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The futility of the Prius and the end of the world as we know it

Toshi

Harbinger of Doom
Oct 23, 2001
29,690
3,080
I sold my only car back in 2008 after having an epiphany that our western way of life is unsustainable. Recently, I've come to a more gradual realization that my reaction to it is futile. Here's how it all came to pass:

The Epiphany

Although I'd read this and that regarding the energy use and petroleum dependence of our way of living for many years I can still pinpoint the exact moment when it sunk in: I was on an "express" bus in the fall of 2007 making its way very slowly up the crowded I-5 HOV lanes on the way up north to see my then-fiancée. The sight of so many people sitting sightless in their near-stationary cars perched atop an artificial desert of concrete, just waiting for the car ahead of them to inch forward so that they could mindlessly do so as well, made things click. It seemed absurd all of a sudden to contemplate how much energy and sheer effort it took to change the wooded landscape to that just so that we could coop ourselves up in a 3,500 lb padded private box on our way home. What is progress good for if our lives are spent this way?

The Reaction

I basically didn't drive after this realization. I'd never commuted by car even before this point due to (deliberately) exorbitant parking fees at my workplace, so commuting in by bicycle was no change in my habits. I did cut out all pleasure driving, however, and did my errands by foot, bicycle, or bus--nothing like coming back from Costco via two buses when a car is parked in one's driveway, just out of sheer obstinance… Autocross, long one of my passions--what young man doesn't secretly want to be a racecar driver?--lost its allure once I looked at it coldly and analytically, so I sold my extra wheels and race tires and put my math-nerd number vinyl number plate (#1729) in a dark corner of the garage. Eventually, I sold the car itself: I didn't drive it any more besides moving it in and out of the driveway at my roommates' request, I didn't enjoy driving it because of my environmental guilt, and the money tied up in it would be more useful for paying for an engagement ring and an then-upcoming cross-country move. In order to get around sans car given my weird hours as a physician (as in getting to the hospital before the buses are even running), I built an electric bicycle, comfortable with the "unnatural" electric assistance with the knowledge that its lithium battery pack is probably more efficient than my own metabolism.

The Green Life, Long Island-style

Fast forward a year or three and my wife and I are living the "green life" as best as we can in suburban New York. Our electricity consumption is a third of the national average; we keep our programmable thermostat quite low indeed and have added insulation to our rented house; we bring reusable bags to the grocery; and we recycle as best as we can. Finally, of course, we drive efficient vehicles: a Prius (46 mpg combined), a Fit (30 mpg combined), or a medium-sized motorcycle (~40-45 mpg observed but with higher smog-forming emissions than either of the two cars). Although gas isn't cheap here, we don't live so close to the financial edge that $5 or even $10/gallon gas would bankrupt us, so our motivation isn't merely financial: We really feel that it's the right thing to do, as our western-lifestyle world's demand for oil can be implicated in so much strife and bloodshed and leads to the enrichment of some truly unsavory characters in the Middle East.

The Realization of Futility

All this up to this point has been my reaction to my epiphany, however. As I stated up front, I've now gradually realized that what we are doing is futile. Inspirational slogans on Seattle bus shelters aside, the actions of an individual, one small family, or even a small similarly-minded minority of people (let's call us "people who like Stuff White People Like"), are not enough to change the world. What is required is that the incentives align themselves differently: much as our current mess in medicine is because the payment model provides incentives to do more procedures and charge more fees rather than to practice low-cost medicine and substitute judgment and thought for waste, our current worldwide system of incentives rewards copious consumption of the cheapest (and dirtiest) forms of energy.

Given that the US, Russia, and China "own" the three largest reserves of coal in the whole world and we, de facto, control or at least buy influence and access to the Middle East's vast oil fields, it's pretty much guaranteed that the taps to these dirty forms of energy won't turn off until the last mote has truly been extracted from the ground. Furthermore, given the tremendous energy demands posed by China's surging economy, which may well be followed in 20 years by an Indian surge should they figure out how to stamp out their endemic corruption, there will be every incentive imaginable to the world's coal miners and well drillers to extract the black gold in order to spin up the compressors of air conditioners and refrigerators throughout the newly-westernized world.

