The Cost of Modernity

Fossil fuels also produce an enormous amount of energy at a fairly low cost—that’s why we use them in the first place. We depend on them because rich countries, such as the United States, have failed to invest in any other arrangement. But the fossil-fuel companies that have plotted and lobbied and coddled to prevent that investment aren’t doing so to preserve their trillions in subsidies. They want to keep us using their product. They want to keep us subsidizing their profits with our lives.

Robinson Meyer, who covers climate change and technology for The Atlantic, wrote the above passage in a piece today. I think it is a great example of the cartoonish way American journalists cover the problem of climate change as one of the evil fossil fuel industry thwarting the plucky environmentalists who could solve our great dilemma if only they could prevent Big Oil from using their money and power to block progress. The truth is much more complicated.

To his credit, Meyer does at least blow up the IMF’s ridiculous $5.2 trillion subsidy number, noting it is about 17 times larger than a more realistic (but still anti-oil slanted) accounting. While correctly pointing out that the costs of fossil fuel usage are borne by all (and none) of us, Meyer cannot stop himself from casting ill intentions onto the fossil fuel industry.

This sort of hyperbole is completely unhelpful to the political chances of climate change policy. The notion that we depend on fossil fuels because rich countries have failed to invest in any other arrangement is both absurd and patently false.

To start with, we use fossil fuels not only because they are subsidized to be “cheap” but also because they are very portable, can be processed to create a lot of profitable byproducts that modern life depend on, and our industrial, commercial, transportation, and energy systems are path dependent on the technology, skills, and infrastructure of the current system.

Portability: Being able to capture fossil fuels and move them from one place to another without losing potential energy is not replicable with wind, sun, or water. What good is your solar farm in Arizona to people looking to power a generator in North Dakota? You’d have to put it into a battery where it would lose power while being transported and as time passed or transmit it over long distances, again with a great deal of entropy. A tank of diesel fuel is a tank of diesel fuel whether I burn it in Tucson or Bismarck. This matters.

Byproducts: Growing up in Lima, my dad worked at the chemical plant adjacent to the oil refinery. You’ll see this set up anywhere fossil fuels are processed. Chemical plants use crude oil byproducts to create plastics and a whole host of other products through the refining process (gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel, lubricants, paraffin wax used in cosmetics, LPG, fertilizers, and asphalt for example).

Path Dependency: All of this contributes to the path dependency which makes fossil fuels so hard to quit. None of it was an insidious plot by moustachioed men smoking cigars in a dark room who secretly want to kill the world with fossil fuels in order to enrich themselves. It is historically what happens whenever technology is so widely adopted that the costs of shifting to another become prohibitive. The most famous example of this is the QWERTY keyboard. Here is a design feature that was literally created to slow down typing speed because the typewriter technology of the late nineteenth century could not handle the speeds with which humans could churn out characters. Once typewriters (and later computers) caught up it was too late to change our keyboard layout. Too many people had used it for too long. The scale of upfront loss of productivity (along with the cultural angst and anger that would accompany it) made it impossible to swap out for a more efficient layout. It was not some plot by Big Type to keep us dependent on their inferior keyboard—it was simply an unforeseen consequence of an earlier solution.

Put quite simply, we use fossil fuels because they have more applications and are more flexible in use than any other current fuel source.

So that brings us to the idea that the fossil fuel industry is standing in the way of renewable research. If they are, they are doing a terrible job at it. Trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of hours of research and design have gone into alternative fuel sources. Scores of start-ups, universities, and established energy companies have invested deeply in wind, solar, and other non-fossil fuel approaches to energy production. I’ve worked at major universities where investment from fossil fuel companies worked side-by-side with government grants, charitable donations, and other revenue streams to research renewable energy. “Big Oil” isn’t lobbying to prevent research and development in renewable energy.

Even if they could and were doing this, how in the world could actually that work? They can no more prevent you from choosing to study renewable energy application than the Catholic Church can prevent you from studying drugs that prevent conception.

Oil, gas, and electric companies are not sitting around plotting to “keep us subsidizing their profits with our lives.” They are simply meeting energy demands with products consumers want. No one at Marathon Oil put a gun to your head and made you buy that SUV. The natural gas company isn’t forcing you to keep your home heated to 70 degrees when it is -10 outside. Nor are electric companies holding people hostage in the deserts of the southwest and forcing them to air condition their homes to survive the 120-degree heat. Big oil didn’t make you log on to the device you are reading this from—but it did provide the materials to build it, the transportation to get it to you (and the roads they drove on), and very likely the power that allows it to operate.

The great acceleration of global technology– including the communications and transportation revolutions– were powered by fossil fuels. We built our entire modern world around them– from our centers of knowledge to our places of worship and everything in between. Americans, and really all people living in societies that have been penetrated by modernity (basically everywhere, if FaceBook’s membership numbers are to be believed), are not ready to go back to living in a pre-fossil fuel world and we have yet to tech our way to a post-fossil fuels future. We won’t be able to leave fossil fuels behind until one or the other happens. It has nothing to do with big oil and everything to do with us.

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