Tuesday, February 14, 2017

You are not in control

My recent book tour was very valuable, among other things, in gauging audience response to the various topics related to the technosphere and its control over us. Specifically, what seems to be generally missing is an understanding that the technosphere doesn’t just control technology; it controls our minds as well. The technosphere doesn’t just prevent us from choosing technologies that we think may be appropriate and rejecting the ones that aren’t. It controls our tastes, making us prefer things that it prefers for its own reasons. It also controls our values, aligning them with its own. And it controls our bodies, causing us to treat ourselves as if we were mechanisms rather than symbiotic communities of living cells (human and otherwise).

None of this invalidates the approach I proposed for shrinking the technosphere which is based on a harm/benefit analysis and allows us to ratchet down our technology choices by always picking technologies with the least harm and the greatest benefit. But this approach only works if the analysis is informed by our own tastes, not the tastes imposed on us by the technosphere, by our values, not the technosphere’s values, and by our rejection of a mechanistic conception of our selves. These choices are implicit in the 32 criteria used in harm/benefit analysis, favoring local over global, group interests over individual interests, artisanal over industrial and so on. But I think it would be helpful to make these choices explicit, by working through an example of each of the three types of control listed above. This week I'll tackle the first of these.

A good example of how the technosphere controls our tastes is the personal automobile. Many people regard it as a symbol of freedom and see their car as an extension of their personalities. The freedom to be car-free is not generally regarded as important, while the freedoms bestowed by car ownership are rather questionable. It is the freedom to make car payments, pay for repairs, insurance, parking, towing and gasoline. It is the freedom to pay tolls, traffic tickets, title fees and excise taxes. It is the freedom to spend countless hours stuck in traffic jams and to suffer injuries in car accidents. It is the freedom to bring up neurologically damaged children by subjecting them to unsafe carbon monoxide levels (you are encouraged to have a CO detector in your house, but not in your car—because it would be going off all the time). It is the freedom to suffer indignities when pulled over by police, especially if you’ve been drinking. In terms of a harm/benefit analysis, private car ownership makes no sense at all.

It is often argued that a car is a necessity, although the facts tell a different story. Worldwide, there are 1.2 billion vehicles on the road. The population of the planet is over 7 billion. Therefore, there are at least 5.8 billion people alive in the world who don’t own a car. How can something be considered a necessity if 82% of us don’t seem to need it? In fact, owning a car becomes necessary only in a certain specific set of circumstances. Here are some of the key ingredients: a landscape that is impassable except by motor vehicle, single-use zoning that segregates land by residential, commercial, agricultural and industrial uses, a lifestyle that requires a daily commute, and a deficit of public transportation. In turn, widespread private car ownership is what enables these key ingredients: without it, situations in which private car ownership becomes a necessity simply would not arise.

Now, moving people about the landscape is not a productive activity: it is a waste of time and energy. If you can live, send your children to school, shop and work all without leaving the confines of a small neighborhood, you are bound to be more efficient than someone who has to drive between these four locations on a daily basis. But the technosphere is rational to a fault and is all about achieving efficiencies. And so, an obvious question to ask is, What is it about the car-dependent living arrangement, and the landscape it enables, that the technosphere finds to be efficient? The surprising answer is that the technosphere strives to optimize the burning of gasoline; everything else is just a byproduct of this optimization.

It turns out that the fact that so many people are forced to own a car has nothing to do with transportation and everything to do with petroleum chemistry. About half of what can be usefully extracted from a barrel of crude oil is in the form of gasoline. It is possible to boost the fraction of other, more useful products, such as kerosene, diesel fuel, jet fuel and heating oil, but not by much and at a cost of reduced net energy. But gasoline is not very useful at all. It is volatile (quite a lot of it evaporates, especially in the summer); it is chemically unstable and doesn’t keep for long; it is toxic and carcinogenic. It has a rather low flash point, limiting the compression ratio that can be achieved by gasoline-fueled engines, making them thermodynamically less efficient. It is useless for large engines, and is basically a small-engine fuel. Gasoline-powered engines don’t last very long because gasoline-air mixture is detonated (using an electric spark) rather than burned, and the shock waves from the detonations cause components to wear out quickly. They have few industrial uses; all of the serious transportation infrastructure, including locomotives, ships, jet aircraft, tractor-trailers, construction equipment and electrical generators run on petroleum distillates such as kerosene, jet fuel, diesel oil and bunker fuel.