What use, then, are incremental steps such as that embodied by the Prius and our "green lifestyle"? A car that gets 50% better fuel economy than its competitors yet still runs on gasoline may forestall the world running out of oil from the year 2090 to 2095, but that doesn't really change anything at all. Even electric cars aren't the answer: Although they may allow for an additional, say, 50% reduction in CO2 emission per mile driven compared to a Prius under ideal circumstances, the electricity generating capacity that they require is still fundamentally tied to oil and coal and will be for the foreseeable future due to simple economics.

Basically, these cars (and all the related energy-efficiency jazz: CFL lightbulbs, Energy Star this and that) are all small incremental steps, and will only forestall the inevitable. They do offer an economic benefit if energy prices are very high, but we haven't reached that point on the supply and demand curve, and the political reality in the US and especially the still-developing world will prevent any kind of high carbon tax from being enacted. Until we actually do start to run out of these supplies, which probably will not be within my lifetime, their existence merely serves to assuage the guilty conscience of the collective white world.

Beyond Thunderdome

When we do run out--and we will run out, it's just a matter of whether it's in my lifetime or that of my descendants--is when the true changes will be made. When gasoline becomes so scarce that we can't buy it at any cost, no matter how much military muscle we possess, is when our lifestyle will truly change and we'll see the concrete jungle that we've constructed--concrete having a very high CO2 cost--crumble. A nation that has built up its hydroelectric, wind, and solar power generation capabilities back in the (current and mid-term future) era when power was cheap will prosper if they can protect themselves from military bullies, but much if not most of the world will not be ready for this new world order. Chaos will ensue, and lives will get a whole lot simpler, for better or, likely, worse.

I used to think that the scientific evidence showing our effects on the global climate would be enough to convince the population and its politicians that an energy tax would be necessary, and that this energy tax might slow down our rate of energy consumption to a sustainable level. I now believe that achieving the political and inter-nation consensus to make this happen is impossible, and that we as a world will draw down our fossil fluids at an ever-increasing rate until they're simply gone. Therefore preparing for some utopian near-term world where the incentives are changed to reward energy efficiency, as I have so madly done (and as embodied by the image of the Prius), is pointless. There's no point being a martyr to a cause if the world is literally stacked against oneself. Instead I think it makes sense to party while Rome burns, to take advantage of our low energy prices that do not account for the externalities such as climate change, and to enjoy the fruits of our petroleum-derived society while it's still around to enjoy.

Of course, it might also not be a bad idea to build an underground bunker with an electric car, water purification setup, and enough solar panels to be self-sustaining. 100 years from now my great-grandchildren may well be able to live like a king (a sheikh, even) if they have such equipment for their use when Mad Max roams the barren earth above…
 

jonKranked

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Nov 10, 2005
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:tinfoil:

generally I don't read these long posts, but Toshi is generally well spoken.

Tosh, one thing to point out, the US doesn't get most of its oil from the middle east. In fact, only one middle east country is even in the top 10. Doesn't rule out the possibility that these numbers are muddled... that there's a middle country in between the US and the middle east where its refined.

But yea, a little tin foily, but doesn't change the fact that we need to adjust our lifestyles. Where I live, biking to work isn't really an option. My commute is an hour by car. Which sucks. I help where I can. I'm saving to own a house. Once I do, its on like donkey kong. I already recycle a lot, but only paper/plastic/glass. Once I own a house, Liz and I plan on starting a garden as well as a compost pile. That'll handle organic waste. I'm hoping to have enough property in a location that I can get myself off the grid... wind & solar is what I'm banking on primarily, but if the terrain allows I would want to set up a small scale hydroelectric generator. I wanna have a well drilled (if there already isn't one). Had well water growing up, not that bad. Just a backup option. Etc, so forth.
 

Toshi

Harbinger of Doom
Oct 23, 2001
29,690
3,080
Jeebus Toshi. That's really fvcking depressing coming from you.
Some people will come out of this (the long term "this") sitting pretty. If karma has any truth to it then the sheikhs finally will see their comeuppance. Most of the world will be screwed, however, but on the other hand most of the world lives in abject poverty even in this current day and age. The upside is that all of us reading this probably have little to worry about for our short stay here on earth.
 

