Only radical democratic governance can break up the chummy relationship between –hidden– monopolies and political power.
EDITOR'S NOTE: “Tom Kenis is a Brussels-based writer focusing on fiction, sustainability, renewable energy, and electric mobility.”
The world’s advanced economies, and by extension its polities, seem to have hit a glass ceiling. More or less since the oil crisis of the early 1970s, economic growth; including real wage growth and other social metrics, has been anemic. Austerity sank its fangs into the pulsing veins of prosperity and, with authoritarians feeding off the discontent, into the heart of democracy itself. The cause is a technological anachronism rooted in a hijacked market.
Down to basics
Every machine, every technological paradigm, has a certain maximum potential. From the dawn of humankind, the distance a person on foot could cover in a single day hasn’t changed. This intrinsic speed determined for example how far a messenger could travel to deliver news of a military victory, how much firewood carried to warm a settlement, how many people societies could sustain in an orderly fashion. Along came oxen to plough fields and horses to carry messengers or warriors to increase that capacity. Followed by writing, mathematics, and philosophy, but for facility’s sake we’ll focus on the physical aspects of moving humans from A to B and physically getting stuff done.
The idea of burning coal for heat, power, and transportation truly was a revolution. Because a train is faster and stronger than a horse (between five and ten thousand times, depending on too many factors to get into here), your economy grows and grows until you’ve rolled out all the tracks and trains that your society has space and use for. The additional benefit of every added train follows a typical bell curve. It makes sense to deploy more of the new invention until you reach a saturation point. Think of twelve people tumbling over each other behind a garbage truck, but on a macro-economic scale. Your society literally runs out of steam until a new, more powerful or more efficient technology is ready to jumpstart a new growth cycle. The transition is by definition painful. Some societies choose to cushion the blow for its workers, some don’t.
Combustion or bust
A typical steam train transforms six percent of the intrinsic energy contained in a lump of coal into forward locomotion, give or take. Its successor the combustion engine transforms twenty to forty percent contained in a particular amount of gasoline into transporting your better half to the drive-in, say. Its advent ushered in a new cycle of economic growth, getting more done, faster, growing the cake as they say. Queue the golden sixties!
On the face of it, since then cars have come a long way. The modern automobile became more comfortable, faster, safer. One thing it did not become was more efficient. Petrol and diesel engine efficiency was twenty to forty percent in 1950. Seventy years later, it is still twenty to thirty percent (not counting the energy needed to pump raw petroleum from the ground, refine and transport it to a nearby fuel station). The rest is heat, noise, and snazzy marketing.
In the 1970s oil prices rose, cars shrunk, then grew again as the crisis eased. Today, hulking SUVs are the thing to have. Not only do you look stupid driving one, adding ever more cars to saturated roads makes them slower each day. The law of diminishing returns wields its inflexible baton. Not only does adding more cars fail to contribute to developed economies, lost working hours, but stress and air pollution-linked illnesses also shrink them. Fossil fuel cars are strangling us. Literally. But it goes further than that.
Hydrocarbons underpin myriad other products, even ones we don’t instinctively associate with oil. Carrots come from a field plowed by diesel tractors, fertilized by natural gas-based chemicals. Today, a century after its introduction, oil and the combustion engine have produced all the quality of life enhancements that they could. We have long reached the end of the tether. Economic growth, in the classical sense that governments measure, will only come at the expense of forcing workers to put in more hours, cutting social benefits. What grows is the size and complexity of bubble gum packaging, and administrations, public and private, dealing with increasingly convoluted payroll regulations. Of course, what you’re actually doing is not growing. It’s digging.
Fairy tales and magic wands
Human civilization uses other forms of energy besides coal and oil. But with the exception of a few countries, nuclear energy was never able to earn its keep. The 1950s promise of electricity too cheap to meter never materialized. On the contrary. The monopolistic grip of a handful of companies building civilian power plants, combined with their inability to solve the nuclear waste conundrum has kept nuclear power extremely expensive. The lack of progress occurred despite (or because of) government largesse: below-market loans and public insurance for a dangerous undertaking no private insurer would touch with a glowing ten-foot rod. Nuclear power has always been about national prestige, technological prowess, and potential or actual military applications. It was never a commercially viable proposition, despite what a gleefully uninformed politician or some guy on Twitter might tell you.
A spark at the end of the tunnel
While combustion engines are only twenty to thirty percent energy-efficient, an electric car uses 70 percent of its energy to move forward. Think of it this way: globally 50 million barrels out of 100 million that are pumped every day are used in transportation. This means 30 to 40 million barrels do nothing at all but heat the atmosphere. From an energy efficiency standpoint, regardless of where the electricity comes from, electric cars are an order of magnitude improvement over the current, terrible status quo.
The enemy of the good
The social and environmental cost of what goes into a battery is not negligible. But here too, between oil and electric the difference in the quantity of materials scratched or pumped out of the good earth is staggering. Cobalt, Nickel, or Lithium is mined, then used for five to fifteen years, then repurposed for stationary applications, then recycled, easily, and infinitely. Oil is pumped, refined, burned and gone forever.
The fact that electric mobility penetrates the top of the market first, shouldn’t detract from the overall benefit of moving all earthly transport to electric as soon as it’s feasible. Quite frankly, the fact that this hasn’t happened fifty years ago is in itself a historical anomaly for future generations to scratch their heads over. All the technological prerequisites for all-out electrification have been around for about as long as the combustion engine. We cannot wait until we’ve also solved new ownership models, fixed or nixed capitalism. Electrification is a quantum leap toward a radically lower global energy footprint. It should be done yesterday.
Roads will of course still be congested, albeit quieter and cleaner. Individual car ownership has been and is heavily subsidized, not just in Belgium. Car companies negotiate government handouts to maintain employment, while oil companies and numerous unsavory regimes receive tax breaks, subsidies, and support to keep said cars filled up. The constellation of vested interests to maintain a 50 million barrels a day toxic habit is real and powerful, but so are the laws of physics. The small number of electric cars on roads today is already scaring smart investors away from oil. As might government subsidies propping up mass-individual car ownership, one of the greatest market distortions of the modern industrial era. Perhaps.
Power to the people
The historical anomaly that is the continued existence of combustion engines in our world is symptomatic of an unhealthy concentration of power. Fossil fuel companies propose hydrogen fuel cells as a plan B and as a diversionary tactic, but also because it maintains the existing business model and power structure. Current industrial hydrogen is made from natural gas. Even so-called ‘renewable’ hydrogen made from water represents an expensive, centralized system that uses three times more energy than battery-electric transportation. It is, in other words, utter nonsense.
Electricity production meanwhile is rapidly shifting to renewables. Good. Utility-scale renewable energy systems are a step in the right direction. A Corona-related EU economic stimulus package could accelerate this trend. Meanwhile, big, centralized utilities will continue to charge big prices for electricity from large wind- and solar parks. Alternatively, smaller, decentralized renewable microgrids could be owned by small groups of people, for little money. Only radical democratic governance can break up the chummy relationship between –hidden– monopolies and political power. Alack, the pendulum doesn’t seem to be swinging that way. For now…