Thursday, February 26, 2009

Beating cars into windmills

Barack Obama had a little to say about the automobile industry in his address on Tuesday night:

What he said was certainly popular with the Congress. But is it even achievable?

Probably not.

Jeepers, Spatty, that’s kind of negative.

Yes, grasshopper, it is. But even if the economy was healthy, we wouldn’t need so many cars, especially the large high-margin ones that Detroit is accustomed to building. The Happy Motoring Fiesta, as James Kunstler calls it, is almost certainly over. Obama talked about a “retooled and re-imagined auto industry,” but the auto industry can be retooled and re-imagined until the cows come home and it won’t employ the people or be the the economic engine it once was. But his insight to try to save the industrial capacity of the auto sector is a good one.

Spot, couldn’t we just retrain all the people in the auto industry to be, say, investment bankers?

Very funny, grasshopper. But you do make a point.

I know, Spotty.

Maybe Henry Ford — or his descendents, anyway — need to go solar. That’s what Spot’s DL pal techno said fifteen years ago:

This leaves [after discussing the environmental effects of the carbon economy and the inherent dangers of nuclear power] solar power as the only remaining contender. The modern Ford would probably not be tempted by photovoltaic electrical generation. Concerned with the environmental hazards involved in the production of PV cells, Ford would not be convinced that they produce as much energy as they require to make, and is worried about the useful life and recycling problems of square miles of PV cells.

On the other hand, a new Ford would probably be fascinated with the possibilities of solar power's great manifestation--the wind. Harnessing the wind would draw upon Ford's great strengths. Windmills are mechanical and they can be mass produced. They can be designed to be easily maintained and when maintenance is no longer possible, recycled into new windmills.

Spot think probably not only windmills, but new and more efficient ways to transmit energy, rolling stock for light rail trains for carrying people and freight trains for the carrying of raw materials and finished goods, and so on. It would be tragic, in terms of loss of industrial capacity to the economy, not to mention the loss of employment, to let it all just crumble in an act of “creative destruction,” thinking something new and shiny will magically arise to take its place. Here’s more of techno on the scope of the undertaking:

Even if one believes that Ford was a one-in-a-million kind of guy, statistically the USA should have 250 modern "Fords" hiding somewhere in the society. If it requires a new Ford to go solar, it should be possible to find one. Yet Ford was a product of his times and today's Zeitgeist is quite different. There could be a thousand new Fords and they would never be identified because the social environment has changed so radically, the potential Fords are not developing into the real thing.

If the Zeitgeist can be changed, the people necessary to build a solar infrastructure will emerge from the woodwork. A serious conversion to a solar future is possible technologically but so far, the institutional requirements have not been met. The great social questions have not even been asked--Do we have the social will to trade energy convenience for a less-damaged atmosphere? Do we have the social organization to plan and execute a project that will require at least 25 years? What will it take to acquire permanent funding for such a project? Is it possible to build a solar-powered infrastructure with preindustrial economic assumptions of what is profitable? Does anyone with political power understand how large and difficult this project will be? Can a society that glorifies individualism ever understand that genuine environmental solutions require new industrial and social designs?

One of the principal instruments of social organization is, naturally, the government. But we have been in the thrall of the nihilists and the moral ciphers — masquerading as conservatives and libertarians — for thirty years. And they’re not giving up easily, as Bobby Jindal and his acolytes like Rush Limbaugh and Jason Lewis demonstrate. It is funny — no; we’ll have to settle for tragically ironic — that the pikers who are squealing the loudest about the economic rescue mounted by President Obama are the same people who are responsible for the catastrophe in the first place.

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