Too Much Energy?

One of the bits of mental flotsam that very often drifts to the surface in discussions of peak oil is the assumption, as common among diehard peakniks as it is among the most delusionally cornucopian of their opponents, that the “lottle” principle applies to energy: that is, if a little is good, a lot’ll always be better. Widespread though this belief may be, I’ve come to doubt it, and those doubts crystallized as I rode the train from my home in western Maryland to Minneapolis and back during the interval between this Archdruid Report and the last.

Yes, I took the train. To most North Americans – people on other continents tend to be more realistic on the subject – that’s a shocking thought, though these days the surprise often gives way to nostalgic wistfulness. The United States once had the world’s biggest and best rail system, and Canada’s wasn’t far behind. Quite a few people alive today still remember the days when fast, efficient rail service connected all but the smallest towns here in America. These days, you have to choose your location carefully to benefit from the scraps that still remain; one of the reasons my spouse and I selected the old red brick mill town where we now live was that, unlike dozens of equally pleasant towns nearby, it has daily train service on a major route connecting the east coast and the Midwest.

The reach of rail service even across North American distances in the first half of the twentieth century was made possible by the simple fact that on land, at least, rail transit is more energy-efficient than any other mode of transportation. Diesel-electric locomotives, the standard type in service nowadays, use essentially the same technology as a modern hybrid car, and since they don’t have to make sudden starts and stops, whip around sharp turns, or climb steep grades, the energy content of their diesel fuel goes a very long ways; as a rule of thumb, a locomotive can pull a ton of goods or passengers for not much less than a thousand miles on one gallon of diesel. That means, among other things, that it took less petroleum to get me from Cumberland, Maryland to Minneapolis than it takes a yuppie driving alone in a big SUV to go shopping at the local mall.

Still, the energy efficiency of train travel is only part of the picture. Another is the simple fact that train travel, even in these days of reduced budgets and limited routes, is among the few really civilized modes of travel left. Take a car and you can count on doing battle with traffic hour after hour on one freeway after another; take a plane and, after you trudge through the lines and get ogled or groped by government functionaries who apparently believe that the Fourth Amendment can be suspended by executive order, you get to experience the joys of being stuffed into a winged sardine tin, breathing your fellow passengers’ stale exhalations, and staring at blank cloudscape, for however many hours it takes to get where you’re going.

On a train, by contrast, there’s plenty of room and fresh air; you can sit back, put your feet up, watch the scenery roll by, and enjoy the experience. If the child two rows ahead gets fussy, you’re not stuck listening; there’s always the lounge car, where you can duck downstairs, pick up a beer at the cafe, and sit at one of the tables and read while four old guys at another table play pinochle. The food in the diner car’s on a par with most roadside restaurants and better than most of what you’ll find at an airport, and if you spring for a cabin in one of the sleeper cars – on long runs, I highly recommend this – the meals are included.

If all this suggests that I’m an unabashed partisan of train travel, well, that’s a fair assessment. There are good reasons for that just now, starting with the very high energy efficiency of rail travel, and the advantages of a mature technology that could be redeployed in a hurry without the bottlenecks and dead ends that are an inevitable part of bringing any new technology on line. Most of the world’s other industrial societies, and quite a few of the nonindustrialized nations, won’t even have to go through the redeployment process; they had the common sense to keep their rail networks intact when the United States was busy selling most of its own for scrap, and thus may end up with a critical economic advantage in the difficult years immediately ahead of us.

Here in America, by contrast, whenever passenger rail travel is discussed, two objections come up as reliably as a greasy airport breakfast on a rough flight. The first, mostly heard from the current crop of pseudoconservatives, is the insistence that passenger trains are creatures of government subsidies and should be abolished as a money-saving measure. This argument would have a bit more force if the modes of transport such people prefer didn’t get far more in the way of government largesse than the railroads do. Air travel is economically viable in the United States, for example, only because every level of government from the federal government right down to individual counties and cities carries much of the financial burden of the airports, air traffic control, and other services that make it possible, and subsidize aircraft manufacturers into the bargain.

As for automobiles, drivers pay only a tiny fraction of the cost of building and maintaining the network of streets, roads, and highways; they aren’t billed for the government money that goes to keep auto manufacturers afloat, and they don’t get charged for the immense direct and indirect government subsidies that prop up the oil industry. These subsidies include, of course, the costs of repeated military interventions in the Middle East; it will not have escaped the attention of my readers, I trust, that nations selected for liberation from tyranny by the United States and its allies are inevitably those who happen to sit atop large amounts of fossil fuels. If car owners had to pay all these costs themselves, you’d see very few cars on the roads, just as air travel would still be a prerogative of the “jet set” if corporate lobbying hadn’t pushed so many of the costs onto the government. Myself, I’d be happy to see all government subsidies for transportation abolished, and just as happy if they were set at a fixed sum per passenger mile and shared out on that basis among all transport modes; either way, trains would win hands down.

The second objection is not limited to any one end of the political scene; it’s found straight across the spectrum, and though it seems really rather frivolous at first glance, it leads into territory not often explored in the last century or so. This is the claim that train travel is too slow. It’s true, to be sure, that it took longer for me to get to Minneapolis from Cumberland by train than it would have taken by air. Counting a layover in Chicago long enough to meet a local friend for lunch, I was traveling some twenty-seven hours each way. It’s hard to judge exact times by air, since the Cumberland airport hasn’t had commercial service for nearly a decade, but before then, a puddle-jumper to Pittsburgh or Cleveland and a direct flight from there to Minneapolis, counting the likely layover, might have taken eight hours each way; add in two hours to get through security and the rest of it, and it’s still a good deal faster than climbing aboard the westbound train at 7 o’clock one evening and rolling into Minneapolis around ten o’clock the next night.

