Will the Post-Oil Future be Bicycle-Free?

The following is excerpted from an article by Kurt Cobb on his blog.  It’s an interesting read, and despite the ridiculous opening paragraph (IMO), it ends well enough.

U. S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood may soon be nominated for heresy-of-the-year award for an impromptu speech at the 2010 National Bike Summit last month. In that speech he said federal transportation policy will no longer favor automobiles over bicyclists and walkers.

As anyone who regularly rides a bicycle knows, this change is big precisely because automobiles and bicycles share much of the same infrastructure. But this very fact may bode ill for the bicycle in a post-oil future.

This distressing line of thought occurred to me recently as I was finishing James Howard Kunstler’s beautifully written post-oil novel, A World Made by Hand. I spotted not a single bicycle in its 317 pages. Why? Because in the novel the roads upon which one might ride are crumbling beyond passable. These roads are navigable on foot or by horse, but not particularly by anything on wheels.

But, wait, you may say, bicycles don’t need good roads! We’ll use trail bikes instead. All well and good. Still, where will the rubber for the tires come from? What we use now is synthetic rubber made from oil. Perhaps we’ll get latex from such places as Brazil and Malaysia, that is, unless world trade has broken down. And, the way in which bicycles are made today, we’ll need aluminum smelting operations for all the aluminum parts, even if only for repairs. (finish reading here)

I haven’t read Kunstler’s book, though it sounds intriguing.  Let’s be honest, there will always be cars.  At some point, Solar and Wind will be major, albeit not dominant, total energy contributors.  And, at some point, Nuclear Energy will become the norm because, despite the alarmist rhetoric, there actually is such a thing as safe nuclear energy…it’s called Thorium…which is particularly appealing given the topic of discussion at the Obama’s current nuclear summit.

I assume Cobb’s piece is merely intended to be thought provoking.  So here’s what I think:  While it may not be for a few decades, at some point that’s likely within the next two generations oil will be so expensive as to render it unfeasible for use in such things as roads, plastic and rubber.  Or as fuel, for that matter.  Will we run out?  Someday, probably, but before that happens it’ll be priced so high it won’t matter for you or me.  But I doubt we’ll just give up on cars. No, if nothing else, we humans are ingenious in finding technical solutions to our problems.  We’re already making bottles from plants.  And petroleum-free tires are on the way (Google “petroleum alternatives in tire production” for a little light reading on this).

So, dear cyclists, don’t fret.  Encourage your kids to learn their math and science and take comfort in the fact that a Porsche can now get twice the mileage of a Prius, which means our roads and bike paths aren’t going anywhere.

Until we’re all in flying cars, then we’re screwed.

Comments

Jeff Moser - 04/12/10 - 11:49pm

World Made by Hand was a great novel. It wasn’t necessarily Kunstler’s view of the future, but more of a “what if” post apocalyptic tale where everything shut down fast due to war and disease. Check out Kunstler’s book The Long Emergency for an incredible, well explained non fiction look at Peak Oil. A great history of oil, and the book really explains what is happening today. Another great documentary on Peak Oil is Collapse by Michael Ruppert, now downloadable on iTunes.

The U.S. was the world’s leading producer of oil at one time, but our production peaked in the 1970s, and has been declining ever since. We now import much of our oil. Many experts believe we have now reached WORLD peak production. We’ve used about half of the oil on the planet…the stuff that was easy to get at. Today, a lot more people want at the remaining oil, but it’s also a lot harder to get at. Low quality crude from the tar sands, oil fields in hostile countries, deep sea fields, etc… To extract this hard to get at oil and be profitable, oil has to be priced high. Unfortunately we’ve also seen that high priced oil puts the brakes on a growth economy (which needs high inputs of cheap energy). It takes energy from oil to get more oil (ships, trucks, tankers, etc). If hard the hard to get at oil uses more oil than it extracts, it will no longer be profitable, and extraction will cease. We don’t have to run out of oil to be in trouble…demand just has to outpace supply. We’re close to that point now.

