No Hover Cars for You

The other day we talked about living in the past, so now I thought we’d talk a bit about living in the future.  Do you spend much time thinking about how our lifestyles will change in the future? I’m not talking about 100 years from now — I mean within our own lifetimes?

Back in the 1950s and 1960s we couldn’t get enough of thinking and talking about the future. The movies, the TV programmes all predicted an exciting world of hover cars, jet-packs, shiny silver jumpsuits and automated everything.

Now we rarely talk about the future or think about the future except in apocalyptic terms.

Like a whole bunch of other people, XUP Jr. is convinced the world is going to end in 2012, especially since she saw the movie.  It gives her a good excuse not to worry about her school marks, I think.

The Canadian documentary, The End of Suburbia,  aired the other night on TVO. It features my eco-crush, James Howard Kunstler, so I’ve seen it a few times. Though his vision of the future, and the message of the documentary overall, is bleak, I think it’s also accurate.

“Suburbia is the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world” – James Howard Kunstler

If we accept that the world oil peak[1] has happened or is about to happen within the next 10 years, then it’s also high time we did some serious planning for a world with less available fossil fuels.

So, what Kunstler, et al[2] are telling us is that we are running out of not only oil, but natural gas and the resources to produce electricity. And, that there are no reasonable alternatives. This means that the energy resources we now depend on will become increasingly expensive as they become increasingly scarce.

And yes, we’ve been hearing about the “energy crisis” since the 1970s when the price of fuel got jacked up for a while and we all bought small cars. Then they told us  everything was okay again and prices went down and we all bought  SUVs. And there are still people – scientists even – who say Kunstler and his cronies are all nuts and that the earth has unlimited resources. They say technology will save us and that someone will invent something, some time and everything will be okay.  

But ifn case they’re not nuts, here is some of the stuff we can expect in the future:

  • Price of gasoline will become prohibitively expensive
  • People will not be able to afford to buy, maintain or run a car
  • Suburbanites will have difficulty commuting to work, shopping, schools
  • Suburbanites and others living in McMansions will not be able to afford to heat their homes
  • Like the Victorian mansions of days gone by, McMansions will be chopped up into several apartments housing more than one family
  • Kunstler believes the suburbs will become slums; others think with a little vision and foresight we can convert them into self-sufficient villages
  • Since North America does almost no manufacturing of its own anymore, we will have difficulty getting goods from China:
    • First, because of the high cost of shipping
    • Second, because we will be competing with China for energy resources and they will cease to be a friendly trading partner
  • We will not longer be able to afford to import or transport food thousands of miles
  • Agriculture in North America is heavily dependant on petroleum products since our soil is pretty much completely depleted and crops can be raised only because of extensive use of petroleum-based chemicals, (fertilizers, pesticides, etc.)
  • Growing food therefore will become more labour intensive necessitating more human labour and less machinery
  • Anyone who has land will have to start growing crops to help feed their families and/or sell in their communities.
  • Centralized energy plants will cease to exist and we may have to go to energy co-operatives using windmills to provide energy locally. (Toronto Renewable Energy Co-operative  is an example of this)
  • A whole host of businesses, industries and professions will no longer be sustainable
  • The trucking industry, for instance, will need to be replaced with an efficient rail system. (Third World countries apparently have a much better people -and-goods rail systems than we do in North America)

So, I guess the question is — do you choose to believe the visions and warnings of all of the experts predicting a future without unlimited energy resources? Or do you choose to believe that science and technology will find a way to sustain us? What’s your vision of the future?

“There are a huge range of solutions out there, but a lack of leadership. There is nothing wrong with apocalyptic insinuations, as long as it gets people thinking. It’s okay to be scared and depressed because that’s how change happens.” – Evan Solomon


[1] Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline. The concept is based on the observed production rates of individual oil wells, and the combined production rate of a field of related oil wells. The aggregate production rate from an oil field over time usually grows exponentially until the rate peaks and then declines—sometimes rapidly—until the field is depleted.