Granted, then, it takes more time. The upside, as mentioned earlier, is that the time you spend is less of a waste, since twenty-seven hours of train travel is on average less exhausting, more productive, and a good deal more enjoyable than ten hours of air travel. It’s an interesting situation. In theory, it would be possible to make air travel as pleasant as train travel, and once upon a time the attempt was even made – I recall airline ads from my youth that boasted about the amount of legroom passengers were allotted and the quality of the meals they were served, rather than talking solely about destinations, as they generally do today, and trying to make potential passengers forget about the unpleasant process of getting there and back. In practice, a flying experience more or less as comfortable as an ordinary coach ticket on a train will cost you close to an order of magnitude more.

It’s entirely possible that this is in large part an effect of industrial civilization’s overshoot of its energy resource base. In the realm of energy economics, after all, the primary differences between rail travel and air travel are first, that the latter uses a great deal more concentrated energy than the former – the equivalent in jet fuel of the fraction of a gallon of diesel that brought me to Minneapolis, after all, might not even have gotten me off the ground if I’d taken a plane – and second, that the latter technology is a great deal more complex than the former and thus demands much more in the way of energy and resource inputs. As resource limits clamp down, the more energy- and resource-intensive a technology is, the more likely it is to show the economic strain first; in the case of air travel, that strain shows up in the form of crowded seats, dwindling amenities, and repeated fiscal crises for air carriers.

If the same logic works on a broader scale, and it’s hard to think of a good reason why it wouldn’t, it may be possible to anticipate which industries will be hardest hit by the opening rounds of energy supply contraction by paying attention right now to which industries are slashing the quality of their products and services fastest. In an age when media spin and doctored statistics make it hard to see through the fog, this may be an early warning system worth cultivating.

Still, there’s another issue at work here, one that I’m still only beginning to explore. Most things in life have an optimum which is found considerably below the maximum. At some point in adolescence, for example, most of us find out that there’s such a thing as drinking too much beer. Most of us have eaten too much food at one time or another, and information overload – the point at which taking in more information becomes an obstacle to understanding instead of a help – is a familar state to many of us. Sort through the other activities of life, and pretty consistently there’s a point at which adding more takes away from the experience rather than adding to it.

Today’s economic orthodoxy, to be sure, denies this common human experience, and treats every increment as a benefit. That’s one of the reasons that Americans have created the first civilization in human history where storage units to stash all the things people buy and never get around to enjoying is a significant industry. Heretical as though it may be, though, I’d like to suggest the possibility that there is such a thing as too much energy per capita, and that America may well have been in that territory for a good many decades now.

I’ve mentioned before, and it’s worth repeating, that the average European uses around a third as much energy per capita as the average American, and has a better standard living by most of the usual measures. Until recently – more specifically, until I mulled over the subject while looking out the window of the lounge car while the woods and plains of Wisconsin rolled by – I’d assumed that this was simply a function of waste and mismanagement on our part, and a more efficient use of limited resources on theirs. Still, I find myself wondering if there’s a more direct connection between these two factors. Is it possible that Europeans have, by and large, a better standard of living because they use less energy, not in spite of that fact?

Ask the question and it’s not hard to find obvious examples. Consider the way that so many Americans buy gasoline-powered riding lawnmowers, and suffer the health impacts of a flaccid middle age – with attendant costs to the economic system – that could have been avoided by the moderate exercise gotten by using a push mower. Consider how much of the industrial world’s intractable unemployment has been driven by the replacement of skilled human labor with machines made possible by the availability of cheap abundant energy. For that matter, consider the way that the availability of energy correlates with the civilian death toll in wars. Before the age of fossil fuels, the annihilation of the entire population of a city happened relatively rarely, and took an extraordinary amount of hard labor on the part of the attackers. By the twentieth century it was relatively easy, and therefore routine.

Yet my sense – and it’s no more than an inchoate sense as yet, needing further exploration and definition – is that these examples don’t touch the core of the issues involved. Those of my readers who have put into practice some of the ideas discussed here in the green wizardry posts of the last eight months or so, or who didn’t need those reminders to try out some of the practices in question, have already come closer to that core. I have yet to meet anyone outside of an advertisement who was exhilarated by the act of cranking up the thermostat when it gets cold, say, or getting groceries from a store. I have known quite a few people who were exhilarated, and more, when a passive solar panel or a garden bed that was the work of their own hands warmed a house or contributed to a meal.

It may simply be that evolution didn’t prepare our species for the impact of our brief and self-limiting encounter with the Earth’s carbon reserves. Doubtless, as industrial civilization gradually comes apart and the flow of energy to individuals and communities falters, most of us will find ourselves at least as far below the optimum level of energy per capita as today’s SUV drivers are above it, and a good many will find themselves facing, abruptly or slowly, that zero-energy-per-capita state we normally call death. Still, for those who are willing to consider the possibility, there’s a chance that learning to use a lot less energy on a daily basis may have compensations at least as great as those involved in taking a few more hours to ride the train.