I’d meant to launch straight into a discussion of peak oil this week, and talk about how the ongoing attempt to extract a limitless supply of highly concentrated fossil fuel energy from a finite planet will run us face first into the same brick wall we hit in 1972 and 2008, with similar consequences. We’ll get to that shortly, but a funny thing happened in the comments to my post two weeks ago about the limits to growth.
That post, as I expected, fielded a great deal of pushback from people who wanted to insist that I was as wrong as wrong can be. The claims of my alleged wrongness, as I expected, were divided about equally between two predictable camps. On the one hand were those who insisted I was wrong because this or that or the other thing would surely overcome the limits to growth and let us keep on chugging along toward our imaginary destiny among the stars. On the other were those who insisted I was wrong because this or that or the other thing would mash us flat to the dust in one sudden apocalyptic stomp.
What I didn’t expect is that every one of the things that was pressed into one of these two roles was identical, right down to the last digit of the filed-off serial number, with the things that were pressed into exactly the same roles in the runup to our collisions with ecological reality in 1972 and 2008. More to the point, all of them were things that failed in the runup to those collisions, or in their immediate aftermath. The proposed solutions didn’t solve anything and the imminent catastrophes pulled repeated no-shows—and yet here we are again, more than a decade after the latter and almost half a century after the earlier date, and those same failed solutions and those same failed cataclysms are still being marketed as though nobody ever proposed them before.
For example, one of the most common technologies being proposed as a solution to peak oil these days is photovoltaic (PV) solar electricity. When I was still in elementary school, Scholastic Book Service—a program that sold cheap paperbacks to schoolchildren—offered a volume of solar energy experiments kids could do; I owned a copy, and one of the experiments involved making a simple PV cell from a sheet of copper. In the wake of the 1972 oil crisis, the silicon PV cells that had been devised for the space program began to drop steadily in price and improve in efficiency the way that new technologies generally do. By 2000 or so that curve had flattened out in the usual way as PV cells became a mature technology, and almost two decades of further experience with them has sorted out what they can do and what they can’t.
The result of all this experience can be summed up quite readily: the only people who think that an energy-intensive modern lifestyle can be supported entirely on solar PV are those who’ve never tried it. You can get a modest amount of electrical power intermittently from PV cells; if you cover your roof with PV cells and have a grid tie-in that credits you at a subsidized rate, you can have all the benefits of fossil fuel-generated electricity and still convince yourself that you’re not dependent on fossil fuels; but if you go off-grid, you’ll quickly learn the hard limits of solar PV. Don’t get me wrong, I’m wholly in favor of renewables; they’re what we’ll have left when fossil fuels are gone; but anyone who thinks that the absurdly extravagant energy use that props up a modern lifestyle can be powered by PV cells simply hasn’t done the math. Yet you’ll hear plenty of well-intentioned people these days insisting that if we only invest in solar PV we can stop using fossil fuels and still keep our current lifestyles.
On the other side of the balance, the specter of nuclear war is one of the canned cataclysms routinely trotted out in an attempt to argue that we’re all going to die anyway and so there’s no point in trying to prepare for any less apocalyptic future. As specters go, this one is practically leaning on a walker as it toddles its way to a nursing home; people have been insisting at the top of their lungs since a certain sunny August day in 1945 that an all-out nuclear war was not only inevitable but imminent. In case you haven’t noticed yet, they were wrong.
Nor is the failure of their predictions any kind of accident. Nuclear weapons are extremely effective at what they do; it’s just that what they do has been thoroughly misunderstood by the general public since those innocent days when nuclear weapons were wholly imaginary props in pulp science fiction tales. Nuclear weapons exist to prevent war between major powers. They do that by guaranteeing that no one can win. That’s why the bitter hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union played itself out solely in proxy wars and economic conflict, why the attempts of Arab states to invade Israel stopped cold once Israel had a credible nuclear deterrent, and why the mutual posturing between the US and China in the western Pacific has gone on for decades with scarcely a shot being fired.
I’ve mentioned all this several times in my blogs, and each time I’ve gotten a ICBM-sized swarm of denunciations insisting that I’m wrong and we’re sure to be nuked into oblivion sometime soon. It’s entertaining to compare the reasons these give to the history of nuclear weapons. What about nuclear weapons in the hands of homicidal megalomaniac dictators? (Stalin and Mao were way up there on the scale of homicidal megalomaniac dictators, and both had nuclear weapons; we’re still here.) What about nuclear weapons in the hands of religious fanatics? (That argument got plenty of air time back when the Reagan administration took office and installed Rapture-ready Christian fundamentalists in important cabinet offices; we’re still here.) What about nuclear weapons in a collapsing state? (The Soviet Union was bristling with nuclear weapons when it underwent total collapse; we’re still here.)