[2] Et al includes a range of experts who contributed to this documentary, (Including Matthew Simmons – CEO of the world’s largest energy investment bank, Peter Calthorpe – urban designer, Julian Darley – environmental philosopher, Kenneth Deffeyes – petroleum geologist) , a group of world experts who form the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas

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PS: My computer at home has been killed by the IS2010 virus. If you get pop-ups telling you that Internet Security 2010 has found a virus in your computer, it’s true — except the virus IS Internet Security 2010. There are lots of suggestions on the internet on how to get rid of this virus, but most of them don’t work. Just make sure you’ve saved everything important somewhere other than your hard drive, just in case.
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34 responses to “No Hover Cars for You

  1. I’m not a “sky is falling” kind of person. Lately, there always seems to be some new — or recycled — prediction of gloom and doom. Most of these do not become reality. Oil and gas exploration and production continues. Technologies exist to improve the production of nearly depleted sources. When prices go up, the pace of exploration and drilling goes up, which we witnessed on some of our travels in recent years.

    Do we need to develop and move to other sources of fuel? Certainly. However, development of new sources — despite the best intentions of government and politicians — is not likely until needed. When politicians get involved, I worry about unintended adverse consequences.

  2. I think much will depend on the timing of peak oil, which in turn largely depends on just how sensitive the climate really is to greenhouse gas concentrations. If that figure is higher than people now believe, we may find ourselves in a world of trouble well before fossil fuel scarcity becomes a major problem. If the figure is lower, it is possible that resource scarcity will bite before our atmospheric waste dumping problems do.

  3. That 2012 thing cracks me up. If the Mayans were so smart, where are they?

    I don’t see this death of suburbia thing. Of the top 20 employers in the Dallas/Forth Worth region, 9 of the top 20 are in the suburbs. We live in the suburbs and my husband works for a thriving international company that is located 4.18 miles from our house in the next suburb over.

    People have been preaching doom and gloom through all of human history and if that’s what it takes to jumpstart innovative thinking, then I say let them continue.

  4. Meh.

    Doom and gloom naysayers have always been around since the dawn of time.

    The spread of communism. Ice ages. Ozone layers. Nuclear holocaust. Asteroid impacts. Global warming. Pandemics. Etc…

    It’s like Michael Crichton wrote in “State of Fear”.
    There’s always something for people to worry
    about. Governments exploit this fear to control the population.

    But they invented new transuranic elements and developped the atomic bomb within 5 years. They put a man on the moon in 7. Because there was a perceived crisis..and they WANTED to solve the problem.

    Same thing applies for finding alternate sources of energy.

    There problem is, there’s no “crisis” yet. We’re complacent, because gas is relatively cheap. We don’t “want” to solve the problem now. Not just yet.

    Give it some time. Once gas starts to go up to a few bucks a liter, people will start grumbling. Governments will start start clamoring for alternative sources of fuel, and hydrogen fuel-celled vehicles.

    It’s not totally hopeless, either. I mean, nuke plants alone can solve our greenhouse gas and energy problems. (Especially the newer generation of reactors that can re-burn spent fuel, thus reducing all that toxic waste we worry about).

  5. I think if peak oil hits, we’ll see a rise of nuclear power. I think people are more worried about losing their big houses and current lifestyles then they are about nuclear waste and other problems with nuclear power.

  6. Growing up in Catholic school with nuns going on about the “end times” made me lose sleep as a child. (I can relate to XUP Jr.) I am interested in seeing The End of Suburbia…and learning more about Mr. eco-crush worthy. 🙂 It is important to hear all different environmental viewpoints…but bleak ones now keep me up at night as an adult. I worry about the planet my kids will inherit and the generations that follow. Most days I believe that a combination of humans making greener environmental changes, strong leadership, scientific and technological solutions will sustain us.

  7. Doom gloom, Sunshine and fair weather. A pox on all of you.

    I want my transporter or at the very least the hover car.

    How tough can that be for cryin out loud.

