Chariots of smoke: Innovation is key to the survival of our society, Pt. 12

Initially,  the plan was to continue the last piece with a look into consumables that are not eaten. However, this would be self-evidently redundant. As food production becomes more designed for taste rather than nutrition, it becomes more for entertainment than survival. As technology continues to update, with cheap, short-lived components, we see the same trend as with food; buy buy buy!!!

Instead, I’ll continue with a thought made in the second to last sentence of the previous part; the mentality of the ever bigger personal chariot. It’s without a doubt a status symbol within all societies of our species. On a cheap pump, who cared how many miles it gets from the gallon; as long as it’s big, loud and fast! I guess no other technology stands as a more appropriate example of how we currently approach cheap and abundant energy. However, even if we can produce new vehicles that do not have emissions of any sort are cheaper than today, this will be impractical for tomorrow’s communities.

Of all necessary behavioural changes, how we view our reliance on these wheeled beasts of burden will be paramount and will have the greatest impact on improving standard of living.

“Fully sick wheels bro!”

How we move ourselves across the earth has changed dramatically over the the past two centuries. However, much modern transport is little more than improved technology from the last 19th and early twentieth centuries (Smil,2009). Indeed, looking at more than 80 years (from 1923 – 2006) in the US, the average miles to the gallon (mpg) only underwent one major period of improvement; this followed the oil scare in the 1970’s, with vehicles improving from 11.9mpg in 1973 to 16.6mpg at 1991 (42%), after which improvements continued at a rate of 1.8%, (Sivak and Tsimhoni, 2009, and the graph from that paper below). Much of the results of improved efficiency has been offset by increasing demands on transport (Åhman, 2001). An example would be demonstrated by an 1.5% annual increase of CO2 emissions in the US from 1990 to 2007 (Boies et al., 2009) while the efficiency improvement rate was 1.8%. that is to say, that even with improvements, we still use more and more personal vehicles each year.

With internal combustion engines, it remains that you lose more energy than use productively. Sivak and Tsimhoni (2009) correctly suggest that as you improve the mpg, each subsequent improvement saves less fossil fuel (ie. 1mpg improvement on 15mpg compared to 40mpg will have more of an affect on the average yearly consumption.

If you look into the above references and their following references, there are many papers that discuss internal combustion engine improvements and alternative energy engines. With increasing vehicles per household and an increase in single person travel (in what appears to be ever increasing typical car size), there seems to be a number of short comings and certainly loss of potential when we predominately focus on alternative personal vehicles. As our population grows, and single person trips grow, obviously congestion will increase. As I’ve previously mentioned, if generation III and IV reactors can provide a radically increased energy resource, it seems mindless to assume that we can continue business as usual under a nuclear guise. Personal vehicles are increasingly flamboyant and inefficient. Continuation on this path will just mean more hours creeping along the highway and an increase in vehicle related impacts.

From here, then?

Although I have serious doubts regarding the typical “population growth = economic growth” attitude, with a finite space and resource base, I believe that it is still possible to increase our population size to as much as the predicted 9 billion and not only conserve biodiversity, but also improve many natural systems. The reason I mention this at this point is that I also believe that the biggest cause of change will not be through heavy political regulation or through a new age of environmental enlightenment, but more realistically through a significant shift in transport and infrastructure.

Arguably, our greatest impacts on environments are the result of transport and our physical footprint on the surface of the earth. It is here that the greatest change in perspective will have the greatest results on the larger environment and the next wave of cheap and abundant energy will be core to this, but I strongly believe that without a significant shift in the perspective, we will only repeat past mistakes to environments that are already stressed due to landscape use changes and climate change as discussed in the first 9 parts to this series. In part 14, I will begin to discuss how we can approach a changing world with innovation.

Sivak and Tsimhoni 2009
Smil, V. (2009) U.S. energy policy: The need for radical departures. Issues in Science and Technology Summer:47-50.
Sivak, M., and, Tsimhoni, O. (2009) Fuel efficlency of vehicles on US roads: 1923-2006. Energy Policy. 37:3168-3170
Åhman, M. (2001) Primary energy efficiency of alternative powertrains in vehicles. Energy. 26:973-989
Boies, A., Hankey, S., Kittelson, D., Marshall, J. D., Nussbaum, P., Watts, W., and, Wilson, E. J. (2009) Reducing motor vehicle greenhouse gas emissions in a non-California state: a case study of Minnesota. Environmental science and Technology. 43(23):8721-8729. doi:10.1021/es902019z

2 thoughts on “Chariots of smoke: Innovation is key to the survival of our society, Pt. 12

  1. More good stuff, though I have to admit this latest post left me scratching my head a little at what you’re trying to say. I get the feeling it’s just paving the way for the next parts in the series, I’m looking forward to your ideas on infrastructure.

    With respect to the food post – have you seen ‘the story of a coke can’? Irritatingly, I couldn’t find it with a quick google search, only a video representation which doesn’t do the relevant story justice. Effectively it highlights the sheer scale of the production system associated with the making of cans of coke – I might blog it, actually, with some commentary.


    1. Hmm…. maybe I’ve been getting a little too drawn into it – I don’t want to lose the reader. The next is on Sprawl followed by an idea of how changing lifestyles can impact a lot of related issues.. The problem in working like this I guess.
      No, I don’t think I’ve heard of the story of the coke can.


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