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Friday, September 13, 2013

The Bribe

As someone who has followed energy issues in a quasi religious manner for more than ten years now, I am always intrigued to hear how their interpretation comes out in the wash via the mainstream(ish) media, like the CBC. Just today, the CBC aired a segment on pipelines [ ], and closed with a commentary by Jean-Francois Minardi [at the 13th minute]. This, in turn, was followed by the question whether one would forego one’s smart phone and (of all things) plastic mayonnaise containers, if it meant no pipeline… I am inclined to answer yes, but I am hesitant, because the question smells of bait.
Indeed, it’s a trap; it’s a bribe.
As the guest commentator points out, if I may paraphrase, we live in the age of petroleum. Everywhere you care to look, with the exception of the remote wilderness accessed by foot, if you look for it, you’ll see petroleum at play. Anyone who has taken the time to connect the dots, has at least a good idea of just how intricately dependent we are on petroleum from everything from transport to agriculture, plastics (including textiles) to computers. What’s more, in ecological, anthropological terms the energy flow that petroleum represents has facilitated a degree of specialisation that no other civilization has ever known.
But stating indisputable facts such as these does not necessarily prove that we have put petroleum to the best possible of uses over the long run. Indeed, I would argue that we have squandered it, and in the case of the personalised automobile, we have over-invested in a fundamentally flawed living arrangement with a dubious future.
In his argument, Jean-Francois Minardi states that car-use accounts for “only” 43% of the petroleum pie, making the number seem small, as though it were a democratic vote. This rhetorical trick fails to acknowledge that this is by far the lion’s share of petroleum allocation, with at least another 30% dedicated to fuels that also go toward transportation (namely diesel and jet fuel).
So, yes, the Personal Automobile has a lot to answer to. We may well value the benefits and convenience of cars, but we must learn to weigh them against the well documented drawbacks, starting with pollution and GHG emissions, and including the dissolution of urban community and the physical dangers that cars pose to people. Furthermore, while cars may well indeed be useful, in the context of a finite resource (which petroleum is), their misuse and overuse may well be a mistake of historic import.
When you stop to consider the context in which we debate things like the tar sands, and “fracking”, as well as pipelines and the price at the pump, you might like to take in a few salient facts: We have already used over half of the known petroleum reserves in the Earth’s crust; what we’ve consumed to date has been the “low hanging fruit” and what remains represents the harder to reach stuff (i.e. the more expensive oil). What’s more, we are hooked on the notion of growing the economy year after year, always using more energy to do so. We are therefore committed to extracting more and more resources, at a greater and greater cost for a growing economy of a growing population. We may like to appreciate the benefits of petroleum, but we may well need to get our heads around the basic principles of sustainability first.

I have to admit, I do not know who Jean-Francois Minardi is, but I recognise his basic argument common to “cornucopian” economists, that states “since petroleum has delivered us what we like, we must therefore deserve more petroleum; and since we deserve it, we therefore will inevitably, rightly do what is necessary to ensure its availability.” It’s a line of reasoning that assumes that Nature is obliged to provide for us whatever our hearts desire. Minardi goes on to introduce a particularly emotionally charged example of hard working women in Africa, who now benefit from the use of plastic jugs when hauling water. Since I too benefit from various forms of plastic (as much as I do try to avoid the stuff) I would be hypocritical to decry this benefit. However, it is not a sound argument to point only to one feel-good story while ignoring countless examples of the downside of plastic as a pollutant in the biosphere – the tons of floating debris in the oceans comes to mind, as the most glaring example… At least the clay pots traditionally used by the African women in the example are biodegradable.
But the issue isn’t about any one particular example. Of course there is a narrative of progress that we can attach to petroleum. There is also the narrative of dehumanisation and destruction. Take your pick. The real issue with this natural resource is that Nature has the final say. Whether we want there to be endless supplies of petroleum or not, we will inevitably be faced with reduced access though rising prices, and eventually with global scarcity. This fact is so far off the radar of the mainstream media that you have to wade deep into the marshes of the blogosphere to get a good overview of this situation, while running the risk of being bogged down by some very twisted and dubious interpretations of the facts as well.
For my part, I mention scarcity not as a scare tactic, or part of a conspiracy theory, but because, if we could start to get our heads around it, we could seriously consider the importance of reducing that 43% to something like half or less, along with the other consumptive habits we developed in a culture of abundance and entitlement which is entering the its twilight phase.

As regular readers know, I am an avid cyclist. But I do use a car from time to time. I will not ever own one, and I may one day own as many as five bikes, so it’s no secret where my biases lie. I have made my choices, and I live by them as best I can. I happen to be well aware that the tires on my bike are derived from petroleum. The entire existence of a “cycling industry” is surely, wholly dependent on the stuff, I know. But there is no way to justify the comparison of this dependence to the dependence of car culture on the same resource when you look at the basic rates of overall consumption. Just because petroleum delivers us some valuable goods, it should not be assumed that cars, and the extravagance they represent, are beyond all criticism.

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