  8. See you’re a fan of Kunstler! I’ve been following him since I read The Long Emergency a few years back.
    Much of what he has said has come to pass, yet I can’t help but think that his very analytical mind has discounted the value of human ingenuity. We will find a solution to the problems that greed and poor planning have created.

    I also don’t think we have hit “peak” oil, in a conventional sense.

    But I do believe that our system of settlement in the west has been unsustainable for quite some time. Large satellite communities are tough on “hard” infrastructure like sewers and streets. And much of that infrastructure and planning was done on the assumption of a continuous supply of cheap energy.

    The Barrhavens, Kanatas and Stittsvilles of the Ottawa area may one day be shells of their former selves… and, well, they really should never have been built in the first place.

    And the U.S.? We had better all sacrifice a chicken in the hope that Obama can turn things around. A whole chicken coop, perhaps.

  9. Ah, Kunstler, my favourite car-hating, scare-mongering dystopian. Let’s go through his points.

    Price of gasoline will become prohibitively expensive: Absolutely, but it will be on a pace that we can keep up with. People will buy smaller cars, governments will invest more in public transit, crazy-ass zoning laws will change to encourage businesses and residential neighborhoods to occupy the same space, we’ll get rid of parking subsidies (somebody pays for that “free parking” at Walmart). These are just the cheap solutions.

    People will not be able to afford to buy, maintain or run a car: Cars lose their value through use. More expensive gas means less use, therefore, cars will last longer and need less maintenance. Besides, unless we somehow run out of money at the same time, car maintenance won’t be our biggest problem

    Suburbanites will have difficulty commuting to work, shopping, schools: Maybe that’ll encourage them to move schools, shopping, etc. closer, remember. This will happen over the course of 20 – 50 years, even at the most pessimistic estimates. Suburbs will be different, not gone.

    Suburbanites and others living in McMansions will not be able to afford to heat their homes: Two words. Electric Heat. A good percentage of our electricity comes from hydro and other renewable sources, I’m not sure Ontario has that many gas-fired turbines in the first place.

    Like the Victorian mansions of days gone by, McMansions will be chopped up into several apartments housing more than one family: One word. Yep. Is this really a bad thing? Maybe it’ll solve their heating problem.

    Kunstler believes the suburbs will become slums; others think with a little vision and foresight we can convert them into self-sufficient villages: Count me among the latter group.

    Since North America does almost no manufacturing of its own anymore, we will have difficulty getting goods from China:
    First, because of the high cost of shipping
    Second, because we will be competing with China for energy resources and they will cease to be a friendly trading partner: I love this one. “America doesn’t make anything anymore” As soon as stuff from China becomes more expensive than making stuff here, America will start making stuff again. You know, my friend built himself a little machine called a “cupcake”, that makes stuff for him. He feeds it a CAD drawing, and it will make the desired object out of plastic. Amazing stuff. Making stuff is the easy part, why do you think we off-shored it to the Chinese for so many years.

    We will not longer be able to afford to import or transport food thousands of miles: and… Seriously, I fail to see the downside of this one. My wife and I spend at least twenty minutes at the Grocery store looking for fruit and veg that’s not flown in from Argentina.

    Agriculture in North America is heavily dependant on petroleum products since our soil is pretty much completely depleted and crops can be raised only because of extensive use of petroleum-based chemicals, (fertilizers, pesticides, etc.): So you’re saying that we won’t have factory farms anymore. There are ways to farm without these things. Letting fields lie fallow, alternating nitrogen-depleting crops like corn, with nitrogen-fixers like beans, etc. Go out and ask an Organic farmer about more of these tricks.

    Growing food therefore will become more labour intensive necessitating more human labour and less machinery: Yep, there will be more farm workers, it’s back-breaking, thankless, low-pay labor. This one’ll suck.

    Anyone who has land will have to start growing crops to help feed their families and/or sell in their communities: Most people who have enough land suitable to grow food on, already do. More marginal land may have to start being farmed on, but if you have land, you may have to start growing vegetables, rather than a lush green lawn of Kentucky bluegrass. Again, failing to see the downside.

