What’s good about expensive gas?

Posted in Energy, Society at 14:48 by RjZ

Oil consuming nations failed to impress the Saudi king during a recent Global Summit on Oil in Jedda, Saudi Arabia. 

The consumers expressed that the current high price situation is unsustainable. That’s easy to see when you live in the United States and see the spread out development and    number enormous cars traveling from their homes in the distant suburbs to their jobs. High fuel prices increase the price of everything and leave less for the commuting masses to spend.

Meanwhile, the developing world is buying more cars. India’s Tata is releasing cute $2000 car for the masses (and we’re talking India here, so masses is a whole bunch). China and India don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t live like the rest of the developed world and who can blame them. I just wonder how they’re going to afford it.

Neither China nor India are fuel producing nations. As demand increases and supply doesn’t, gas isn’t getting any cheaper for them than it is in the United States. (Strictly speaking, Chinese gas prices are controlled by the Chinese government, but there’s a limit to how they can reasonably subsidize the price).

As the world races toward (or past) peak oil the pressure will grow to develop alternative forms of energy and transportation. Actually, we may already have a few practical choices, we just can’t afford them.  Standard of living improvement is strongly correlated to energy consumption. The better a society lives, the more energy it uses. There are nations that have a great way of life with less energy, and some, like the United States, that use more than seems to be necessary to support their lifestyle, but all of the rich nations are alike in that they are consumers of things like televisions and, now, cars, and they use more energy than those countries whose populace mostly lives by subsistence farming. 

What’s good about expensive gas? Not much. Putting the breaks on development will hurt these up-and-coming nations even more than Europe and the United States, but maybe, just maybe, they’ll have a chance to slow their development and make some better choices.

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Time for the journey

Posted in Travel at 11:04 by RjZ

An oft cited cliché tells us that travel is not about the journey, but the destination. If you’re lucky, you get to hear this during some arduous adventure after being robbed of your passport. I’ve never bought it. I’ve always found that sitting in the train, bus, plain or car; even walking in the hot sun wasn’t really the point of travel. Don’t we do those things near wherever we call home? I go to far away places to <em>see</em> things. I’ve <em>seen</em> the pyramids. I’ve <em>seen</em> the Taj Mahal. Traveling to them, buying a plane ticket, negotiating with a bus driver, fighting off the camel rides, that wasn’t really the point. The point was getting there and much of the trip was planed around getting to these destinations.

Honestly, I am just as bad when hiking. I was suffering from altitude sickness on the way up Mt. Bierstadt, an easy fourteener. About 300 feet from the top, dizziness and headache maybe wearing off just for a moment, I could see the peak and I turned to my partner and said “I’m going up.” She wasn’t feeling so well herself, so I just plodded my way to the top. I’d have clawed my way the last few feet if that’s what it took. After all, I was <em>that</em> close. I couldn’t even imagine that she’d gotten that far and wasn’t compelled just to struggle the few more feet. 

I can’t say I’m proud of this. It’s true, it’s the destinations that start the conversation, but I’m starting to notice that after all this traveling, it may really be the journey that makes the story. Nowadays I’m planning a round-the-world trip. There’s no confirmed date for such a trip (hey, people I work with read this blog!) but when I finally go, I think I’ll still end up structuring my travel around destinations. Planning and preparing for a longer trip like this one is a much bigger undertaking than a jaunt to Machu Picchu and back. During a two week trip, traveling light is easy. Technically speaking you don’t really need much more for a two year trip than a two week trip. If you can last for two weeks with only a second pair of pants and less than a week’s worth of underwear, what changes over a longer period? I wonder how long it takes before you never want to see that t-shirt you started with a few months back ever again. Still, my most vivid memories aren’t always the World Heritage Sites I’d worked so hard to see, but the insecure hotels and falling apart busses I’d spent time in just to get to them.

