Getting off oil

backed-up interstate traffic

Traffic. September 22, 2012, Atlanta. Copyright Heather Meadows

Occasionally I ponder whether or not the US will ever get off oil as its primary source of transportation fuel. In other words, whether we will trade our gas-burning cars for otherĀ  modes of transportation, like trains and subways for longer distances and walking and cycling for shorter ones. Electric cars are perhaps a more realistic possibility, given the way our current infrastructure grossly favors cars. To switch to electric cars, we wouldn’t need to redesign roads or add rail; we’d just need to convert existing gas stations to electric substations.

I got to thinking about this today thanks to my Twitter friend Ara posting a link to an article about world gas prices, which includes this intriguing paragraph:

The world’s most expensive gas, according to the survey, can be found in Norway, where drivers pay $10.12 for a gallon of premium gas. While the country has significant oil reserves of its own, instead of using the money to subsidize vehicle fuel it goes to fund social spending such as free college education and national infrastructure.

This made me wonder if we could subsidize the shift away from oil by stepping down our subsidization of it. According to a study by the Environmental Law Institute, the US spent approximately $72 billion from 2002 to 2006 subsidizing fossil fuels. Unfortunately, this figure isn’t broken out by type, so we can assume some of this money went to coal as well. If the move was targeted toward reducing oil use, I can’t imagine ending coal subsidies at the same time. Any replacement transportation, whether it be trains or electric cars, would depend on electricity, which in this country is largely generated through burning coal. (Of course, burning coal, another fossil fuel, has many health, environmental, and non-renewable resource issues, and eventually we’ll have to get off coal as well.)

The upshot is, I’m not sure how much money we’d be able to free up for infrastructure change. And then there’s the question of how much that change would cost. Going completely to a rail-based system would be extraordinarily expensive; entire cities would have to be redesigned. Sprawl has spaced everything out so much that it’s rare for someone to be able to walk or cycle to their nearest grocery store, let alone to work. City planners would either have to come up with ways to link neighborhoods to shopping centers or to redistribute commodities along communal travel routes.

It’s hard to imagine how this would play out in rural areas, where people drive ten, 20 or 40 minutes just to get into town. Obviously there wouldn’t be a rail system to those people’s distant houses. In that situation, it doesn’t seem possible to completely replace cars with mass transit. A friend once showed me an overhead view of farming communities in South America in which homes are built around a cul-de-sac and their farms radiate out around them. While this model clusters rural residents together and makes communal transportation more feasible, it would require completely redistributing people’s land, and it would also require a huge cultural shift away from our current farm style of houses planted in the middle of their acreage.

Each city, town, incorporated area, and unincorporated area would have to come up with its own plan to reduce oil consumption. I can’t see this happening on a broad scale without a federal mandate–after all, individual states also subsidize oil–but then there would need to be federal oversight. I expect the same states that oppose national health mandates would oppose national transit mandates, so any such movement would take years just to get started.

Without more information, I can’t say whether or not this sort of thing will ever happen in the US. But I do hope our elected officials are at least thinking about it. I’d love to see us get off oil, for diplomatic as well as environmental reasons.

Foresight

The Associated Press has looked into the safety of U.S. nuclear power plants. Good.

Quake risk to reactors greater than thought

Okay, not so good.

The nation’s nuclear regulator believes a quarter of America’s reactors may need modifications to make them safer.

Fabulous!

I’m not particularly surprised, though. Humans are not forward-thinking. We have trouble with the big picture; it’s easier to live day to day. I’ve seen this repeatedly in my own life, in my reluctance to take chances even when they aren’t that big a risk and will almost certainly improve my situation. We’re creatures of habit. We get comfortable and we don’t want to break out of that zone. Or we do, but we feel trapped because we’re afraid. We’re more afraid of the change than of the danger of not changing.

Someday our complacency may well spell our doom.

Sometimes we fix things. Here’s a cool article from National Geographic (with wonderful NatGeo writing style) about the removal of some superfluous dams that endanger an ecosystem:

Largest U.S. Dam Removal to Restore Salmon Runs

In Washington State‘s Olympic Peninsula, members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe still tell stories of a time when the Elwha River was so full of salmon that a person could cross from one bank to the other by walking atop the thrashing bodies of fish struggling to move upstream.

No one has attempted such a feat since two dams were built, near the mouth of the river, in the early 20th century, blocking salmon runs.

But on September 15, officials in Olympic National Park will begin the long process of dismantling the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams on the Elwha River.

The article points out that the dams weren’t built in a forward-thinking way, and it was the residents’ “fear of change” that kept them in place for four decades after it was first proposed they be removed. I’m glad it’s finally being done…but this is a far more forgiving situation than, say, nuclear power plant problems. With disasters like Fukushima, I hardly think we have 40 years to correct our mistakes.