    Centralized energy plants will cease to exist and we may have to go to energy co-operatives using windmills to provide energy locally: Given a choice between this and Hydro One spending $75 billion dollars on new nuclear plants, I’d love to be forced into this choice.

    A whole host of businesses, industries and professions will no longer be sustainable: Yep, buggy-whip makers will be missed.

    The trucking industry, for instance, will need to be replaced with an efficient rail system. (Third World countries apparently have a much better people -and-goods rail systems than we do in North America): Three words. Holy fucking shit! Are you fucking kidding me? I’ve lived in 3rd world countries. Go look at the railroad from Uganda to Mombasa, and then look at the Railroad from Salt Lake City to Oakland. The one in Kenya has small trains, mainly designed for moving people about, not very quickly, the other one can move 200 full-size containers from SLC to Oakland in the same time as the Kenya train takes to move 20 from Mombasa to Nairobi. I swear to god, the only thing worse than the railroads in 3rd world countries are the roads themselves.

    Other than the one outright stupid point, and the one that I concede, will kinda suck, You have a recipe for a more sustainable world. It’s all in the perspective. If you love Suburbia, in it’s present cookie-cutter, Centrum, tree-killing form, then yes, it’ll suck, but I don’t, and I won’t miss it.

  10. Mike – So you don’t think we’ll ever run short of oil?

    Milan – Well, it’s nice to know there are options associated with our demise! As you can see from most of the comments here though, no one believes any of it.

    Geewits – It’s not really sparking anything concrete though. People are talking, but nothing is ever actually going to be done until/if the ca-ca actually hits the fan.

    Friar – The documentary I mention, makes a good case for disputing that hydrogen and/or nuclear power are viable energy alteratives. (Also, Moon bases, I think, turned out not to be economically or politically useful.)

    MG – Funny isn’t it? How much people are willing to sacrifice for a big house and the right to drive their car as much as they want?

    MM – Except that the majority of people are not making their lifestyles more earth-friendly; our leadership is anything but strong (Copenhagen???) and science and technology can’t create an energy source out of nothing. I guess the handful of us that take this stuff seriously will just have to continue to do our bit, lobby for some changes and hope for the best.

    Dave – When they figure out a way to make hover cars that suck up the same amount of gasoline as an SUV, you can have one.

    Trashy – I don’t even think it takes a lot of genius to look around and notice the incredible overconsumption of land, oil, material goods, etc. etc. and to think that maybe we can’t keep this up for much longer.

    Matt – I agree with you – that list of “what the future will look like” is preferable to me, too, than what we have now. The only problem I can see is I hope we won’t wait until it’s too late to do stuff like converting the suburbs or taking back manufacturing or farming. Doesn’t all that construction, etc. require a lot of energy, too? The train thing, I think they might have been speaking in a “relative” manner. As in, taking into account the economy of the country and what they need to transport in relationship to our economy and what we need to transport – that maybe 3rd world countries come out ahead.

    Dr. Monkey – Yes, some of it does sound good, but I think we’re also going to lose some essential stuff. I can see medicine and health care being negatively affected; education; employment, etc. I don’t think it’s going to be as simple as less cars and more pedestrian friendly cities.

    Lebowski – Is that run on fossil fuels?

  11. Man has never planned well for the future. The entire history is of overcoming a problem when it became a problem not casting into the future and saying. OOh this could be a problem we better fix it now.
    Governments, and the people want solutions to what is a problem now. I want a cure for cancer, not the redistribution of population from the suburbs.
    When oil becomes too expensive then, and only then will there be enough time and money spent on alternatives. We are seeing that trend start now but it won’t blossom till it’s actually needed.
    Of course by then the crystal ball gazers will be telling us we need to solve other far off problems. They won’t be solved in time either.
    And yet the world keeps going round and things keep getting better.

  12. “So you don’t think we’ll ever run short of oil?”

    I didn’t say that. I just don’t think we’re there yet.

