Russia, of all places, is a bright spot for Ford Motors, which is plagued by slumping sales of its lumbering, gas-guzzling, global-warming, ego-bulging SUVs. And what’s the really hot seller over there in Russia? Why, that little bitty Ford Focus. Russians, like most Europeans, can’t and usually aren’t willing to lay out the cash it takes to buy and fuel an SUV. Oh, once in awhile you do see a European in an SUV, looking clueless or embarrassed because he’s having a horrible time navigating his monstrosity through the crooked, narrow streets of old European towns.
Russia is one of the fastest-growing automobile markets in the world because of an emerging middle-class economy. They’ve already gone car-crazy, which is why on July 16, 2007, Ford opened its biggest dealership in Europe, near Moscow, and why it’s going to double its manufacturing capacity in “Little Detroit,” near Petersburg, where Nissan and Toyota are now also planning to build. Some of the cars rolling off these new assembly lines will no doubt go to two other rapidly automobilizing countries, Poland and Turkey.
An optimist might say, “Thanks to the end of the cold war total sales are booming.” As one of Ford’s European sales execs happily put it, “We’re pretty optimistic in Europe. We see a lot of prospects.”
But if you’re a gloomier sort of soul, and you don’t believe that Ronald Reagan saved the world by single-handedly defeating communism, this is hardly a reason to rejoice. This entire auto boom is looked upon with such glee that you’d think nobody had ever heard of global warming, or that there is a limited supply of oil, which you’d think we ought to use sparingly just out of common sense.
And talk about unintended consequences. One reason many Russians are now able to afford the cheap little Focus is that the Russian economy is so much stronger than it was, thanks partly to the OIL BOOM that has pumped it up. Yep, the more Russian oil the world burns, the more oil the Russians can burn. Why it’s a win-win situation, Boris, is it not? A miracle of growth, the splendor of capital, nyet?
Or maybe just another twirl toward the dizzying spiral leading to more global warming. But not to worry, opportunity doesn’t just knock, it pounds like a pile driver dropped from the stratosphere! As their northern tundra melts and the mud deepens to impassible ooze, why you just know those Ruskies are going to NEED them 4WD SUVs to git around, and we’ll see headlines about Ford’s REVIVED SUV sales. “Like the mammoths emerging from the frozen tundra,” the business writer will lead, “The Ford Expedition is awakening from a long sleep to become the workhorse in the expanding residential developments of Siberia—and a welcome boost to Ford’s sagging sales in Cambodia and Thailand.”
So here we are, trapped in the same old, old economic contradictions. More is not just better, but more and more is economic survival. We harp endlessly about global warming, and yet remain economically dependent on the very enterprises most responsible for global warming. We trumpet various “solutions” to global warming, like biofuels, even though they can’t come close to replacing fossil fuels, even if we starve half the world to produce them. We tout cars that get better fuel economy, but celebrate when a million more cars are sold. More cars mean more revenue, more jobs, more of—of everything.
This combustion thing is only going to get much worse because Russia is obviously not the only place that is having a car boom. The growing middle classes of China and India are now demanding more and more vehicles, and on top of that they’ll be burning more and more fossil fuels in hundreds of new power plants being built to propel burgeoning economies that make it possible for them to buy new cars by the millions.
All the happy talk about various technologies that are going to “save” us distracts us from this disaster. Most people don’t really even understand how these technologies work or how long it would take to put them on line. Biofuels, hydrogen, wind, solar, make good, soothing, mantras, but let’s get real. They simply can’t come anywhere close to replacing fossil fuel in the short term. When Dick Cheney said this, he was speaking TRUTH for maybe the only time in his larcenous, homicidal career. Biofuels can’t meet the need. Hydrogen presents immense technical problems, not the least of which is the fact that it requires an immense amount energy to produce and pump it around. Its only real virtue is portability. (Since we have to electrolyze water to make hydrogen, a process that loses 25% of the electrical energy, it makes more sense to put any juice you’ve got to spare into the grid.) Wind is fine, but requires an immense amount of space, as does solar: It would take thousands of square miles of solar panels to make a dent in the world’s power consumption, and we’re years away from enough production capacity to make enough units.
Then there’s good ol’ nuculear, as W. calls it, now enjoying a revival. Aside from the possible dangers of having another couple thousand nuclear plants, their backers don’t tell us just how much cheap uranium is left and how much fossil fuel it might take to dig it up, or how much fossil fuel it takes to build them or what the odds are that some whackos will smash airplanes into a dozen of them in a coordinated attack. Until they give us some basic risk benefit numbers, we’d be crazy to rush to construction. And please, don’t go lecturing about the French nuclear success story. France’s nuclear situation is an unusual because it was created by a SOCIALIST, highly centralized power system run by extraordinarily well educated engineers and bureaucrats who didn’t have to play politics or cut corners or worry about Wall Street results. Since there’s very little chance that socialists are going to be building many plants, and since socialist plants don’t always work anyhow, e.g., Chernobyl, we might be safer to see the French thing as the exception that proves a very scary rule. And anyway, Greenpeace reports that the levels of nuclear radiation in the water around some of the French plants is seven times the amount allowed by the European Union. I don’t always trust Greenpeace, but this at least calls for further investigation.