Toshi

Harbinger of Doom
Oct 23, 2001
29,690
3,080
Tosh, one thing to point out, the US doesn't get most of its oil from the middle east.
Doesn't matter where it comes from. It's global demand and global supply and we're going to burn it all until the candle runs dry. Did that rhyme? Whoops. :D

But yea, a little tin foily, but doesn't change the fact that we need to adjust our lifestyles.
That's the point of this post, that adjusting our lifestyles now is pointless. Not only in Soviet Russia but in the whole world will it come to be true that "Lifestyle will adjust you"… when things run dry. Again, see the Beyond Thunderdome section. Until then, while we're still sitting pretty on the supply/demand curve, party away.
 

jonKranked

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Nov 10, 2005
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Some people will come out of this (the long term "this") sitting pretty. If karma has any truth to it then the sheikhs finally will see their comeuppance. Most of the world will be screwed, however, but on the other hand most of the world lives in abject poverty even in this current day and age. The upside is that all of us reading this probably have little to worry about for our short stay here on earth.
little to worry about? what about our offspring? we can't just shovel this sh*t on them. At the very least I wanna have something set up for them as plan B.
 

jonKranked

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Nov 10, 2005
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That's the point of this post, that adjusting our lifestyles now is pointless. Not only in Soviet Russia but in the whole world will it come to be true that "Lifestyle will adjust you"… when things run dry. Again, see the Beyond Thunderdome section. Until then, while we're still sitting pretty on the supply/demand curve, party away.
I did in fact real the whole thing.

The sh*t will hit the fan once there's major food shortage issues. Because most people don't know how to get food other than the following 2 sources:

-fast food / restaurants
-grocery store
 

Pesqueeb

bicycle in airplane hangar
Feb 2, 2007
31,407
6,412
Riding the baggage carousel.
Some people will come out of this (the long term "this") sitting pretty. If karma has any truth to it then the sheikhs finally will see their comeuppance. Most of the world will be screwed, however, but on the other hand most of the world lives in abject poverty even in this current day and age. The upside is that all of us reading this probably have little to worry about for our short stay here on earth.
Your probably right, but its been my experience that you can have this attitude only so long as you don't ever have kids.
 

Toshi

Harbinger of Doom
Oct 23, 2001
29,690
3,080
Your probably right, but its been my experience that you can have this attitude only so long as you don't ever have kids.
Oh, I'll prepare what I can for my kids, if and when they come along, and they'll probably do just fine. I have no false hopes about the majority of the remaining billions of souls on this planet, however.
 

Toshi

Harbinger of Doom
Oct 23, 2001
29,690
3,080
I did in fact real the whole thing.

The sh*t will hit the fan once there's major food shortage issues. Because most people don't know how to get food other than the following 2 sources:

-fast food / restaurants
-grocery store
Woohoo, someone read it! :D

One upside of the food shortage scenario is that diabetes will become much less of an issue…
 

jonKranked

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Woohoo, someone read it! :D

One upside of the food shortage scenario is that diabetes will become much less of an issue…
...unless all the corn syrup that's been building up in people will turn them into zombies.


Hordes and hordes of FAT zombies.
 

Pesqueeb

bicycle in airplane hangar
Feb 2, 2007
31,407
6,412
Riding the baggage carousel.
Woohoo, someone read it! :D

One upside of the food shortage scenario is that diabetes will become much less of an issue…
I read it. :(



...unless all the corn syrup that's been building up in people will turn them into zombies.


Hordes and hordes of FAT zombies.
Think of them as cured hams that come to you. Mmmmmm. Post apocalyptic
BBQ. :drool:
 

Westy

the teste
Nov 22, 2002
39,838
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Sleazattle
The solution is nuclear fission. I'm not talking power plants but good old fashioned worldwide thermonuclear war. A few well placed bombs (New York, LA, London, Paris, Sao Paulo, Tokyo,Mexico City, Moscow etc) will take out a very large percent of the human population with limited impact on food and energy production. This would preferable be done with something like a neutron bomb that limit damage to the infrastructure but do a good job of killing off all the meat-bags.

Of course humans are incapable of making such difficult decisions but once the machines become self-aware they will have little problem executing the plan.
 

jimmydean

The Official Meat of Ridemonkey
Sep 10, 2001
31,343
4,639
Portland, OR
If the latest tomato shortage isn't enough to make people a little nervous, then people still aren't paying attention.