    I have an article sitting in front of me right now that says: “Earth’s finite reserves of petroleum, natural gas, and coal cannot continue to supply the rising demand for energy. The development of new sources of energy must now have high priority.” It goes on to say that the earth’s fossil fuels will begin to peter out in ten years.

    The article is in the October 1956 issue of Scientific American.

  13. Dave – The interesting thing about humans is that they think they will endure forever. Humans have really only been around for a very short time in the grand scheme of things. Other species have become extinct for various reasons over the millenia, why do we think that can’t happen to us? We’re really not that clever. Though we’re still reproducing like crazy, we’re also killing ourselves off and making ourselves sick with all our great inventions and new-fangled food and medicine and STUFF. I think we’re totally stupid enough to dig ourselves into such a big environemental hole of some sort that we will NOT be able to dig ourselves out. As an example, I will use cancer — we’re exerting let’s say a 10% effort in trying to “cure” it, but at the same time exerting a 90% effort in producing and exposing ourselves to more and more carcinogens. Cancer used to be a rare thing – now you have a 50/50 chance of getting it. THIS is the species you have such great faith in??

    Mike – How long do you reckon we have? And why do we have to wait until it’s actually all gone to do anything about it?

  14. In the ’50s and ’60s, there was the threat of nuclear annihilation, plus a booming economy. Technology was rapidly advancing, for better AND worse.

    Nowadays the only time things get better is when they’re a bubble.

    – RG>

  15. “And there are still people – scientists even – who say Kunstler and his cronies are all nuts and that the earth has unlimited resources.”

    Um no, afraid not! We’re also running out of clean water, seafood and viable land. There is no such thing as “unlimited”

  16. Sure Cancer used to be a rare thing but then just as rare if not even more so were 60 year olds trying to get cured from it or anything else.
    All I’m saying is that in looking at the problems we have faced over the last few thousand years we have been extraordinarily good at finding a solution when it was needed. Our lives now are better and onger than they have ever been.
    And also for those last few thousand years there have been doomsayers that have forteold our eventual demise and got a free lunch out of doing so.
    Sure some day one of them may be right and maybe it’s even the 2012 people. I just doubt it. The history so far, as opposed to the opinion, is so overwhelmingly on my side of the argument I feel pretty confident we will be going along messing everything up and making everything worse for centuries yet to come.

  17. Grouchy – That’s why they were all looking forward to the future so eagerly?

    Pauline – If you read through some of the comments here, you’ll notice that most people don’t seem very concerned about any of this — they agree with the other guys who say someone will figure something out in time.

    Dave – Actually, I just read something the other day that said people 50+ years ago were much better off than we are. Their salaries more than adequately paid for their lifestyles. And their health was almost 100% better than ours. We are living long only because modern medicine pumps us full of drugs and zaps us full of chemicals to keep us alive. People in the past may only have lived to be 50 or 60, but they were healthy up until then. Now most people over the age of 25 (and a whole bunch under the age of 25) are on a long list of medications to stop them from dying. Without meds, surgery etc. our live expectancy would just be around 40.

    Cedar – I was going to, but the line-ups were so long and because of its age and its non-pregnant state, I couldn’t get it a priority status.

  18. “How long do you reckon we have? And why do we have to wait until it’s actually all gone to do anything about it?”

    We don’t have to wait…, and shouldn’t. However, the only thing that will really drive innovation and development is economic reality.

    I’ve worked in nuclear power since 1972. Nuclear is a viable alternative energy for production of electrical power. It has issues. However, the technology exists to deal with the issues. Unfortunately, new nuclear has not been viable because of political and environmental opposition — until carbon emissions, rightly or wrongly, became an issue. Now, there is a potential for new nuclear power plants, again, if we can get past the remaining political and environmentalist hurdles.

    And that’s what it comes down to these days in a lot of energy related issues — getting past the red tape, politics and whatever interveners and opposition there might be.

    So far as how long to we have, there’s enough coal reserves to last the lifetime of anyone alive today and natural gas for several decades. I wouldn’t even hazard a guess on oil. I don’t think we’re at peak yet, but it may not be far away.

