02 July 2006

Two futures

What with gasoline on the high side of $3 a gallon, Al Gore doing his rap, the US embroiled in a horrific quagmire in the Middle East because of our oil interests, and the hockey stick graph, the buzz is finally on about what we're gonna do about our current oil dependency being totally unsustainable. James Howard Kunstler and Chairman Bruce Sterling are two folks who have been thinking about this for a good long time already. You'll find them both lurking in my blogroll.

This week, they both happen to be talking about the possibility of fueling cars with alcohol ....

The pitch for alcohol is that you can use it as a fuel to run internal combustions engines very similar to the kind you see in existing cars et cetera. You don't dig alcohol out of the ground like you do with petroleum, you make it from grains like corn. This is appealing because there isn't a fixed supply in the earth to run out, you just grow and brew more every year ... and the carbon in the fuel comes from carbon dioxide in the air metabolized by the plants, so it doesn't contribute to the greenhouse effect.

The trouble is that when you add up all of the energy costs of making alcohol—the fuel in the tractors in the cornfields, cooking up the corn mash to ferment, running the distilleries to turn it into fuel, and so forth—you actually come out behind. You have to put more energy in than you get out. That doesn't stop Big Agriculture from thinking that alcohol fuels are a great idea, of course.

You do the math.

James Howard Kunstler, the only man in America who who hates the suburbs more than I do, sees the fascination with alcohol as a refusal to accept that car culture is soon to be over.

Chevron and British Petroleum (or Beyond Petroleum, as BP wishfully styles itself) have both run ad campaigns acknowledging the oil-and-gas crunch, and the mainstream media has joined the campaign to pimp for bio-fuels. But all the talk is driven by the assumption that we will keep running WalMart, Disney World, and the interstate highway system just like we do now, only with other “alternative” liquid fuels.

The more naive members of the environmental sector have been suckered into this line of thinking, too -- especially the college kids, who imagine we can just divert x-amount of acreage from Cheez Doodle production and re-direct it to crops devoted to making liquid fuels for Honda Elements. They need to get some alt.brains.

Nobody is talking about the much more likely prospect that we'll have to reduce motoring drastically, and make other arrangements for virtually every aspect of daily life, from how we get food, to how we do business, to how we inhabit the landscape. The more we resist thinking about the larger agenda for comprehensively changing daily life, beyond our obsession with cars, the more likely we will veer into hardship, political trouble, and violence.

Bruce Sterling, presumably hoping that we will find a way to make alcohol production more efficient, sees something else.
So okay, get this pitch: it's the American solution to climate change. It's all about giant, hybrid, boozy SUVs. These SUVs carry, not dainty little hippie batteries, but COLOSSAL REPUBLICAN batteries, batteries big enough to power your house. At night, you plug in the batteries and suck clean wind-power out off the grid. You drive around your neighborhood on Texan and Kansan wind-power. Wind is always a patchy resource, but GIANT AMERICAN CARS become the STORAGE UNITS for American wind. You run your HOUSE off your car battery when the wind isn't blowing. The huge American car fleet is America's un-interruptible power supply.

While away from home, you buy American booze, i.e., recycled Iowa corncobs, and even weeds off the side of the road, all enzymatically cracked and turned into white-lightning car fuel that you can DRINK AT TAILGATE PARTIES. And since these grasses fix carbon into the soil (through their roots), THE MORE YOU DRIVE, THE FASTER THE GREENHOUSE EFFECT GOES AWAY!

Furthermore, in order to cure the atmosphere quickly, you definitely want to drive a BIG car. A really big American WHALE of a car. You might want to consider dumping your house entirely and moving all your possessions into a giant, booze-fueled, wind-powered Recreational Vehicle.

Okay, this isn't a universal solution to climate change. But it's the first solution I've seen with *American national characteristics.*

Honestly, I want Kunstler to be right on the future, because I think he's right about the past; on balance, cars have been a terrible blight on our society. But reading the two of them, I think that the smart money is on Chairman Bruce.

1 comment:

Tom Gray said...

Lots more info on this concept here.

Tom Gray
American Wind Energy Association