Things like this make me worry:
http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1890927,00.html

The idea that we will need to produce more food in the next 40 years than we have in the last 8000 is a nice clue that we are f'ed. Another telling article is the idea that we need more population control in 3rd world countries because the strain they will put on the rest of the world is only a small part f the problem.
 

sanjuro

Tube Smuggler
Sep 13, 2004
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SF
Well, I always believe in positive change.

30 years ago, recycling was only for hippies and hobos turning in bottles. Now almost every community does it.

40 years ago, swimming in the Hudson River was like taking a dip in a sewer. After years of cleanup, there is swimming race around Manhattan Island.

America is improving, even if it is kicking and screaming the whole way. I think Obama's commitment to hi speed rails will pay off environment and transportation dividends for a century, even if the teabaggers can't see beyond their nose.

As for China and Russia, I hope there will be popular movements to improve their environment.
 

jonKranked

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Nov 10, 2005
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If the latest tomato shortage isn't enough to make people a little nervous, then people still aren't paying attention.

Things like this make me worry:
http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1890927,00.html

The idea that we will need to produce more food in the next 40 years than we have in the last 8000 is a nice clue that we are f'ed. Another telling article is the idea that we need more population control in 3rd world countries because the strain they will put on the rest of the world is only a small part f the problem.
do these studies take into account that there are a few million americans that are each eating 3-5 times a "normal" daily intake?


I figure if we can get these people back to eating regular portions, we'd have enough excess food to feed Africa.
 

TN

Hey baby, want a hot dog?
Jul 9, 2002
14,315
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Jimtown, CO
Another telling article is the idea that we need more population control in 3rd world countries because the strain they will put on the rest of the world is only a small part f the problem.
but not here it is status quo to pop out as many little ones as your SUV can hold? :confused:
 

moff_quigley

Why don't you have a seat over there?
Jan 27, 2005
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do these studies take into account that there are a few million americans that are each eating 3-5 times a "normal" daily intake?


I figure if we can get these people back to eating regular portions, we'd have enough excess food to feed Africa.
I know I'm stating the obvious but nobody cares about Africa. Now who's ready for fourths?
 

Toshi

Harbinger of Doom
Oct 23, 2001
29,690
3,080
If we quit eating meat we could already do that.
Yeah, and if we stopped keeping pets we could feed N more millions on top of that. Neither everyone dropping meat consumption nor mass slaughter/abandonment of our "furry friends" (and by this I mean pets, not Republican congressmen roleplaying on their free weekends :D) is going to happen, however.
 
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narlus

Eastcoast Softcore
Staff member
Nov 7, 2001
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behind the viewfinder
but not here it is status quo to pop out as many little ones as your SUV can hold? :confused:
Yeah, and if we stopped keeping pets we could feed N more millions on top of that. Neither everyone dropping meat consumption or mass slaughter/abandonment of our "furry friends" (and by this I mean pets, not Republican congressmen roleplaying on their free weekends :D) is going to happen, however.
don't you have a dog, Fred? :p
 

woodsguy

gets infinity MPG
Mar 18, 2007
1,089
1
Sutton, MA
but not here it is status quo to pop out as many little ones as your SUV can hold? :confused:
Most developed countries aren't having enough kids and rely on immigration. Japan especially is going to be in serious trouble in a few more years.
 

dexter

Turbo Monkey
Sep 23, 2001
3,017
86
Boise, Idaho
The solution is nuclear fission. I'm not talking power plants but good old fashioned worldwide thermonuclear war. A few well placed bombs (New York, LA, London, Paris, Sao Paulo, Tokyo,Mexico City, Moscow etc) will take out a very large percent of the human population with limited impact on food and energy production. This would preferable be done with something like a neutron bomb that limit damage to the infrastructure but do a good job of killing off all the meat-bags.

Of course humans are incapable of making such difficult decisions but once the machines become self-aware they will have little problem executing the plan.
Haha. While I agree and am still young (24), I still want to make a change for my children sake. Does this mean I will ditch my 5.7 v8 truck for a bike? No, but it does mean purchasing food and energy consuming products that are sustainable and more efficient, when priced competitively or slightly higher than the alternative.

Whoever it was that referenced our over consumption of food is right on track. The average american (myself included) eats far too much food, for the worlds good and our own. We will never stop consuming meat, unless there is a wolrdwide epidemic involving meat/ poultry that kills millions. Even then the fattys will eat it (myself included).

Overall I like your post, bring on the mother f'n apocalypse!