After all, the same would happen if the transit authorities were private, perhaps more so.

I think the flaw here is how governments are funded, and the particular susceptibility of their funding structures to suffer during economic downturns. Change that structure, change the profitability of technological solutions bridging the downturn in energy availability.

Hi, sorry to engage in "thread necromancy," but I only just noticed this.

Even being in transit yourself, you probably didn't hear about the several-year fight we had over funding for Metro Transit here in the St. Louis area? Let me recap it as compactly as I can:

Even before the '07 financial collapse, demand for transit was rising; people going downtown could no longer afford the rising parking rates, people going to work weren't being paid enough to own cars. But increased ridership turned into a curse when gas prices started to spike. Finally, to save money, Metro simply decreed that they would no longer run buses to the outer-ring white-flight suburbs, they just couldn't afford to run routes that long.

Business out there thought that Metro was bluffing. Metro wasn't bluffing. And suddenly one of the great truths of white-flightville was revealed: white-flightville depends on a lot of low-income labor, especially in the service sector (retail, hospitals, call centers, etc), but is deliberately designed to not include any low-income housing. Every business that had located itself out to white-flightville for the convenience of its management and ownership suddenly had to decide which of the only three courses available to them they would take. Either they had to ...

1) raise wages in the service sector so that their low-income workers could afford the cars and the gasoline they needed to commute from low-income housing in the inner-ring suburbs and the city, or ...

2) accept higher taxes on the middle class (and to a lesser extent on the rich) in order to fund the restoration of mass transit between the inner-ring suburbs and the city and white-flightville, or else ...

3) pressure local governments in white-flightville to rapidly build low-income housing for white-flightville's service workers, driving down average property values in white-flightville and, worse, desegregating it.

They chose #2, and a huge wave of campaign advertising funded by rich white people from outer white-flightville pushed the sales tax increase for Metro Transit over the top. Rich bigots feared the precedent of paying a living wage and the loss of their all-white no-poor-people real estate more than they feared higher taxes.

Addendum: there is a 4th option that wasn't even seriously considered.

4) Move the business that depend on low-wage workers back towards the low-wage workers, back towards the inner-ring suburbs and the city, and make the white-flight upper middle class and rich people be the ones who do the long-distance commuting. Or else find some way to carve out gated whites-only upper-middle-class and rich enclaves downtown again. Either way, shorten the commute for workers.

As I say, it wasn't even seriously considered. But with the era of Cheap Oil coming to a grinding halt, I remain confident that #4 is the one they're going to have to eventually choose. But they'll fight it tooth and nail to the last possible minute, no matter what it costs them and no matter what it costs the country and no matter what it costs the world.

Interesting. We recently had a cut-back scare here as well, one that didn't go through. The list of cut runs, though, was pretty evenly spread throughout the county, probably to get as many vocal protests to the council meetings as possible.

I agree, the forth is the most likely long-term option, and the one that will be fought the hardest. The segregation opportunities brought by cheap petroleum-fueled transport are found frickin' everywhere. There's a parkway in New York deliberately built with 9-foot overpass crossings, too low for buses, to deter the bus-riding black folk from visiting the beach.

For another more local example, here in Seattle we are now tearing down The Alaska Way Viaduct over our waterfront, built back in 1949. It was built to re-route traffic passing through downtown from the North end (north of the Ship Canal) heading to build airplanes at Boeing (just south of downtown). Why didn't Boeing workers simply move closer to the factory (other than airplane noise, I mean)? Boeing jobs were white and good-paying back then, even on the assembly floor. . . .

. . . And houses north of the Ship Canal were sold only to whites. A friend's grandfather from Croatia couldn't even buy north of the Canal back in the 20s, and today Croatian is considered quite white indeed. I still have (somewhere) the original codicil for our 1942 north-of-the-canal home that stated which races (other than live-in servants) could be in the homes after sunset.

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