If it weren’t for widespread private car ownership, gasoline would have to be flared off at refineries, at a loss. In turn, the cost of petroleum distillates—which are all of the industrial fuels—would double, and this would curtail the technosphere’s global expansion by making long-distance freight much more expensive. The technosphere’s goal, then, is to make us pay for the gasoline by forcing us to drive. To this end, the landscape is structured in a way that makes driving necessary. The fact that to get from a Motel 8 on one side of the road to the McDonalds on the other requires you to drive two miles, navigate a cloverleaf, and drive two miles back is not a bug; it's a feature. When James Kunstler calls suburban sprawl “the greatest misallocation of resources in human history” he is only partly right. It is also the greatest optimization in exploiting every part of the crude oil barrel in the history of the technosphere.

The proliferation of small gasoline-burning engines in the form of cars enables another optimization, forcing us to pay for another generally useless fraction of the crude oil barrel: road tar. Lots of cars require lots of paved roadways and parking lots. Thus, the technosphere wins twice, first by making us pay for the privilege of disposing of what is essentially toxic waste at our own risk and expense, then by making us pay for spreading another form of toxic waste all over the ground. Suburban sprawl is not a failure of urban planning; it is a success story in enslaving humans and making them toil on behalf of the technosphere while causing great damage to themselves and to the environment. Needless to say, you have absolutely no control over any of this. You. Are. Not. In. Control. You can vote, you can protest, you can lobby, donate to environmentalist groups, attend conferences on urban planning… and you would just be wasting your time, because you can't change petroleum chemistry.

That the need to make people buy gasoline trumps all other considerations becomes obvious if we observe how the technosphere reacts whenever gasoline demand falters. When rampant wealth inequality started making owning a car unaffordable for more and more people, the solution was to introduce larger cars for those who could still afford one: minivans for the mommies, pickup trucks for the daddies, and for everyone the now common SUV. And now that gasoline demand is dropping again because of falling labor participation rate and an increase in the number of people who telecommute, the solution will no doubt be driverless cars which will cruise around aimlessly burning gasoline. Mommies may think that a minivan will keep their kiddies safer than a compact would (not true unless they have 8-9 kids). Daddies may think that the pickup truck is a sign of manliness (true if you are some sort of gofer/roustabout; pickup trucks are driven by picker-uppers, a subspecies of gofer/roustabout). But all they are doing is obeying “The Third Law of the Technosphere,” if you will: “For every improvement in the efficiency of gasoline-fired engines, there must be an equal and opposite improvement in inefficiency.”

So, perhaps you should just relax and go with the flow. After all, being a slave in the service of the technosphere is not immediately life-threatening… unless you crash into a tree or get run over by a drunk. But there is another problem: this arrangement isn’t going to last. The net energy that can be extracted out of a barrel of oil is quickly shrinking. In less then a decade the energy surplus required to maintain a car-centric lifestyle will no longer exist. If private car ownership and daily driving are required of you in order to survive, then you won’t survive. There goes at least 18% of the world’s population, which will find itself stranded in the middle of an impassable landscape. Oops!

Given that you are not in control, and given that the car-centric lifestyle is an evolutionary dead end for your subspecies, what can you do? The answer is obvious: you can plan your escape, then join the other 82% of the world’s population, which is able to live car-free. Some of them even manage to live entirely outside of the reach of the technosphere. Let their example be your inspiration.


Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Escaped car-ownership years ago. My means of transportation now are: feet, all-terrain, heavy-load-carrying pedal bike (with some low crawler gears), and my old-age bus pass. I'm also on the insurance of two car-owning friends, whose cars I borrow perhaps four times a year, to shift bulky freight, dogs, great-grandson, and such. As a result, though officially living below the poverty line in Britain (hah!), I have everything I need for a comfortable, though voluntarily-frugal, life; and the unspent part of my modest state-pension builds up over time, until I have to give it to my younger family members, who need it a lot more than me. All this through kicking the car habit - finally! Really, once your living circumstances are adjusted to it, you don't NEED a car. Whether you WANT one or not is up to your own attitude control...

Mister Roboto said...

That chart makes it literally graphically clear why oil-shale would be revealed as the virtual energy-sink it is without the enormous wads of printed money that the central banks of the world including the Federal Reserve are shooting out of canons these days.

NowhereMan said...

Should be loads of fun collapsing all that unnecessary infrastructure back down to local scale over the course of the next 10-20 years. On the plus side, we haven't been investing much in keeping it up anyway, so at least we've somewhat minimized the sunk costs we'll soon be writing off. That said, the end of the automobile age is going to be traumatic to say the least, especially out here in the western US, where humans in large numbers were never meant to live in the first place. The mass migrations east which that will cause in turn should just add to the fun!

Unknown said...

Ironically this blog was brought to me by Fiat.

Bryan Hemming said...

Whenever I've tried to say more or exactly the same thing over the last forty years I've been treated like a madman. Suggesting sensible options like taxing cars on capacity and length have been dismissed as insane. When I've pointed out smaller and shorter cars could actually create more parking spaces, reduce congestion, and produce pollution I've been met with anger. And if I go so far as to suggest car owning should be priced out in favour of car hire, taxis and public transport I am treated like a dangerous revolutionary. But to say that cars and mortgages are self-enslavement is to ask to be banished from almost every social circle.

Simple things like heroin would be legalised and cars would be banned if we legislated things on the basis of how many people they kill and the harm they cause to society doesn't seem to occur to the most intelligent of people. Cars are essential to life is the unchallengeable mantra.

If they are essential to life then I and the 82% I belong to should've become extinct more than half a century ago, for I have never driven and never owned a car. Yet I have occasionally been paid for my travel articles.

Most people have been brainwashed into believing they cannot live without cars. Perhaps if we told them cars make them fat some might listen, but I somehow doubt it. CARS MAKE YOU FAT! It's worth a try.

Nathan said...

How many people not on the dole -- either through the government, their parents, or rent-seeking activities in general -- in the industrial world do not have a car?

I see a lot of comments in this thread, and others in the peak oil community, about how awesome it is to be car-free, but a lot of it comes from people free most, if not all, of the burden of providing for themselves or their family.

To be clear, I do not see car ownership as a virtue. For the reasons described in the article however, I do see it as something made necessary by systems beyond our control, at least for people who are subsidized by various forms of social parasitism.

Also, I see a lot of bullshitting by the Boomer generation about car ownership and the industrial economy in general. They enjoyed the hyper-expansion of debt, a 2000% increase in the market, and in general over-leveraging the future in order to build their comfortable life outsides of the demands of the industrial economy, and now that they got theirs they "see no problem" is dismantling the industrial economy and immiserating those who are younger and therefore must rely on that economy to live.

beetleswamp said...

I've always bought used cars and fixed them up, patched them together with the minimum needed to keep them running (with exception of tires and brakes), and walk away when they fall apart. The problem is that the 80's and early 90's cars that a person could actually work on themselves are starting to age-out and need a lot more tlc than they used to.

Currently our family is priced out of cutting down our commute thanks to the real estate bubble, so in the meantime we ordered a custom electric cargo bike (that also works without the motor) to replace my old van that recently died. The initial cost was as much as three beater vans, but it's a lot more future proof and easier to store than a donkey in an urban environment.

The only down side is that in a gasoline crisis it will attract a lot of unwanted attention and our police departments are against issuing concealed carry permits like they are supposed to.

Ken Barrows said...


Good points. I can walk to work (2 1/2 miles, 4 km). But if the federal government decides to or has to reduce its deficit significantly, I may have to find a job where I have to drive a car. Of course, I may not be imaginative enough in considering future possibilities.

Repent said...

I love my car.