I could go on. Every scenario that’s been used to justify the claim that a nuclear war is inevitable has already occurred, except a major conventional war between nuclear powers—and there will be no major conventional war between nuclear powers, because nuclear weapons guarantee that such a war can have no winner, and therefore no such war will ever be fought. (No, not even by homicidal megalomaniac dictators; crazy, as the old joke goes, is not the same thing as stupid.) What I find fascinating about all this is that when I make these points, people don’t generally respond by saying, “Oh thank God, we’re going to survive.” Quite the contrary, it’s as though they’re disappointed to be deprived of the thermonuclear holocaust of their dreams.
These examples, though, are anything but unique. Our culture’s entire discourse about the future has been stuck in stasis since the early 1970s, rehashing the same supposedly imminent technological fixes and the same supposedly imminent apocalyptic disasters for almost half a century, as though nobody had ever suggested any of these things before and as though none of them has ever been put to the test. There’s a weird amnesia that surrounds our fantasies of the future, and the fact that only a few of us out here on the fringes seem to have noticed that it exists is perhaps the weirdest thing about it.
The amnesia I have in mind isn’t limited to the solutions, or rather nonsolutions, for our energy predicament being bruited about these days, or for that matter the apocalypses—perhaps we should call them unpocalypses—being marketed just as feverishly at present. With that in mind, let’s take a look at one of the most remarkable examples of the stasis I’ve described: the way that the American imagination has frozen up solid around the unworkable fantasy of the flying car.
Listen to most discussions of flying cars on the privileged end of the geekoisie and you can count on hearing a very familiar sort of rhetoric endlessly rehashed. Flying cars first appeared in science fiction—everyone agrees with that—and now that we have really advanced technology, we ought to be able to make flying cars. QED! The thing that’s left out of most of these bursts of gizmocentric cheerleading is that we’ve had flying cars for more than a century now, we know exactly how well they work, and—ahem—that’s the reason nobody drives flying cars.
Let’s glance back at a little history, always the best response to this kind of futuristic cluelessness. The first actual flying car anyone seems to have built was the Curtiss Autoplane, which was designed and built by aviation pioneer Glen Curtiss and debuted at the Pan-American Aeronautical Exposition in 1917. It was cutting-edge technology for the time, with plastic windows and a cabin heater. It never went into production, since the resources it would have used got commandeered when the US entered the First World War a few months later, and by the time the war was over Curtiss apparently had second thoughts about his invention and put his considerable talents to other uses.
There were plenty of other inventors ready to step into the gap, though, and a steady stream of flying cars took to the roads and the skies in the years thereafter. The following are just a few of the examples. The Waterman Arrowbile on the left, invented by the delightfully named Waldo Waterman, took wing in 1937; it was a converted Studebaker car—a powerhouse back in the days when a 100-hp engine was a big deal. Five of them were built.
During the postwar technology boom in the US, Consolidated Vultee, one of the big aerospace firms of that time, built and tested the ConVairCar model 118 on the right in 1947, with an eye to the upper end of the consumer market; the inventor was Theodore Hall. There was only one experimental model built, and it flew precisely once.
The Aero-Car on the left had its first test flights in 1966. Designed by inventor Moulton Taylor, it was the most successful of the flying cars, and is apparently the only one of the older models that still exists in flyable condition. It was designed so that the wings and tail could be detached by one not particularly muscular person, and turned into a trailer that could be hauled behind the body for on-road use. Six were built.
Most recently, the Terrafugia on the right managed a test flight all of eight minutes long in 2009; the firm is still trying to make their creation meet FAA regulations, but the latest press releases insist stoutly that deliveries will begin in two years. If you’re interested, you can order one now for a mere US$196,000.00, cash up front, for delivery at some as yet undetermined point in the future.
When people insist that we’ll have flying cars sometime very soon, in other words, they’re more than a century behind the times. We’ve had flying cars since 1917. The reason that everybody isn’t zooming around on flying cars today isn’t that they don’t exist. The reason that everybody isn’t zooming around on flying cars today is that flying cars are a really dumb idea, for the same reason that it’s a really dumb idea to try to run a marathon and have hot sex at the same time.
Any automotive engineer can tell you that there are certain things that make for good car design. Any aeronautical engineer can tell you that there are certain things that make for good aircraft design. It so happens that by and large, as a result of those pesky little annoyances called the laws of physics, the things that make a good car make a bad plane, and vice versa. To cite only one of many examples, a car engine needs torque to handle hills and provide traction at slow speeds, an airplane engine needs high speed to maximize propeller efficiency, and torque and speed are opposites: you can design your engine to have a lot of one and a little of the other or vice versa, or you can end up in the middle with inadequate torque for your wheels and inadequate speed for your propeller. There are dozens of such tradeoffs, and a flying car inevitably ends up stuck in the unsatisfactory middle.
