We still drive but don’t make cars


A game inside a dream: You’re car-pooling to work and your car gets 30 miles to the gallon. There are four of you in the car. The car runs out of gas and you’re 30 miles away from your destination.

There is no gas station along the way and the highway is deserted. No one has a cell phone. So you decide to push the car the remaining 30 miles. At a half a mile an hour, it will take you 60 hours to get the car to the office—or 240 person hours (60 x 4), not including time off for eating and sleeping. Or, in terms of 8-hour workdays, you’ll have done 30 days of work!

As much as this seems like a quirky surrealist dream, it’s exactly the equivalent amount of human energy we use when we burn through a single gallon of gasoline. There’s so much to modern life that we take for granted.

Just yesterday we took the kids for a drive. We weren’t going anywhere; just out for a drive. Out of curiosity we drove past the fire scene at Blue Moon Motel—which had burned just that morning—and looked at the twisted shell that was once half the motel. It’s now another reminder of the impermanence of life, of how things begin and end.

Later, we went for a bite to eat at a restaurant downtown, which we haven’t done for quite some time. We sat in a nice booth in a bay window looking out at the small garden soaking in the rain, and talked to the kids about things like their school play and the future—including some of my views on the looming post-fossil fuel challenges.

The two younger boys didn’t pay too much attention, but our oldest son takes these things seriously. He talked about how we might recover combustible carbon from the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and about how we might use trees for fuel. We even talked about harvesting the geothermal energy in the earth’s core. He felt pretty sure that we’d be able to find some substitutes for fossil fuel by the time he was my age. I wasn’t so sure, and told him so.

In the end he figured that we had two choices: to stay on earth and become farmers, or to leave the planet and find a new one—a new frontier. I asked him which option he preferred, to which he said, “another planet.” That surprised me a little, since he’s a bit of a homebody.

Earlier in the week Sharon had been talking about a realization she’d just had, that human beings continually seek new frontiers, and that this part of the world is anything but the new frontier, having been combed over for resources for at least 300 years. She concluded, sadly, that we’re rapidly running out of both frontier and resources, everywhere.

As we sat and drank our coffee together this morning, she told me that I should lighten up on the talk about fossil fuel. I was scaring the kids she said, and our oldest boy was in tears after our discussion in the restaurant. Of course I didn’t want to make him feel bad, and told her so. But I do want to prepare our kids for whatever kind of future might be coming their way.

And I wonder why these kinds of discussions aren’t anywhere on the public horizon. As far as I know, our kids’ teachers don’t discuss—or teach—any of this resource-related material, even though our recent 150-year history of development and science is based entirely on fossil fuel.

Without directly connecting the dots to fossil fuel, my favourite cultural philosopher, Christopher Lasch (The Culture of Narcissism), identifies the disconnect between production and consumption as the main source of modern dissatisfaction. Over the past 100 years, we’ve moved from being a production-based society, in which we make most of its own goods, to a consumer society, in which we buy without producing anything. We drive the cars, but we don’t make them any more. In fact, I remember my mother making most her own clothes when I was a kid. She bought the patterns and the cloth and did the rest herself.

There’s a soullessness to this consumer society that Lasch correctly links to narcissism. We’ve come to believe that we deserve to have all our needs met seamlessly without considering the real implications of our own dependency on the earth. We live in a blissfully “me-centric” reality.

There’s little doubt that this will be a self-correcting situation. We’ll soon run out of easily-attainable hydrocarbons and materials such a lithium and platinum—the essential ingredients of modern technology. And we’ll soon have no choice but to tell our kids and grandkids they’ll have to learn to live with less.

The task, of course, will be relearning our deep dependence on the earth and its slow-working systems. Fossil fuel has allowed us to burn so very brightly for such a very short time—and that frontier is nearing an end. The car is out of gas and the Sunday drive is almost over.


  1. Hey edge.

    Still figuring out this blogger atmosphere. But thanks for the words. I'll try to subscribe...if I can figure it out.


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