Public transit in the city I live in is a disaster. The buses are uncomfortable, smelly, dirty, crowded, and outrageously slow. It takes an hour on the bus to travel what I can do in my car in ten minutes. In my car I can travel in a temperature controlled leisure vehicle equipped with mug holders for hot beverages, a radio, and the sheer pleasure of not having to be around 'those people'. You can't take your groceries home on the bus, you have to get a cab. You can't take your pet to the veterinarian on a bus, you have to get a cab. At $2.65 a person for a one way trip, multiply that out by a family of four or more, and a car quickly becomes more affordable.

At the same time I know the car culture is doomed, and my conveniences are going the way of the dodo bird. I'll suffer later, and enjoy having a car while I can.

Cortes said...

Another, generally unackowledged cost is the run-off effect of metalled roads which shed water downhill with minimal, if any, absorption, stressing lower lying drainage systems as well as impeding traffic flow. Obviously not important in dry areas, but where significant rainfall is normal, a big problem. The response, of course, is over engineering of downstream watercourses.

What's that sound?


Cortes said...


I have no car. Gave it up years ago (though have occasionally hired).

JonL said...

Speaking as a long term petrolhead (partially reformed), I can, perhaps, console myself that I always preferred, small, efficient vehicles, over the excessive power crazed behemoths now abounding, the 5 motorbikes we have are all old and small....and our preferred means of transport are the electric pushbikes we've had for some years... Living in the country does enforce a certain requirement for vehicular transport - a van for transporting large/bulky items like hay, and a small car for runabouting - cycling 15km each way to the train station for the twice a day, heavily subsidised commuter train to the city with a vertical elevation of over 500 ft to climb, is not a good idea quite yet at our age..until we go on the (tiny) pension, anyway. Like Nathan says, we are trying to set ourselves up for that looming day (we are both over 70 now....)
Interestingly, my younger son does not have a vehicle license, prefers to use public transport for everything, preferably trains if he is on intercity business trips, and only learnt to ride a pushbike in his 20's.

alex carter said...

I hate cars .... so much. The way things are set up now, it's difficult to imagine how life would be without them, but we'll eventually have to not only imagine it, but live it.

Think about tires - the old trick of using a penny to check the tread depth? About a half-inch (1cm) layer of rubber is worn off over the life of the tire, it's ground into the road, granulated, aerosolized. It's going into the soil, and yes even into the air.

The accidents, the depersonalization (I noticed when I started riding my bike, people saw me as a person, on a bike, not a big metal box that might crush them)and on and on and on.

I just really hate cars.

And, this is just one aspect of the Technosphere. Here's a snippet off of Reddit, on how the Technosphere wants all the people it can get to learn "tech" and work for it dirt-cheap. People are growing up brainwashed to believer their only choices in life are tech or low-paying retail jobs.


DiSc said...

I am in the very fortunate position of *walking* to work every day.

That is after I take my kids to school *by bike*. My wife commutes by bus and train.

That is the way my country, the Netherlands, is planned: high population density (everything is close by), little room for roads and parking, bike roads everywhere, decent public transport.

It is not rocket science: all the ingredients were in place 100 years ago.

But as others have pointed out before, this is not something you can do on your own: the whole community and country have to be built in such a way that my daily commute on foot is possible.

And geography helps, too: it is hard to bike uphill, but the Netherlands is completely flat.

Pelham said...

Much of what you say is all too true. But much of the waste you describe provides employment, and if we were rid ourselves of cars, it would also be incumbent on someone, somewhere to find something for all those people to do. And how often does that happen?

Also, it must be said, the feeling one gets behind the wheel of a car commanding hundreds of horsepower cranked out by the explosive mechanical marvel of the internal-combustion engine provides -- at least occasionally -- a vital sense of command and authority for the vast majority of poor schmucks clamped into the typical idiot environment of the fascist-corporate world.

MyLiege said...

I enjoy the theory here, and agree with the end goal, but isn't it the tail wagging the dog? Sure, automobiles allowed for the sprawl which then reinforces the need for the automobile. But are we saying that the automobile was invented and designed simply to get rid of the volatile components of the crude oil crack?