Up until recently I was a staunch supporter of nuclear power. Even in the days and weeks after Fukushima I was an apologist. But as time passed and more and more problems surfaced, my enthusiasm faded. I still believe that nuclear power is, in theory, a good option for cleaner energy. But I’m not so sure I trust humanity to be the custodians of that power just yet. Given our tendency to let things go, to maintain the status quo, to only improve when we’re forced to, I’m not sure nuclear power is worth the risk. Knowing how humanity is likely to take care of–or not take care of, to be perfectly honest–its nuclear power plants, supporting the continuance of nuclear power is essentially rubber-stamping future deaths due to accidents like Fukushima.

I guess the question is, how many deaths, and what kinds of death, are most acceptable? It’s not like coal doesn’t kill, after all. Perhaps coal is easier to swallow because those deaths are more…containable? (I still wonder whether or not we actually comprehend all the dangers of radiation.)

How do you make these decisions, when you know that pretty much no matter what, someone’s going to die as a result of your choice?

Cemeteries

Recently there has been what news organizations might call a rash of cemetery thefts in the area. People are, understandably, upset; they’ve spend tens to hundreds of dollars decorating the plots of their loved ones, only to have those decorations taken by someone else.

For me, though, this all begs the question: why spend so much money to leave flowers in a field?

Your lost loved one is gone. There’s no way of knowing if they see you putting flowers on their grave. The act of decorating gravesites is for the mourner, not the deceased–it’s a way of keeping that person’s memory alive. Why, I ask, do you have to do it in this certain way?

I say, remember your loved ones in a more special way. Scrapbook. Set aside a certain day or time to think about them. Tell your kids/friends/family stories about them. Write about them. Cook their favorite meal and enjoy it with others who miss them.

You can’t buy meaning.

I haven’t lost a lot of friends or family, knock on wood. My great-grandmother is buried in Mount Sterling, and I think I know where the cemetery is…but I haven’t been there since she was interred. I remember her when I’m at the farm, and through my grandmother, and through the stories my dad tells. When I think about growing my hair out, I think about how she apparently had hair down to her ankles when she was younger–quite a feat, even if she was barely over four feet tall.

My grandfather died close to a decade ago. I know where he’s buried, but I have only been there once or twice. However, for many years I drove his car, and every time I got behind the wheel I thought of him. Whenever I see cute old men I think of how cute he got towards the end, and how he was always flirting with his nurses. I will always remember his bright blue eyes and how joyful they always seemed. And even though I lost it in the fire, I will always remember that last picture I took with him.

I just don’t think we need a location to go to for remembering. I think we are the best vessels for that. No matter where we are, the ones we love are with us in our memories. We can bring them anywhere we want to, and share them with whomever we choose.

In a few hundred years, when all available land is filled with cemeteries, will we think they are as important as we seem to think they are now?

I would rather be cremated and strewn in a garden. There doesn’t need to be a marker. I’m forward-thinking. Things change. That garden might need to become homes, or it might need to transition back into wild territory. The needs of the living should not take a backseat to the dead.

Those remains are not your loved one. Your loved one is inside you and everyone they knew and in the world they shaped through their life. Not in the ground. I don’t see the point of using up so much land to create a place that you end up going to out of a sense of duty, and not a desire to honor the lost.

There is going to come a time when our descendants have to decide what to do with all the cemeteries, unless something changes now.

It’s also hot here in Augusta

I think I have a permanent band of sweat on my lower back. Ew.

You step out the door and your face is dripping. Glad my deodorant works.

I ran some errands over lunch and it about killed me.

Tonight is the goodbye dinner for my favorite weatherman; otherwise, I’d probably go swimming.

It’s hot

Apparently high temperatures in Saitama Prefecture have actually caused a railroad track to become warped.

Officials said the bend in the track was found about 300 meters southeast of Ogawamachi Station. One of the rails was bent inwards and the other was bent outwards, causing the tracks to shift as much as 5 centimeters.

[…]

Officials at the Kumagaya Local Meteorological Observatory said that the high temperature in Yorii, located next to the Saitama Prefecture town of Ogawa, hit 39.5 degrees Celsius on Wednesday.

Ha, 103 degrees? How about the 107 we had here in Augusta last Friday? You snooze, you lose, Japan.

Minicars

One in every three [Japanese] cars now a minivehicle

One official said the number of minivehicles soared in 2006 “because automakers took the wraps off a slew of new models and unleashed fully restyled models.”

[…]

Industry officials said the minivehicle category has been popular particularly with women and the elderly because they are easy to drive.

Such cars also benefited from fuel efficiency and low maintenance costs after the asset-inflated bubble burst in the early 1990s, they said.

Here’s Shiba, reporter for Pro Tennis magazine in the anime Prince of Tennis, in her awesome minicar. I want one!