There’s no way we’ll be able to power the current number of U.S. automobiles on alternative fuels. While cars may be around for awhile, they won’t be around in the numbers we see today. Also, solar, wind, and nuclear power generators take massive quantities of oil to build and maintain. Will we have these in place in time? Probably not in a failing economy. Solar, wind, and nuclear won’t power millions of electric cars either. They’ll keep the lights on and the refrigerators going. Thankfully the bicycle is still one of the most efficient machines ever built, not to mention affordable, and will enable people to be mobile for years to come.

That’s my take on things!

Kurt Cobb - 04/13/10 - 11:50am

I’m always grateful when my writing is featured on other sites and Tyler is correct that I am looking for people to show me how bicycles can survive and perhaps thrive in a nonindustrial post-oil world. So far, I’ve receive numerous comments and emails explaining just how feasible that is, much to my delight. Jeff Moser says many of things I would have said. But I offer the following reading from my columns on the science news site, Scitizen, as a corrective to Tyler’s assurances that we are heading for a glorious energy-glutted future because “we humans are ingenious in finding technical solutions to our problems.” I don’t disagree entirely with this sentiment. But the key question in my mind is whether we actually have enough time to develop and deploy those solutions. I think the jury is out on that issue, but it grows less and less likely each day that we will make the successful energy transition which Tyler expects. Here are the pieces which I believe offer an essential corrective to the optimistic view: Will the Rate-of-Conversion Problem Derail Alternative Energy?, The Nuclear Future That Never Arrived, How Many Windmills Does It Take to Power the World?, and Receding Horizons for Alternative Energy Supplies

Tyler (Editor) - 04/13/10 - 3:36pm

Kurt, thanks for the great reply. I am, if nothing else, an eternal optimist, and I tend to gloss over the technical difficulties of achieving things sometimes…but then again, many dreamers do. They see the end result first, then figure out how to get there. And I believe it’s the dreamers like Elon Musk and Boone Pickens that put their money, time and energy where their mouth is that will bring about the changes necessary.

I think often times science must lead the way to show what is possible, then the regulatory environment tends to follow along. While it’d be great if the dreamers were the ones making policy, at least we tend to get to positive results eventually in many cases…I just wish they could happen faster. Take stem cell research for instance. Originally it held great promise and hope and excitement, then certain segments of the population cried foul because of the source of the stem cells. That could have been the end of the story, but scientists saw the end goal…and the end goal is so fantastic…so they worked around the legislative and bureaucratic mess and found ways to get the stem cells they needed. Now, the media buzz about it has died down, but the dreamers keep plugging away and as boomers continue to age, and their children reach middle age, we’ll slowly but surely see new and amazing treatments and preventative care options.

Use rubber as an example. There’s been nothing in the news about how petroleum costs and shortages will affect our ability to put tires on our cars…which is a major concern. Yet Goodyear and others are quietly working away at alternatives, garnering brief mentions in PopSci magazines and trade journals for their progress. But one day, boom, you’ll see a flashy marketing campaign for this amazing, eco-responsible new tire technology that’s “brand new.” Never mind that it’s been in development for likely a decade or more.

I believe the same thing is happening with energy. If the other countries implement Pebble Bed and Thorium nuclear power plants and they prove successful, the U.S. will slowly but surely adopt them. It’s a shame we can’t be in a leadership position, but politics is what it is, and the Coal lobbyists have a lot of money to throw around. Fortunately, I don’t know anyone that actually believes in the myth of clean coal, and Obama seems at least mildly interested in getting nuclear power into the conversation.

Anyway, back to bikes. Concrete makes perfect bike paths and lanes, we don’t need asphalt. And unless I’m mistaken, concrete doesn’t require petroleum. It might require big heavy machinery to dig up the components, but if you look at industrial-grade dump trucks and bulldozers, they’re using electric motors at the wheels, with a giant engine only serving as a generator to power them. The other moving parts are hydraulic. Is it so much of a stretch to imagine that small powerplants (nuclear powers submarines, after all) of some sort could replace the diesels…or, wait for it, biodiesel. Problem solving all over the place, right?

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