America, as even President Bush acknowledges, is addicted to oil. If so, then biofuels are little better than methadone.
Our addiction is dangerous. It is one of the primary sources of the unchecked carbon emissions that are altering the Earth’s atmosphere. It contributes to the pollution of our air and water. It has badly skewed US foreign policy and helps explain why more than 150,000 soldiers are fighting in Iraq. Like junkies, we are oblivious to the damage we inflict on ourselves.
In an attempt to deal with the consequences of our oil addiction, politicians and corporate leaders have trumpeted the promise of biofuels — energy sources made from plant matter. But as Robynne Boyd reports (“Fueling the Future?”), recent studies have shown that biofuels carry their own costs. The rush for biofuel production is driving deforestation as companies raze rainforests to plant sugarcane or palm plantations. US farmers are compromising agricultural conservation practices to plant as much corn as possible. Globally, the competition between using grains for food or fuel is contributing to skyrocketing prices for staple goods. Biofuels may, for a time, help transition some percentage of vehicles away from petroleum, but they are not a long-term answer.
There is no question that we need better ways of transporting products and people. The twin tests of global climate change and peak oil mean we have little time left to wean ourselves away from fossil fuels. With oil at $125 a barrel and global temperatures climbing, the clock is ticking fast.
But we won’t discover a single “killer application” that will resolve our fuel crisis. The short-sighted focus on biofuels reveals the folly of thinking we will find some silver bullet solution to our energy challenges. Building a sustainable transportation system will require a technological sophistication that recognizes that the only real solution lies in embracing a range of solutions.
For some cities, that may mean encouraging people to get out of their cars by charging them to drive into the downtown district, as London, Stockholm, and Singapore have done successfully (see “Roadkill”). For other communities, a solution may lie in eschewing costly rail systems and opting for fast and reliable bus services, which is what the Brazilian city of Curitiba did (“Get on the Bus”). The range of options illustrates one of the most exciting elements of the budding green economy — it is, by nature, polyform. There are many different ways to approach the sustainable future: While some people take the train, others may bike, or walk, or decide to carpool in a plug-in hybrid vehicle.
No matter what path people take, they won’t get there in a single-passenger automobile powered by an internal combustion engine. For 80 years, the automobile has been the center around which we have designed our cities, our roads, our homes, and our lifestyles. Now we face the huge task of figuring out how to reconfigure all of those things. As Katie Alvord explains in our “Conversation”, doing so may be easier than it appears — or, at least, it will be more fun that it looks. Abandoning our automobiles may mean less convenience, but it will mean healthier bodies, more connected communities, extra money in our pockets, and a slower, more satisfying way of living.
All of which are pretty good reasons to finally break the habit.
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