Of course we must continue with research and development on all possible alternative energy solutions that might make sense. Even if there were no global warming, we should be doing this and should have been doing it intensely for the past 30 years, for the simple reason that petroleum pollutes and there’s not an infinite supply. But when take a sober look at the facts and the possibilities, the most important immediate step has to be a QUICK, DRASTIC REDUCTION IN ENERGY CONSUMPTION. We simply have to use a lot less a lot sooner. When somebody talks about the “need to meet our growing energy demands,” we should ask, “Why in hell should the demand be growing? Why don’t we shrink it?”
Of course reduction can be done at an individual level, by using cheap, simple gadgets and changing your lifestyle. Some of us live without a car, and we’ve whittled our home energy consumption down as low as a quarter of the national average. But we can preach about the virtue of lifestyle change till we die and we won’t convert enough people to make a serious difference. It doesn’t happen with drunk drivers, or embezzlers, or sex perverts, and it’s not going to happen with the vast majority of energy hogs in the developed world.
Now, when a situation arises where you can’t depend on people’s civic virtue to do the right thing, you have to pass a law. It’s that simple. If you can’t depend on people to drive sober, you pass a drunk driving law, and fine the hell out of them if they exceed a specified blood alcohol level. By the same logic, you can limit energy consumption. This might mean putting a huge carbon tax on fossil fuels to discourage consumption, to drive it down to half the level it’s now at; in some cases, like electricity, it might even mean rationing to get the job done. Australia has taken such a bold measure by banning incandescent bulbs, which use four times as much energy as fluorescents. Bold, but it’s JUST THE BEGINNING OF ENERGY-USE LIMITATION LAWS.
I can already hear conservatives squeal about this as being un-American, but you know what? If the global warming thing is as serious as scientists and politicians (even some conservatives) claim, then, sorry folks, we’ll just have to do whatever is necessary. During World War II, Americans lived with limitations and rations on all sorts of things in order to insure had enough supplies to defeat the Axis monsters. Rations were a patriotic duty, as were all sorts of belt tightening, and of course recycling of everything from rubber to metal gum wrappers formed into “war balls.” We needed all sorts of sacrifices to win a war. The principle is pretty much the same today, except that we need rations not to win a war, but to keep us out of the kind of energy war we’re fighting in Iraq. For prospective young cannon fodder, a ration ticket would be a kind of draft deferment.
Politicians claim the situation is drastic. Yes, they’re claiming mighty loud, all right, but about the most notable thing they’ve done so far is throw fat subsidies at the ethanol industry in the name of fighting global warming. As somebody, I believe it was Jimmy Carter said years ago, the energy crisis is the moral equivalent of war. Well, goddammit, if that’s the case, let’s act accordingly.
Problem is, everybody’s scared to death to us the S word. That is, SACRIFICE. If Al Gore is as freaked out as he sounds about global arming, he should move from lecturing about the problem and fire up a campaign for carbon taxes and rationing (and start by ceremoniously lopping his own notorious utility bill by about 1000%. He could do a cool documentary tour of his mansion to show all the measures he took).
Sure, any idiot can see that it will take some mighty bold leadership to sell such a big idea, and pundits will knowingly declare it a “non-starter,” or mumble some nonsense about pollution trading credits being more palatable. But why does everything have to be palatable? Have we become such a gutless land of ninnies that we can’t suck it up and drink our medicine? Are we so terminally feeble that we’ll die en masse if we turn our air conditioners to 78 degrees in summer and our thermostats down to 55 at night in the winter? Are we so petrified of other human being that we can’t take a bus? Have our kids got us so intimidated we can’t tell the little dictators to turn off their lights and computers, or do we cut have to cut them slack because the poor dears are on Prozac or have attention deficit disorder or we think the might get it if we impose this complex task on their overstressed young brains? And finally, I ask you, have we been so sucked into the people-pleasing, deal-making, poll-driven, focus-group-dazed political world of Chris Mathews and Bill Clinton that we’re afraid to try for ANY bold, any non-palatable program?
I don’t think so. Maybe I’m stupidly optimistic about what’s left of the American character. But it will take politicians who lead instead of follow, and who don’t just test the wind and run where it blows. And there are politicians, believe it or not, who are trying hard to find remedies, people who have shown courage and stamina. Yet in the final analysis if anything is going to get done, we must all do our share and work together to put the heat on government, local, statewide and national, to conserve and take action now.
July 28, 2007