Isn't it more likely that we have something here similar to the VHS vs Betamax scenario where a technically inferior option became the norm? Diesel engines are superior, but gasoline won out because it was a cheaper (throwaway?) product back in the early days...?

That said, I'd love to pitch my cars & live in a city with clean efficient public transport. I could even deal with living in a small town where I walk to everything I have simple tastes: let me work at home and then give me a park, pub, grocer & library within walking distance and I'd be happy. Unfortunately, my reality doesn't support it & neither would my wife!

Unknown said...

While I do agree with your views on gasoline, I doubt there will be a time when the US citizen is "stranded", unable to use their cars due to a shortage of gasoline.

Having worked in the industry, its quite clear that we have, for decades, been able to create cars that run 200 even 300 miles on a single tank. The problem is you need to ditch the AC, screens, extraneous knobs, metal paneling, automatic transmission (or CVT or double-clutch), and most importantly, the ability to drive above 50 mph with 200 hp engine.

We are in what I call the Caligula phase of modern US history. We take the abundance of cheap energy without a single thought. It solidifies the theory that without necessity, humans are lazy, egotistical creatures. But in the face of adversity, we are cunning, intelligent, and hard working.

In today's easily observable climate change, a huge amount of research has gone into environmental engineering, from solar technology to materials engineering to wastewater management, to alternatives to petroleum based fertilizers. The problem at this point is simply that of money: its much cheaper to simply continue the petroleum based society we have built up for the last 200 years.

But my main point had to do with your use of the word "technosphere". Technology is such a vast, all-encompassing term. It is ever fluctuating, ever growing/expanding, and seaks not just a single teleological point but a vast array of them. It does not solely seak the improvement of betterment of our lives, for then military technology wouldnt exist. Nor does it solely seak to control our lives, for then the internet would not exist. It is goalless in abstract.

So when you write, "Specifically, what seems to be generally missing is an understanding that the technosphere doesn’t just control technology; it controls our minds as well" is simply ludicrous. Your missing the very symbiosis that you present as being "missing" from today's world. Technology and humanity are intrinsically linked! We create technology that then either changes our life, or the lives of others, or no ones life, but it is created by us, and we grow and learn amidst technology so to say that technology controls humanity is missing not just half the picture, but the entirety of it.

This is why I detest over-generalized statements. No truer quote have I found than "the Devil is in the details" for without the details, in this case, the US auto industry, the US people, we end up debating for the purpose of definition, rather than understanding. And your post shows very little understanding, in my mind, of the history of the auto industry within the US, and how the population has changed by and from it. For example, where is the example of the Chevy Volt? Its a classic example of money over technology, something that doesnt fit your thesis but is an incredible tale that lead to the eventual takeover of hybrid and other electric technologies by the Japanese.

Where is the example of biofuels and the corn industries pervasive lies that have lead to the planting of millions of acres of more corn monocultures?

I think you would find, that the driving influence in modern CAPITALIST society is not necessarily technology, but capital, and its outflows, inflows, accessibility, etc. After all, humans still have the very neolithic tendencies that alowed us to survive in the world without much technology, and these tendencies, such as ego, greed, cunning, sex, etc. are all fed well in a society that glorifies the rich and famous, not the scientists and engineers.

Sergio I. Solórzano said...

I don't think the 82% car free population are gasoline/diesel free. I really wonder what % of the global population does not depend on oil for anything. If we define industrialized population those who get feed on the 10 to 1 calorie ratio of the industrial agriculture system, then I would say is less than 10% are gasoline /diesel free being optimist. So the survival of much more people is compromised.

Unknown said...

I've been thinking about this post all week. Strange how IMO the comments are taking your writing at face value, but I think I understand your using car ownership to ILLUSTRATE the point of the last two sentences as well as the EROI dilemma. (6+ billion dead? OOPS!)
The less than a decade estimate appears to be accepted. This is the first time I've seen you use a time frame. I presume it's the estimate of your "boring" engineering ;)

Well, maybe I'll get a custom license plate: SUKS2BU