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Monday, February 24, 2014

Kudos to Neil Young, part two: "With a Caveat"

Having applauded Neil Young’s stance in support of the First Nations of the Athabasca, and in opposition to the exploitation of the region’s Tar Sands, in the previous post here, I couldn’t help but feel that there was so much left unsaid.
It was certainly worth mentioning that Canada’s future is presently hinging upon energy policy, and in particular, the politics of Tar Sands development; and to point out that there is a meme-war being waged, primarily by official propaganda, as well as by more subtle forms of auto-censorship and general denial and ignorance, where one hears the euphemism “oil sands” more often than not. The technical term is actually bitumen. The best vernacular, in my opinion, is tar sands, which, as mentioned already, I believe should be referred to as the Athabasca Tar Sands as often as possible.
Also worth repeating is the following:
Tar Sands development is happening in a particular global economic context which must be recognised. It’s called peak oil. Not a conspiracy theory, nor a myth, peak oil is the defining economic precondition for all energy policy henceforth across the globe. The fact that we largely refuse to stare this in the face (and name it) does not bode well for the future of energy policy, not to mention economics in general.
But the fact is that more often than not, if you bring up notions along these lines in polite company, you’ll be met with blank stares and immediate efforts to change the subject. I am so used to this by now, that I save most of my opinions on the matter for this blog, for better or for worse.
The issues Neil Young raises with the “Honour the Treaties Tour” are many, and only some of them are directly related to energy. So much else pertains to human rights, which in turn evokes a whole set of emotional, political and moral response. But energy is never far from the core of the matter. At the root of most energy issues, in turn, is our dependence on petroleum and sense of entitlement that stems from it.
It may be important to remember that Neil Young is a baby boomer, which is to say, he grew up in North America at a very special time in the history of modern Western industrial civilisation: the post war boom was a time of unprecedented growth and optimism, where for the first time in history, an entire generation was born into a culture of consumer affluence and freedom of expression and generally unprecedented growth. The abundance of industry flowed to the victors in the age of petroleum. No other set of circumstances could have produced the counter-culture of the youth in the 60’s in which Neil Young played a significant part. Similarly, no other set of circumstances could have produced the phenomenon of sub-urban sprawl, at once both a love affair, and a deep economic commitment to a car-oriented way of life. It should come as no surprise, then, to know that Neil describes himself as a lover of cars – big fast cars, to boot.
More recently, to his credit he has taken his love for cars and held it up to some significant degree of scrutiny: he has begun to take CO2 emissions seriously enough to turn his back on the gasoline engine. In turn, he appears to have been putting his money where his mouth is and helping to develop an alternatively fuelled vehicle that also happens to fulfil his sentimental, aesthetic requirements when it comes to the look of the car.
Now, I happen to like Neil’s aesthetic choices here, and coincidentally I like most of the music he has put out over the years – I grew up on so much of it… And I must emphasize just how encouraging it is to see a prominent baby boomer assume a role of leadership when it comes to Climate Change and the matter of questioning business as usual. According to some, this was supposed to be the order of the day as boomers retired and no longer had anything to lose. They were all supposed to become activists again (or for the first time, at least) but that’s another discussion…
So Kudos to Neil Young yet again here at Kyotomotors.
However, Neil Young’s vision for North America’s Energy future has to be put to the test in its own right, and I’m sorry to report that it leaves a whole lot to be desired. While his heart is in the right place with respect to climate change and future generations, as well as tar sands and First Nations people, his hopes for energy alternatives are at best naïve and possibly just downright misinformed.
I have listened to him speak at length about the alternatives he has explored, and envisions for the future.[You can check out one of his videos here]. Like I said, Neil loves big cars and speed, and he has put his money where his mouth is: he and his team have built the plug-in electric hybrid car of his dreams (at considerable cost). He wants to drive with a reduced carbon footprint, and has managed to do so. But there is a fly in the ointment. Neil assumes that, with his experimental success, it is now just a matter of convincing the various players to convert (presumably government, the Big Three auto-makers, and consumers) and scale the project up. In other words, he assumes two things. First, that the economic incentive to do so exists, even though  big oil inevitably will continue to assert itself in all realms of policy; and second, that the proposed technology could necessarily scale-up to meet the needs of all those people who would convert from their gasoline powered cars and “go electric”. While neither of these two assumptions is anywhere close to being given, there is an even more troubling aspect to Neil’s logic.
