In 1999, the Ford Motor Company introduced a vehicular whale named the Excursion. The SUV craze was getting into full swing, but even in that context the huge (5.75 meter/ 18.9 foot) barge generated nasty press for its school-bus demeanor. Here is the essence of a typical review of the day, from the first two paragraphs: “…largest sport/utility vehicle on this, or any other, planet… In traffic, you pick one lane and stay there, lest you overlook something small-like a stretched limo-in the next lane… Filling its gargantuan 44-gallon tank nearly equals a monthly car payment… its 50-foot turning circle approximates the Arctic Circle…” It goes on and on but you get the idea.
In 2016, the current Cadillac Escalade EXT is virtually the same size (5.69 m/18.7 ft) and yet is described by the same publication as “comfortable, luxurious, still plenty spacious… handles great for a massive truck…handsome, intimidating…”
What was once ridiculed as an obscene fuel-swilling pig due to its size has now become a handsome, spacious and great-handling fuel-swilling pig, because we are accustomed to larger vehicles and prefer the comfort they provide. From an efficiency standpoint, there are almost no grounds to change opinion; fuel economy has crawled from an estimated 12-13 mpg for the Ford to an officially rated (and probably optimistic) 16 for the Cadillac. The planet has been saved.
What does this have to do with anything? Well, the comparison is a handy one because it clearly demarcates how we deal with comfort gluttony – we never have an excess of comfort or convenience, we simply punch more holes in our belts. This of course directly relates to energy, because the same attitude impacts much of our lives just as cheap energy does. We choose to consume ever more because it’s there, and it’s cheap. Efficiency gains are often offset by demands for more – more power, more space, more comfort, more convenience.
Automobiles are only one example, but a very illustrative one. They illuminate an important point usually missed by environmentalists – people most absolutely do not optimize energy choices; they use a portion of efficiency gains for good, and a portion for evil.
Alright, evil is a bit harsh, but it’s the thought that counts. As an example, someone driving a 25 mpg car might decide to upgrade to a more efficient one in order to help save the climate. An option might be a similar car that is much more green in nature and gets 60 mpg but accelerates like a slug. But the average consumer does not like to accelerate like a slug, and will more likely than not go for an option that gets 30 mpg but with much enthusiasm. Of course a certain segment is purely in it for the efficiency, but then they always were – they were the people that drove tiny cars 30 years ago to squeeze out maximum mileage, and they do the same now with EVs and hybrids. The rest of us are just normal people that go for comfort and convenience.
Carmakers know this. Most hybrid vehicles have very impressive performance, meaning that some efficiency has been sacrificed to provide extreme levels of performance. The vaunted top-line Tesla model is billed as the world’s fastest accelerating car, faster than a $2.3 million Bugatti Veyron.
How in the world does that make sense? The whole ethos of Tesla is efficiency and sensible use of resources. While that performance is truly impressive, the downside is the huge amount of power it requires, meaning rapidly depleted batteries and a sheepishly quick return to the electrical umbilical cord. And customers will use that performance; they don’t choose the most powerful and expensive battery pack that offers little gain in range but much in accelerative bragging rights (the fastest Teslas are famous for their “Insane” and “Ludicrous” buttons that unleash full power for short bursts).
We can’t see where electricity comes from so assume it’s near free, so feel comfortable wasting it. It’s never free, not even from the wind and sun, because a lot of expensive infrastructure needs to be put in place for us to enjoy even that. And the act of charging and recharging expensive battery packs isn’t free either, because they do wear out, requiring replacement and a sizable disposal headache.
But wasteful electricity usage does make sense in a way because people are, first and foremost, consumers. We consume vast quantities of energy on truly wasteful things, because, well, we feel like it. That includes everyone. Everyone flies, even though they don’t have to, and the fact that flying leaves a pretty large environmental footprint doesn’t faze the greenest of eco warriors. If they want to get there, they get there. Fossil fuels are evil, except when I need to get somewhere. Or need to eat. The rest of you, please stop killing the planet.
To compound the problem, people generally have a poor understanding of total environmental impacts. Just because something is labeled green does not mean it is. It’s not just an issue of misunderstanding labels; the concept of efficiency is as poorly understood as the meaning of life. Sometimes a nasty diesel-fueled semi is the most efficient way, environmentally, to distribute large quantities of goods.
Pipelines are another great example – people are terrified of them because they theoretically may leak some day even if it’s in 20 years. But in those 20 years, consider the environmental emissions of, say, an alternative like crude by rail. A pipeline is a sealed system so there are no fugitive hydrocarbon emissions, where as loading by rail car entails relatively massive emissions especially considered on a per unit basis. People don’t understand that lighter hydrocarbons, which are always present to some extent, evaporate to the environment whenever exposed, and these are the worst for the environment.
And so it goes, on and on. Organic farming is wonderful and yet ridiculous, as a large scale solution; the world can’t possibly be fed on a wholly organic regimen. The choices are to starve a certain portion of the population by banning fossil fuels, pesticides and herbicides, or grow the food efficiently and allow everyone to live.
Basic levels of food, clothing and shelter are required for survival; the rest is choice. We don’t need to fly, but no one protests against planes, because…we like to fly. Cell phones aren’t made of mud. We hate industrial agriculture but don’t mind a bit the cheap food and clothes we enjoy because of it. It makes zero sense to protest against the sources of cheap energy while we choose to flagrantly consume them by flying, driving, or purchasing goods that come from them, which is pretty much everything. Well, it’s nonsensical if you understand the meaning of hypocrisy, business as usual if you don’t.
Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here