What’s missing from the cliché about journeys and destinations is time. When you’ve only got a short time to see the sights, then, surely they’re the most important part of your trip. If somehow you’ve managed to take time out of the equation; if waiting at the embassy to get a visa is no longer ruining your chances to see everything you planned on, then suddenly the waiting becomes as much a part of your trip as the camel ride. When travel is what you’re (temporarily) doing for a living and not an escape from ordinary life, it becomes more obvious that the destinations are only the skeleton that the body of travel hangs on. That doesn’t explain why I had to get to the top of Beirstadt, regarless of whether it was a good idea or not, but maybe climbing some mountains in far away places will bring that into focus too.

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Lets Get Rid of Darwinism

Posted in at 14:17 by RjZ

I lieu of actually writing something, I’ll point out an excellent article I just read. Olivia Judson blogs (that’s a new word for has a column, really) for the New York Times. She’s an evolutionary biologist who’s tired of being pigeonholed by the triumphs and mistakes of Darwin. It’s a worthy idea and even better writing: Lets Get Rid of Darwinism. Check it out in the hopes that I write something as good soon.

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Should I buy a hybrid?

Posted in Energy, Society at 16:58 by RjZ

Car sales are down in the United States. I don’t think we should be surprised. If you’re only a few years into payments on your SUV it’s unlikely that, with the extra pinch of gas prices, you have enough extra money just lying around to simply get rid of the car you’ve got and get another one. You could go a little deeper in debt, but then credit’s a little tighter these days.

Suppose you’ve got the money and you’re really more interested in saving the environment. The question is, should you trade in that guzzler for a hybrid? Hybrids burn much less gas and produce fewer green house gases (GHGs), right?

Imagine you’ve got another 10 years at 12,000 miles per year on your car. I’m guessing that’d be around 200,000 miles, give or take, which, with some care, I think most cars from the last few decades will pull off. Say you’re getting 21 miles per gallon. A hybrid will get around 46. So that’s 25 miles per gallon for 120,000 miles or a savings of 4,800 gallons of gas! Not bad, at $4, that’s $19,200 over the next ten years. This is great news, from a cost standpoint. The five year cost of ownership of a Prius is only around double that, so, with today’s prices, it’s not such a bad deal!

The question I am asking though, is should you trade in your still working car for the environment’s sake? A gallon of gas creates about 20 lbs of CO2, so buying that Prius will save the environment at least 96,000 lbs of CO2. Except, how much CO2 and other GHGs are produced in the manufacture of a hybrid? Alas, I couldn’t find this data quickly on the web, but I’ll hazard a guess. A Prius weighs almost 4000 lbs. It’s a pretty fair assumption that producing all those machined parts, mining and smelting all the metal for the body, engine, battery, suspension etc., four tires, foam and carpet filled interior, and not least, transporting all the various pieces half way around the world, probably works out to quite a bit more than another 90,000 lbs of CO2. Without doing the math, I wouldn’t be surprised at 900,000 lbs of GHGs. Anyone have a real reference here? A couple of papers on the web were available at charge.

If it’s time to buy a new car, consider a hybrid, I am sure it’ll help. Just don’t buy something you really don’t need just to spare the environment. Reduce first, as the saying goes: reduce, reuse, recycle. I’ll be driving my 130,000 mile car for a few more years, even if there are cleaner cars out there.

Update 9 July 2008:
Slate’s Green Lantern takes the opposite view to my point using BTU data. Honestly, I am not really in a position to dispute this much but the calculation there doesn’t take into account the waste of producing more cars, more frequently than necessary (although he does touch upon this.) Worse, we have little knowledge of just how much of a Prius is reusable or recyclable (let alone reused or recycled). Finally by stretching the use of the car out to 11.5 years, a good idea, but certainly not usually what happens, the scales tip in favor of the Prius. Cost of ownership and cost to the environment continue to drop the longer something is used. That, after all, is the point I concluded with above: reduce, reuse, recycle–in that order!

Thanks to one of my faithful readers for the tip. I am interested in other data on this subject if folks come up with any.

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