Thus what you get with a flying car is a lousy car that’s also a lousy airplane, for a price so high that you could use the same money to buy a good car, a good airplane, and a really nice sailboat or two into the bargain. That’s why we don’t have flying cars. It’s not that nobody’s built one; it’s that people have been building them for more than a century and learning, or rather not learning, the obvious lesson taught by them. What’s more, as the meme above hints, the problems with flying cars won’t be fixed by one more round of technological advancement, or a hundred more rounds, because those problems are hardwired into the physical realities with which flying cars have to contend. One of the great unlearned lessons of our time is that a bad idea doesn’t become a good idea just because someone comes up with some new bit of technology to enable it.
Shall I provide a second example? Let’s take another of the classic ideas of pulp science fiction, the jetpack. That’s another thing the privileged end of the geekoisie loves to insist will really, truly arrive sometime soon, and once again, it’s something that’s been built over and over again since about the time liquid-fueled rockets first became practicable. The reason we don’t all fly around wearing jetpacks is simple: even the strongest man can’t carry enough fuel on his back to fly for more than a very short distance. There are hard physical limits on the energy density of fuels, and those make Commando Cody, Sky Marshal of the Universe, great fun as fiction but a flop as an engineering project. Yet jetpacks are stuck sideways in the collective imagination of a technofetishistic society, and so people keep on trying to build them—or simply insisting at the top of their lungs that progress will inevitably produce them in its own good time.
The same thing, finally, is also true of all the allegedly imminent solutions for peak oil that have been bruited about since the 1970s, and all the allegedly imminent world-destroying cataclysms that have been being predicted for roughly the same length of time. The reason that we can’t power our absurdly extravagant energy-wasting lifestyles with PV cells isn’t that evil petroleum companies have been stopping us from doing so. It’s because by the time it crosses 93 million miles of outer space to get to us, sunlight is a diffuse, low-quality, intermittently available energy source, and trying to use it to replace the extremely concentrated, high-quality, on-demand energy we get from fossil fuels is a nonstarter.
Again, that doesn’t mean that solar energy is a bad thing. It means that it can’t be used to do what current rhetoric insists it should do—and we know this because of more than a century and a half of capable experimentation with solar energy, going all the way back to Augustin Mouchot’s first solar thermal devices in the 1860s. A society powered by solar energy and other renewable sources is going to have a lot less concentrated, high-quality, on-demand energy available than we’re used to. Since very few people want to deal with this, in turn, that means we’re going to face a cascade of serious disruptions as that unwelcome reality arrives.
In the same way, the reason we won’t all die next Thursday from some supposedly unstoppable catastrophe is that those catastrophes are inflatable bogeymen puffed up by vast amounts of hot air. All of the allegedly imminent apocalypses I’ve encountered—and I’ve had hundreds of them shoved at me by people who want to insist that we don’t have to face a future of stagnation and decline—rely on at least one, and usually more than one, of three kinds of bad logic. First is the claim that some change will proceed in a linear fashion straight through to catastrophe, because all the countervailing factors that ordinarily apply will somehow pull a no-show just this once. The second is the claim that the extreme worst case scenario is the only possible outcome of whatever crisis is under discussion. The third—well, we should probably call it the Giant Space Walrus factor, the claim that some made-up factor like the 2012 pseudo-Mayan unpocalypse will pop up out of nowhere and gobble up the world, just you wait and see!
In the real world of human affairs, by contrast, linear changes morph into cyclic swings or dissolve in turbulence before they reach the point of absurdity, extreme worst case scenarios are the least likely outcome of an actual crisis, and the mere fact that nobody can prove that a giant space walrus isn’t about to gobble up the world provides no evidence that such a beast actually exists. Look at the track record of apocalyptic predictions and it’s hard not to notice that they have one thing in common: they’re always wrong—and the more obviously they’re being made as a way to keep from dealing with something a society really, truly doesn’t want to deal with, the more certain you can be that the giant space walruses du jour will wave goodbye with their photon flippers and go gobble up a planet somewhere else.
And of course that’s the situation we’re in today, as I hinted two weeks ago. The reason why so many people these days fixate on imaginary solutions to the problems of our time, and so many others fixate just as frantically on imaginary cataclysms that will render those problems irrelevant, is that so few people want to deal with those problems or their consequences. It’s precisely because stagnation and decline frame the everyday experiences of most people in most of the world’s industrial nations today that so many people cling to anything that will allow them to pretend that stagnation and decline either aren’t real or don’t matter.
None of those maneuvers will make stagnation and decline go away. If anything, by luring the clueless and the innocent to invest their time in waiting for solutions that won’t arrive and cataclysms that won’t arrive either, they simply guarantee that the stagnation will deepen and the decline will accelerate. There are certainly things that can be done to deal with the realities of stagnation and decline; some of them even involve adopting renewable energy technologies, on the one hand, or making sensible preparations for a range of non-apocalyptic but still serious troubles on the other. All of them, however, require us to look the future in the face, and shake off the habit of amnesia that keeps us from noticing that we’ve wasted fifty years pretending that a flying car is going to take us to Tomorrowland, when the one thing nobody is willing to talk about is that it’s not going to arrive.