Take the Chevy Volt. I’m Backing the Horse.

by Jason Peters on June 29, 2011 · 20 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low


Rock Island, IL

It was Jim Kunstler, I think, who somewhere described The New York Times as “that once august, now clueless, newspaper.”

The most recent Sunday Review section (June 26) goes some distance in corroborating his characterization. I’m not referring to Frank Bruni’s piece on gay marriage, in which we’re asked to reconcile the oils and waters of these two remarks: one, that in the future “this issue will … hinge less on archaic religious doctrine”; and, two, that “the wish and push to be married cast gay men and lesbians in the most benign, conservative light imaginable, not as enemies of tradition but as aspirants to it.”

Nor am I referring to an article titled “Even for Cashiers, College Pays Off,” in which we are assured (once again) that salary is the measure of an education.

I’m not talking about the piece in which shyness and caution and introversion are all finessed to mean the same thing and in which we are expected to infer from the astonishing fact that incurious pumpkinseed sunfish are caught less frequently than their curious counterparts an evolutionary benefit to being a “sitter” rather than a “rover.”

I am not talking about Thomas Friedman’s tactic of asking, WWRD? (where “R” means “Reagan”) or of Maureen Dowd’s obligatory sneers at the Church of Rome.

I’m talking about the lead article, “Is this Our Future?” which is a jubilant toothy cheer for electric cars, especially the Chevy Volt. The article ends thus:

Eventually, we’ll have batteries that can get 300 miles per charge, and an infrastructure solution that will replace gas stations.


(Ms. Dowd could only wish that the president’s “progressive worldview” were so sharply focused.)

Now, for the record, I find the gay marriage debate a little tiresome and not particularly interesting; I think mere monetary return as a measure for the “investment” of college tuition the invention of dullards; I regard as head-scratching evolutionary talk and the speed at which it races toward its reductive explanations (N.B. I am speaking here of the talk); I expect the answer to the question WWRD? to be “lie”; and in response to the theological ignorance of the merely glib I can only say, “whatever, lady.”

But the damnedest thing is that in the lead article on the electric car there isn’t a single mention of how to generate electricity cleanly or dispose of played-out lithium batteries responsibly.

For, apparently, electricity is generated cleanly in the narrow recesses of stud walls where all the outlets are, and all batteries are made from beanstalks that are readily compostable.

And, of course, the article ends (as the aforementioned quotation suggests) with the obligatory expression of blind faith in progress and the assurances that things will be better in the future—because the future, as everyone knows, is a better place (even though it’s a time).

If it were not so, the advertisers would have told us. They go to prepare a place for us. And where they are, we may be also.

I said in conversation recently, to my auditor’s utter bafflement, that I fully expect horses to be the technology of the future and that learning to drive a team would be good work for our rising youngsters.

This isn’t cheek. I mean it. What we did when we discovered how to use oil was build a Hot Wheels world with no thought for its limits. We backed the horseless carriage, and now it is coming up lame in the final turn.

But that isn’t news that’s fit to print. So I’ll say it plainly here: there are no guarantees that we can keep the world we’re habituated to running, nor is it clear that we’re entitled to that world. Not only aren’t we entitled to its standard—“everything all the time,” as The Eagles sang—but the circumscribed globe cannot provide for it, certainly not for a population bloated on antibiotics and the easy transportation of easily produced calories.

Or, to put the matter more grimly, it may well be that a population like the one that preceded the industrial revolution is the only population sustainable. It may well be that we’re about to learn a grim lesson: the world runs not on oil and modern medicine but on sunlight, and by sunlight I mean not ancient but contemporary sunlight.

That it can run on ancient sunlight we know. That it can run on ancient sunlight only temporarily is a fact of which we are insufficiently aware. That it runs in perpetuity only on contemporary sunlight is a fact we’d better get our minds around.

Will wind rescue us? The accompanying illustration to the NYT article I take issue with suggests as much. But that’s doubtful. If you think otherwise, do a little experiment in the attic: ask yourself whether wind power can build wind power, transport wind power, erect wind power, build an infrastructure for wind power, and repair wind power.

It can’t. Not no way, not no how. We’ll cannibalize the remaining oil to build something that, absent the oil, we can’t keep running.

Of course we’ve got lots of coal left, and we can run electric cars on coal for a long time. But coal isn’t clean and can’t be made clean, no matter how the coal industry spins “clean” coal. And coal is still ancient, not contemporary, sunlight. Like oil, it will go away for good someday. And when it does, our children will call us “thieves” for having helped ourselves to more than our share of it.

But where in the pages of that once august, now clueless, newspaper is there room for such talk? Column inches must be devoted to Important Matters: the college grad’s return on investment, the evolutionary benefits of x, and, in an age of failing marriages, extending the privilege of failure to every Tom, Dick, and Harriet.

