Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What Nobody Else Will Say

I was watching Rachel Maddow's coverage of the current environmental clusterfsck that is the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and while I enjoyed the good Dr.'s usual coverage, I did note that there is one connection that few people are willing to make.

Rachel won't say it. None of her guests will say it. Not even the hard-hitting Vote Vets clean energy ad will say it.

Our oil addiction springs not from just general societal energy needs. The oil that Deepwater Horizon was harvesting isn't lucrative because we burn it for electricity, nor because it produces plastics, nor because we use it to lube bike chains and other various and sundry items.

Our oil addiction, the one that is driving conflict in the Persian Gulf, the one that is currently destroying the environment of the Gulf of Mexico, the one that is only now releasing its grasp on the Prince William Sound in Alaska... it is fed by another addiction: Our addiction to driving. Between 60 and 70 percent of the oil that we use in this nation is used for transportation fuel, much of that for single-passenger automobiles.

The Vote Vets ad urges us to move to clean energy sources- electric energy sources- to cut our dependence on foreign oil, but only 1-2% of our oil is used in power generation. Dr. Maddow's disdain for our environmental short-sightedness is refreshing, but the fact that her show is sponsored by a plethora of automobile manufacturers keeps her commentary firmly in the "outrage" column, not quite reaching solutions. The automobile has a stranglehold on this nation, and because nearly everyone in it is utterly car-dependent, nearly everyone will conveniently fail to connect the oil now gushing into our oceans and washing up on our shores with the oil that they pump into their vehicles every day. Clean energy is doubtless an admirable goal, but unless we start powering our transportation sector with it (and I don't mean electric cars), it will make very little difference in our oil consumption- and we need that difference badly.

The lesson from this massive oil spill is a clear one, and urbanists, livable streets advocates, and alternative transport activists need to shout it loudly and as often as possible- we need to end our dependence on oil, which means ending our dependence on the car.

(Figures are from the conservative Institute for Energy Research. They cite DoE.)


Chewie said...

Nice post.

I think you have to concede that plug-in hybrids or some such thing have to be a PART of the solution to oil used for transportation. Even in New York City, the most transit-friendly city in the country (that I'm aware of), 23.3% of workers drive alone to work. In rural areas, cars are going to be with us for the foreseeable future, and we need rural areas for agriculture.

My beef is that people usually assume that cleaner cars are enough, which misses the broad range of impacts that cars have on the environment and society.

JN said...

Chewie, I do think that plug-in hybrids, or pure-electric cars, will have to be part of the solution. (Mostly part of car-sharing, if I have my way.) I also think that the prospects for transit in rural areas are better than most people think- many rural residents live in towns, many of which are surprisingly walkable. My parents, who live in a town of 3,000 and work in another rural town next door, could start taking transit to work tomorrow if they chose. (They don't, but at least they carpool, and often motorcycle-pool.) And further, I think that anyone who drives to work alone in NYC should be banned from doing so, tomorrow.

I can foresee a future in which personal cars are banned in urban areas, and even rural towns rely primarily upon car-sharing and improved transit networks. However, such a future relies either on a spontaneous abandonment of the automobile by urban residents (coming, but oh so slowly) or tough top-down regulation (not coming in my lifetime).

Helen Bushnell said...

Chewie, people who live in small towns are often enthusiastic train riders, if there is a train for them to ride. Like JN says, many small towns are very walkable with distinct downtowns.

Chewie said...


Admittedly I'm not too familiar with rural areas, but I am under the impression that many of them aren't clustered like the small towns you describe.

Certainly transit has more of a prayer when people live in towns instead of scattered to the winds.

JN said...

Chewie- there are people who live scattered to the winds in rural areas, and these people are often farmers (though large agribusiness has taken much of that business away from the traditional small family farmers), but the people who support the agricultural economy- the shopkeepers, the teachers, the doctors and nurses, the mechanics and real estate agents and agricultural inspectors tend to live in towns, and they tend to far outnumber the actual farmers. Furthermore, not all rural areas are based on a farm economy- the town I grew up in, Wrightwood, is a resort community, based primarily around summer hikers and winter skiiers (and more the latter than the former). From my childhood home, I could walk to the town grocery store, the post office, the hardware store, a few small restaurants and a pizzeria, as well as my elementary school. (We were bussed off the mountain for middle and high school.) I spent most of my childhood on the back of a bicycle.

While there are people who live far, far off the beaten track, who will essentially always need their own, personal vehicles, I would venture that the vast majority of people could be well served by a comprehensive transit network, even in small towns.

This comment is turning into a blog post, so I'm going to turn it into one.

fpteditors said...

And it is time for you to realize that there is only one force on earth capable of accomplishing that. Free buses. We have to pass through fare-free buses to get to anything resembling a decent society.

JN said...

FPT- I still say that, while I'm strongly in favour of making the bus free, we also have to make the bus better. Our existing bus system here in Riverside is free to a few classes of people, UCR and RCC students among them, and transit use is far from universal among those people. (Looks like a good natural experiment to me. Transit use DID increase when it was made free... but it didn't increase to a level that it would make a huge environmental or land-use difference.)

We need free public transit, sure, but we also need BETTER public transit, and I think that the latter is far more important, outside of the most transit-friendly urban areas, than the former.