The End of Suburbia ~ NanoThoughts 1.0

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

The End of Suburbia

If you can possibly make it to this documentary, I would definitely do so. It goes along nicely with The Corporation, a film I mentioned in another post. The reason is that so much of what the modern corporation has done to transform the world in the past century has been enabled by the availability of cheap energy in the form of light sweet crude. The End of Suburbia very clearly lays out the case that the past 50 years in particular have been a one-time "party" fueled by the bubble of cheap petrolium. This "party" is coming to an end in the near future, not because oil itself will run out, but because its production will peak while demand continues to grow unabated. For example, the whole current system of production of consumer goods in mass quantities in China, followed by their transport across the ocean in petrolium-powered container ships and distribution by gas-guzzling big rigs, on roads built by gas-powered heavy equipment, is predicated upon this supply. Not to mention the system of production of food for billions of people (a bloated, unsustainably large population) in which petrolium-based fertilizers and pesticides take the place of human labor. The film is also good at rebutting the polyanna-ish assurances that the free market will compensate and take care of our energy problems. In the case of power generation in North America, the free market's response to growing demand and decreasing output from coal and nuclear has been to build more natural gas fueled plants. The problem is natural gas almost has to be produced on the same continent on which it is used, because of the difficulties of transport. And North America is certainly going to run out of Nat. gas way before the rest of the world. I can't summarize everything here, just advise you to check it out if you can (see the web page linked above for where it's playing). Then start preparing yourself for life in the post Hubbert's Peak age.


Jody said...

Umm, you do know why we're building natural gas plants and not nuclear and coal plants, right?

It's the massive number of regulations (natural gas plants are regulated less). Get a true free market and the energy production crisis goes bye bye.

heatkernel said...

Nuclear plants are hugely subsidized (because the government assumes responsibility for the storage of and ultimate disposal of the most dangerous waste, not to mention the obvious externality of producing such waste) and are still a money loser. Only in France, where the government assumes the burden and responsibility for power generation and reprocessing of the waste have they ever generated a large percentage of the power. More or less the same thing is true for coal: the regulations on pollution and waste disposal are there so that the power generating companies won't be allowed to keep externalizing their biggest costs into the environment and people downwind or downstream. And don't even get me started on the externalities of open-pit mining and the like. All the effects of using these power sources have quantifiable costs for society, which are no less real just because the companies (in cooperation with our government) have found ways to avoid having them show up on their balance sheet.

Of course, a return to nuclear power will become more economical and is probably inevitable as the natural gas goes up in price. But the first generation of nuclear plants turned out to have serious safety problems and we're not doing enough to make sure the second generation of them is better. Not to mention the Yucca Mountain waste issue, which is just being kicked around as a political football instead of seriously discussed and revised.

Rog said...

I have to read up more on this issue, but it does seem that there are other energy sources out there, but even so, our system right now is so wedded to petroleum (the system devoted to transport and distribution anyway) that to switch all these vehicles to non-internal combustion engines would be a massive undertaking. No doubt there would substantial growing pains in the form of famines or whatever.

Doesn't Japan use a lot of nuclear power as well?

heatkernel said...

Yeah, good point: they do I think. However, they are so evidently dependent on foreign oil and always have been and are located far away from all developed sources of oil (not the S. China Sea, where resources are basically untapped so far) that they don't have much of a choice.
Even so, they are very dependent on foreign oil, for the reason that you've mentioned: cars.
They also recently had an accident there, on Hokkaido if I remember correctly.
There's a lot more discussion of this on CleverNothing:

Rog said...

clevernothing topic posted by heatkernel from above