Neil Young does take the “Big Three” car companies to task for their apparent unwillingness to stray from a very narrow path. No argument there. But nowhere in his critical analysis of North Americans’ CO2 output does he question the pervasive habit of individual car ownership. According to him, personal vehicle commuters drive an average 35 miles a day – this established collective exercise (often taking the form of gridlock) stems from the aforementioned post-war model of sprawl that has surrounded every city on the continent. It is the essence of Western civilisation’s mode of economic activity (consumerism); to some it is the epitome of absurdity or worse; to others, it is sacred, and non-negotiable. Neil seems to be convinced that the redesigned plug-in hybrid vehicle can and should preserve the sprawl model, and save the grandchildren from the CO2 emissions at the same time.
Again, there is no argument here about the need to address the challenges of carbon emissions and climate change: certainly it is the purpose of this blog to support points of view that help in the cause…. But it is far from certain that any meaningful success in the fight against climate change is possible based on the personal vehicle ownership model, and I’ll explain why in a moment.
When James Howard Kunstler refers, as he does so often, to our futile attempt to sustain the unsustainable, I believe he’s really hit the nail on the head. Our contemporary myths of progress tend to bolster the fantasy (illusion) that we can continue with “happy motoring” with alt fuels, because that’s what we wish to do. But in terms of sheer energy output (and work accomplished) no alternative to petroleum or any combination of alternatives can measure up and achieve the same results – and that’s basic math. He is also making the point that we are very much ready to believe the lies we tell ourselves as sit on our hands and wait for “them” who are busy thinking of “something” for the future.
Neil Young has thought of something, but he’s not the first one to think of that very something. More than ten years ago, while a fringe group of activists complained about GM’s mothballing of their EV1 program (battery operated cars), many of the same were screaming loudly about the need for plug-in hybrids as the answer. Some such vehicles have finally made it to the market, at a trickle, and at considerable cost to the few consumers who are willing to go that route. Will another ten years make the difference? At the same time hydrogen fuel cells were promised to be the way of the future (remember GWB’s “hydrogen economy”? It was a vision that was sold as being about ten years off – or in other words, right about now. Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a hydrogen car. Have you?
So, where are we now? Well one thing that’s different is we are about five years into the peak oil phase of the story. I’m not sure, but Neil shows no sign of being aware of the peak oil scene, but he is acutely aware of the Athabasca Tar Sands, which, as I’ve mentioned, is a peak oil sub-plot. That’s where some of the world’s energy has to come from as most people continue to cling the individual owner model of motoring around the  landscape.
Neil, is still holding on to that model himself, and apparently believes that with his choice of technology (using biofuels (ethanol) and electricity), or something similar, we won’t need Tar Sands oil and we won’t be churning out the CO2 that would otherwise adversely affect future generations.
The logic of it is seemingly very enticing and convincing –it was high on my wish list at one time too –but there is a catch, and it amounts to a glaring oversight on Neil’s part. Nowhere in his argument does he ask or suggest where all the electricity for the new fleet is supposed to come from. He only makes reference to a power grid that is simply “there” and “ready” to be used for charging one’s batteries each and every night after peak use. Now, if this plan is truly to be a sweeping replacement to petroleum (ie a significant majority of participants), there are at least two major problems: first, the night quickly becomes the new time of peak consumption of electricity as everyone recharges their vehicles’ batteries while they sleep. Second, this will also require an enormous amount of additional electricity generated. And just where does electricity come from these days? On that scale (outside of Quebec), we’re invariably talking about coal, and natural gas. In turn, when we talk about growing supplies of natural gas nowadays, we are talking about fracking, which is another peak oil sub-plot in its own right. Coal is an enormous source of CO2 emissions, and fracking for natural gas happens to be a far more carbon intensive way of extracting methane than all other forms of conventional gas production. Neil Young’s would-be silver bullet is not so shiny after all…
Fortunately there is a real, alternative way forward, and that is to wean ourselves off of the personal car ownership model of doing things. Unfortunately, it will not be especially popular for some time yet, since there is just so much in the way of established habit and expectations when it comes to energy, that we won’t change those habits or expectations until something forces us to do so. After all, we love our cars…
But peak oil guarantees that, in the long run, those changes will come, and individual car ownership will by in large, become a thing of the past. When it does, we’ll see if it happened quickly enough for the fight against climate change.
At the end of the day, the low carbon way forward is what I like to call the Kyoto Motors way forward, where the most common motor put to use is the average citizen’s pair of legs. In this vision of the future, walkable communities are essential, and bicycle culture stands to supplant car culture. In turn, urban cars are shared cars, and yes, many or most could be electric. The trains and buses of public transit will service suburbs and cities for free giving added incentive to all taxpayers to take advantage of the service.
But like most visions of the future, mine is fraught with idealisations, naïve oversights and unintended consequences, to be sure. So I will not dwell on the subject. What I will say is that as far as the Kyotomotors vision goes, it’s the present, not the future that counts. In many urban centres today, most, if not all, the elements of the alternative way forward already exist. Proven, established technologies that emit far less CO2 need only be popularised one citizen at a time.