I may not know much about Parisian culture, but I know a good documentary when I see one. In the gripping 2007 culinary adventure Ratatouille, a guy inherits a small restaurant and becomes a sensation cooking with a rat on his head when it turns out the rat is a way better chef than he is.
Oh it’s not real? Pardon me. Because I follow the energy scene closely, my ability to sort fact from fiction is severely diminished. One can only say to oneself “This can’t be happening” so many times before permanent damage occurs.
Regardless, the show is more than your typical rat-coming-of-age story. It is about looking past preconceived notions, although rat-as-chef is looking past pretty much everything. But it is still a fine piece with worthwhile messaging. Near the beginning, the rat becomes inspired while watching a famous chef’s cooking show when the chef tells the audience: “You must not let anyone define your limits because of where you come from.”
That phrase leapt to mind the other day when watching a TV segment about one of the coolest initiatives I’ve ever heard of. The parallel isn’t exact because the main characters aren’t rats but ex-convicts, and the workplace is not a restaurant but a garage.
First off, to be clear, I’m not comparing ex-convicts with rats, except to the extent that there is a pretty significant stigma attached to both. For ex-convicts, one of the reasons for the low standing is that it is fiendishly hard to reintegrate successfully into society, and key to that challenge is the difficulty in finding employment. The difficulty in earning a living wage is the number one reason for a dismal 70 percent recidivism rate in the US.
So here’s the brilliant program I saw featured in a car show. An organization called Vehicles for Change has come up with, beyond the extremely clever name, a circular-economy type setup with a magnificently multiplicative series of interrelated benefits to multiple groups.
VFC is a “car donation and reentry internship program” whereby people can donate cars that presumably aren’t working very well. VFC then fixes them up with a target to re-introduce autos onto the market that will be good for at least two years and 24,000 miles of reliable service.
There are multiple independent yet advantageous aspects that are very compelling. First, VFC attracts donor cars because the IRS allows a full market value tax write off for cars that will be repaired and returned to use. That helps with step one, securing a supply of autos.
Next, VFC has a training program open to those who have left prison and wish to be trained as automotive technicians, of which the US is frightfully short.
Lastly, VFC then sells these autos back into the marketplace on favourable terms for individuals and families that cannot afford them otherwise.
Isn’t that fascinating? A single program that has potential to help multiple groups of people in multiple ways, and not through handouts. The program provides opportunities for those trying to rehabilitate, and it is in not just their but society’s interest to see that they succeed. And succeed it does: at the completion of the four month internship, 100 percent of graduates are employed in the auto service sector. Interns have rejuvenated nearly 7,000 autos, probably more by now.
The program is also a huge benefit to the automotive industry, which seems to be perpetually short of talent. One estimate has the US requiring 100,000 new auto technicians a year for the next 3 years, and no way to provide that number.
Of equal or more significance, VFC is also an incredible boon to a demographic that needs it more than most – the strata of society on the ragged edge, those fighting for survival, those that are looking to lift themselves up by the bootstraps but may be hindered or prevented without access to an affordable vehicle (for anyone suggesting public transit is just as good, I suggest you try it, so long as you take yourself to distant industrial parks not well served, plus where you drop off the kids for the day on the way to work, plus where you pick up groceries and essentials on the way home.)
The statistics for recipients of the program’s autos are pretty amazing: a study of VFC car purchasers showed that 75 percent found better jobs and/or boosted their earnings an average of $7,000 within the first year. Keep in mind that $7,000 for a low income person can be like a 25% wage increase.
The lessons here for an ‘energy transition’ are bountiful. (I insist on using quotations around ‘energy transition’ because there is scant evidence that it is a real thing yet, with hydrocarbon usage at all time highs, global emissions at all time highs, and renewable energy output at all time highs, against a backdrop of forced energy-change policy floundering on the rocks at an accelerating pace. A transition will happen either when hydrocarbon prices get very high and stay there, or when new technology commercializes something it has not yet. But do go on, ruling class, pretend otherwise.)
There is boundless potential in a worldview of ‘and’. Look at the power of stitching together these ideas into a singular program.
Telling ex-inmates to simply get a job and re-integrate is a road to nowhere. If it were that simple there wouldn’t be a conversation. Simply giving cars at below market rates to lower income people is likewise a road to nowhere. There is no sustainability in it.
But combine these ideas into a single strategy, and meet a desperate market need (lack of automotive workers) and there is a plan that is beautifully humanitarian, absolutely market friendly, and with the ability to move the needle in a positive way on many fronts.
What if we thought about energy that way? Take what works and add to it what we can. EVs work extremely well in certain functions and particularly in urban areas. Focus on building those networks and maintaining the system that works so well in other parts of the country where EVs don’t. Try forcing a singular solution – which is a meagre post-2035 buy-electric or buy-nothing – is insanity, and it won’t work. It just won’t.
Same as the forced lunacy of telling an arctic nation to switch en masse to heat pumps. In some regions of the country, in some places where the grid can handle the load, heat pumps will be at minimum a significant piece of the answer. We should then work on that as a partial strategy, for those reasons. But not an entire country.
That is what can cause one to lose their mind by following energy too closely; the possibility for fantastically productive ‘and’ solutions is not encouraged, it is discouraged. We need to find a way to stop that. Voters, it’s up to you. Don’t fall for baubles or handouts or unreal fantasies.
And remember the glorious rat from the beginning: You must not let anyone define your limits because of where you come from. Great ideas can come from anywhere, and if we can sidestep the worst horrors that politicians try to inflict, I am sure we will see many ‘and’ moments, such as companies that choose to utilize the natural gas system to reduce emissions rather than destroy it, as is the case with natural gas pyrolysis creating hydrogen and carbon black. In that instance alone, CO2 emissions from natural gas combustion are eliminated, a new product stream (carbon black) is formed with all sorts of ancillary benefits, and the world’s efficiency is enhanced by fully utilizing capital that has already been sunk into the ground.
There are good stories out there, just have to find and nurture them.
If we think about what humanity really needs at this point is more humanity. Inflation and the cost of living are making tough lives very much tougher. Rent and food costs are through the roof, and energy isn’t cheap either. All the basics of live are moving out of reach of those that can least afford them.
Let’s remember that, and try to think in terms of ‘and’ instead of ‘or else’.