  19. XUP-Don’t you think its kind of silly though to completely rely on “someone else” to fix our problems? Shouldn’t we be trying to fix them ourselves? I’m not saying we should go off the deep end and become completely pessimistic, but with all due respect to some of your readers, I think the whole ‘lazy passing the buck’ mentality is really not the best perspective to have.

  20. Mike – So the oil may very be almost done; natural gas has a few more decades and coal will last until everyone alive today is gone. Then we’re going to nuclear power. I guess if we have no concerns about leaving the earth completely devoid of natural resources for the generations to come, that’s okay. I still think it would be more ethical of us to stop gobbling up all the energy sources at such an alarmingly greedy rate so that there’s a little something left over for our descendants.

    Pauline – I’ve been shaking my head in grim disbelief at the “I’m not worried, someone will come up with something” thinking. As I said to Mike above, it’s so bizarre to me that people think it’s okay to just drain all the energy resources because they’re convinced science will come up with something else. That’s like eating the last of the fresh food in your fridge though you have no money to buy anymore and your kids won’t have anything to eat — but it’s okay because you’re pretty sure someone will come along and drop off a care package full of some meal replacement drinks.

  21. Mike, “whatever interveners and opposition there might be” is the people who (and whose ancestors) own and live on the land on which you want to mine your uranium. Mining speculators can literally dig a giant hole in your back yard if they suspect that there are mineral rights to be had underneath, without so much as knocking on your door and saying ‘hello’–much less reimbursing you for the expense of cleaning up after them.

    – RG>

  22. “That’s like eating the last of the fresh food in your fridge though you have no money to buy anymore and your kids won’t have anything to eat — ”
    I see your point if it gets to the last of any resource it certainly pays to not use it up . I think we should leave it for someone else to use up that would be fairer.
    The point is that the earth is a sustainable place for centuries to come. Sure petroleum oil is going to run out but the diesel engine was invented over a hundred year ago to run on plant based oil. We just found that the petro could do the job cheaper and easier. Sure there will probably never be the same amount of private travel available that we have enjoyed through our lives but that doesn’t mean there will be any more available if we don’t take advantage of it.
    And sure probably at some point in the future it’s all going to go phht and be over. If nothing else the sun will eventually burn out. But not this week and not this century and most likely not this millenium.
    If on the other hand you wish to live as if the end is nigh please feel free to do so. Your decisions will certainly not hurt and may even help.

  23. Glen – Is that like only eating what you’re willing to kill yourself?

    Grouchy – I guess as long as the people who have the most money get what they want, it’s all okay.

    Dave – There must be a balance between living as if “the end is nigh” and living as if we’re indestructible? Don’t you think that we, here in North America, in particular are using way, way more than our fair share of natural resources? I think we’re consuming around 80% while we only have a very small percentage of the world’s population. I’m not saying we have to walk around in sackcloth and ashes, but is there any reason we couldn’t be a tad more modest in our consumption?

  24. Xup, i understand your pain. The only thing worse than your own computer being trashed by the IS2010, is your 87 year old mother’s computer and trying to tell her anything. I spent four hours on internet ‘fixes’ and told her i thought she just needed to buy a new computer and ‘no.’ we could not take her files off because we might transfer the virus.

    As far as the future, i would look horrible in a silver suit, and it would be hot.

    I think that it is just common sense that we are going to run into a lot of problems because people are too bull headed to believe it and do something productive before it is too late.

    Tell Xup, jr. that the mayan culture starts over in 2012/13 and that is why the calendar ended then, but Hollywood likes disasters and to go do her homework and quit worrying.

  25. Mom Sheryl is apparently my alter ego. That was me. But, while I am in full command, I need to ask you:
    Before your computer bit the dust with IS2010, as my mother’s is, did you have a bunch of programs opening automatically every time you started your computer? She did and I do not know if that is something she did to it or part of the virus and I have back ups of her work but am worried the virus is on them.

  26. Hello!

    Thanks for using my Hover Monza image!

    Could you please credit me so I can use this on my resume?

    Thanks again,

    Noah