Pretty soon the news that’s fit to print will be a luxury, like irony or finding yourself or working out your gender identity. It will get pushed into the small corners of everyone’s spare time. Soon enough we’ll have real work to do. Best start doing it now.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar C R Wiley June 29, 2011 at 7:13 am

Nice. Like the fossil fuels you mention, the doctrines you lampoon will pass away — like cars, they require a short-sighted faith in modernity to keep running.

avatar meunke June 29, 2011 at 9:52 am

Nicely written, sir.

Regarding oil, has Kunstler addressed the Russian Theory of Petroleum? I’ve just now started to read his stuff, so he may have and I’m just not aware of it.

avatar Michael Umphrey June 29, 2011 at 10:55 am

You could dismiss it with a clever sentence or two, but doesn’t nuclear need a mention in a piece like this?

avatar Laura June 29, 2011 at 11:36 am

So could you suggest some kind of primer on the energy crisis and the existing options for an oblivious young ignoramus like myself? I have never gotten a good grasp on it just from reading snippets of news articles (from sources like the NYT…), and I don’t want to just be a default cynic with no real idea what’s going on.

I’ve read some Wendell Berry (albeit mostly the novels) and been at least skimming most of the FPR blog for a year or so, but I still feel like I’m not sure what sort of alternative lifestyle I should be leading if all these localist prophecies are on the mark (and I’m inclined to think they mostly are). Not that I expect a blog to help me much—I get that this is mostly for people who are already well-versed in these things and running their own 150-acre organic farm. I guess I need to move beyond casual blog reading in order to understand the fundamental issues. I searched in vain for some kind of “futher resources” page here, but maybe I missed it… thanks for any help.

avatar Fatima June 29, 2011 at 11:54 am

@Laura… Here is a link to a blog that may be able to answer some of your questions.

avatar Rudi June 29, 2011 at 4:30 pm

A fine and pithy statement of some fundamental truths.

Laura, I recommend “The Long Emergency” by James Howard Kunstler, “The Long Descent” by John Michael Greer, and “The Party’s Over” and “Powerdown” by Richard Heinberg.

avatar Steve Berg June 29, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Batteries tend to be environmentally nasty, and as Dr. Peters points out, the generation of electricity has some side effects as well. What amazes me the most when reading libertarian blogs is the incredible faith in technology to solve all human problems. The faith of fundamentalist snake handlers pales in comparison. Libertarian faith reminds me of the cartoon I saw when I was learning computer programing. It showed two men looking a a massive flow chart on a blackboard. One of them was pointing to an action box containing the words, “and then a miracle occurs”, and says, “I think we need to do more work here!” No kidding. Inevitable Progress burns up 4 billion years of petroleum in little more than a century, but not to worry because we still have 500 years of coal left, maybe. So what happens then? Another miracle occurs.

Dr. Peters is definitely right about horses. The future of oxen looks pretty bright, too.

avatar Roger S. June 30, 2011 at 8:45 am

For my part Jason I wish you would write a daily essay on the stories found in the New York Times. This was very entertaining and any one of the stories you capsulized could have made an interesting essay in itself. As I understand the lead story, its author sees our entire future summarized in a Chevy Volt. Now this is something to look forward to. Here I am, getting on in years, wondering in despair what the future might be when suddenly the clouds part and a brand new chevy volt appears from the heavens, a vision of the future. At last, I have something to live for, the day I can hum to work or even go on a 300 mile trip without recharging. Fantastic!!!

avatar T. Chan July 1, 2011 at 2:51 pm
avatar John Gorentz July 1, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Wind is built on sunlight.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins July 1, 2011 at 10:07 pm

“there are no guarantees that we can keep the world we’re habituated to running, nor is it clear that we’re entitled to that world.”

This is true, and I hope all those who glibly announce that “the world is not overcrowded” will study your grim prognosis for how many people the earth can really sustain.

But when you speak of horses, have you considered where we would put all the manure piling up in our streets, if everyone took your advice right now? Every mode of transportation has its own form of pollution, and too much of it IS a public health hazard.

avatar Stacy July 4, 2011 at 8:49 pm

Siarlys Jenkins: After composting, we’ll put the manure where we used to put it–on our fields.

avatar Zac July 5, 2011 at 5:26 pm

I find the human battery to be most efficient. When you can bike faster than horses trot, all this man-battery and dodging rot is sufficient.

avatar Anonymous July 6, 2011 at 12:22 am

Maybe I’m misinterpreting this, but does anyone else feel that this article presents a false dichotomy for the sake of a drama?

Jason bashes the NYT and progressives for their extreme unshakable faith in technology. Meanwhile, he suggests the other extreme instead, that of having no trust in technology at all.

True, we’re left with an entertaining article, but one that reminds me more of Christians and Atheists duking it out on Youtube in all their self-righteous indignation than of a real attempt to synthesize a solution.

Current life styles built on fossil fuels are in need of scaling back for sustainable living just as much as alternative energy sources are likely to make up a significant chunk of what will be lost when fossil fuels go kaput.

In the end, suggesting total collapse and a return to agrarianism seems to be defeat. In the same way, blindly carrying on like everything will be just peachy, seems to be denial.

avatar Patrick July 6, 2011 at 3:11 pm

This article is so full of glaring holes and massive assumptions, it’s hilarious. Not to mention the arrogance of thinking you can accurately project the course of technological development for the next 500 years. Do you truly have so little faith in our God-given human ingenuity, that you believe once oil runs out humanity will never again be able to find an adequate power source to allow a technologically advanced civilization to thrive? That oil is the end of all power sources, and that once it’s gone, the age of technology is over and it’s back to subsistence agriculture and using animals for transportation, with enough resources to sustain a global population of only a few million?

You talk of wind power as if it were the only alternative to oil. Of course, you ignore the fact that there are other abundant and largely unexplored energy sources out there, running on known scientific principles that, given time to develop the technology, we should be able to tap.

Granted that after 50 years of research, the dream of energy from nuclear fusion has proven illusive, but we know a net-positive fusion reaction is physically possible. We see an example of it burning above our heads every day. Just because we have not yet succeeded in the relatively short time we have been researching it, how can you say that even in 500 years, NO ONE will ever develop successful fusion energy? Or any other form of safe and abundant nuclear power for that matter?

Technology has advanced so much in the last 100 years, that someone from the 1800s could not even begin to imagine the technologies we have today. And yet you presume that in the next 500 years there will be no fundamental advancements in energy production beyond what we have now, and once current fuel sources run out, there will be nothing new to replace them.

Who are you to decree that humanity has reached its technological peak, and can advance no further? I grant that technology has its limits, and that we may eventually reach such a point. But I have never seen any sign that we are already at that point, less than 200 years after industrialization first began, and the only way to go from now on is down. There are plenty more ways technology can advance, and if future advances follow anything like the same pattern of the last 200 years, they will be accompanied by advances in energy production sufficient to power them. Perhaps society must endure a period of painful transition while new energy sources are developed, but to simply give up and declare that technology is done for smacks of almost unbelievable defeatism.

It’s also not very Christian. Was it not God who commanded us to “fill the earth and subdue it” and who created a natural order capable of being understood and harnessed by human minds made in his image? Somehow I doubt that same God would want us to simply give up on science and technology and resign ourselves to the deaths of billions of people whose lives are now sustained by the very technology of which you eagerly anticipate the demise. And that, all for what? The fantasy (shared by most of the authors of this site) of returning to an idealized and romanticized past that never existed to begin with? Or a “sense of place” that even if people of the past actually had such a thing, they would never have had time to appreciate because they were too busy working their butts off to stay alive? No thanks, I’ll pass.

avatar Michael Snyder July 8, 2011 at 2:15 pm

The energy crisis will be solved with sunlight and a splash of water – and not by some new technology, but by an ancient and natural process. Researchers all over the world are racing to reproduce a trick that every plant knows. Photosyntheses relies on enzymatically “cracking” water into hydrogen (which the plant uses as an electron acceptor) and oxygen (waste). The business end of the oxygen reducing compound that plants use is composed of 4 atoms of mangenese and several of oxygen attached to a protein matrix. Once commercially viable, the enzyme, combined with a little sunlight, will give us all the hydrogen we need. Burning it will produce water vapor.
See Nick Lane’s “Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution for a more complete layman’s explanation.

avatar S. Petersen July 8, 2011 at 7:33 pm

Yeah, I’m betting with the previous two comments. Our danger is not in running out of inventions and advancements, it lies in running out of virtue. Civilizations don’t (usually) run out of things, they get what’s coming to them.

avatar Anymosue July 9, 2011 at 1:57 pm

“Or a “sense of place” that even if people of the past actually had such a thing, they would never have had time to appreciate because they were too busy working their butts off to stay alive?”
And what are the benefits of the alternatives? Do you enjoy gay parades, abortion and sexual perversion? Life is never perfect, but social degeneracy is greater today.

avatar Anymouse July 9, 2011 at 9:48 pm

I misspelled my name in the above post.

avatar Patrick July 12, 2011 at 8:08 pm

“And what are the benefits of the alternatives? Do you enjoy gay parades, abortion and sexual perversion? Life is never perfect, but social degeneracy is greater today.”

Hehe, with respect to those things I’m right with you buddy. They’re all disgusting moral evils that are rotting the moral core of our society, and should be opposed whenever possible (though the only real solution to them is spiritual revival.) However, I just don’t happen to think our only choices are either to live in a morally corrupt technological society, or be moral but abandon technology and live the like the Amish. Rather than pining for an imaginary past that never existed, we Christians should be leading the way to a better, more moral, and more technologically advanced society than before. Technology is not the cause of moral degeneration, and abandoning technology will not solve it. Only Christ can do that.

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