by Dmitry Orlov
Club Orlov (February 14 2017)
My recent book tour was very valuable, among other things, in gauging audience response to the various topics related to the technosphere and its control over us. Specifically, what seems to be generally missing is an understanding that the technosphere doesn’t just control technology; it controls our minds as well. The technosphere doesn’t just prevent us from choosing technologies that we think may be appropriate and rejecting the ones that aren’t. It controls our tastes, making us prefer things that it prefers for its own reasons. It also controls our values, aligning them with its own. And it controls our bodies, causing us to treat ourselves as if we were mechanisms rather than symbiotic communities of living cells (human and otherwise).
None of this invalidates the approach I proposed for shrinking the technosphere which is based on a harm/benefit analysis and allows us to ratchet down our technology choices by always picking technologies with the least harm and the greatest benefit. But this approach only works if the analysis is informed by our own tastes, not the tastes imposed on us by the technosphere, by our values, not the technosphere’s values, and by our rejection of a mechanistic conception of our selves. These choices are implicit in the 32 criteria used in harm/benefit analysis, favouring local over global, group interests over individual interests, artisan over industrial and so on. But I think it would be helpful to make these choices explicit, by working through an example of each of the three types of control listed above. This week I’ll tackle the first of these.
A good example of how the technosphere controls our tastes is the personal automobile. Many people regard it as a symbol of freedom and see their car as an extension of their personalities. The freedom to be car-free is not generally regarded as important, while the freedoms bestowed by car ownership are rather questionable. It is the freedom to make car payments, pay for repairs, insurance, parking, towing and gasoline. It is the freedom to pay tolls, traffic tickets, title fees and excise taxes. It is the freedom to spend countless hours stuck in traffic jams and to suffer injuries in car accidents. It is the freedom to bring up neurologically damaged children by subjecting them to unsafe carbon monoxide levels (you are encouraged to have a carbon-monoxide detector in your house, but not in your car – because it would be going off all the time). It is the freedom to suffer indignities when pulled over by police, especially if you’ve been drinking. In terms of a harm/benefit analysis, private car ownership makes no sense at all.
It is often argued that a car is a necessity, although the facts tell a different story. Worldwide, there are 1.2 billion vehicles on the road. The population of the planet is over seven billion. Therefore, there are at least 5.8 billion people alive in the world who don’t own a car. How can something be considered a necessity if 82% of us don’t seem to need it? In fact, owning a car becomes necessary only in a certain specific set of circumstances. Here are some of the key ingredients: a landscape that is impassable except by motor vehicle, single-use zoning that segregates land by residential, commercial, agricultural and industrial uses, a lifestyle that requires a daily commute, and a deficit of public transportation. In turn, widespread private car ownership is what enables these key ingredients: without it, situations in which private car ownership becomes a necessity simply would not arise.
Now, moving people about the landscape is not a productive activity: it is a waste of time and energy. If you can live, send your children to school, shop and work all without leaving the confines of a small neighborhood, you are bound to be more efficient than someone who has to drive between these four locations on a daily basis. But the technosphere is rational to a fault and is all about achieving efficiencies. And so, an obvious question to ask is, What is it about the car-dependent living arrangement, and the landscape it enables, that the technosphere finds to be efficient? The surprising answer is that the technosphere strives to optimize the burning of gasoline; everything else is just a byproduct of this optimization.
It turns out that the fact that so many people are forced to own a car has nothing to do with transportation and everything to do with petroleum chemistry. About half of what can be usefully extracted from a barrel of crude oil is in the form of gasoline. It is possible to boost the fraction of other, more useful products, such as kerosene, diesel fuel, jet fuel and heating oil, but not by much and at a cost of reduced net energy. But gasoline is not very useful at all. It is volatile (quite a lot of it evaporates, especially in the summer); it is chemically unstable and doesn’t keep for long; it is toxic and carcinogenic. It has a rather low flash point, limiting the compression ratio that can be achieved by gasoline-fueled engines, making them thermodynamically less efficient. It is useless for large engines, and is basically a small-engine fuel. Gasoline-powered engines don’t last very long because gasoline-air mixture is detonated (using an electric spark) rather than bur
ned, and the shock waves from the detonations cause components to wear out quickly. They have few industrial uses; all of the serious transportation infrastructure, including locomotives, ships, jet aircraft, tractor-trailers, construction equipment and electrical generators run on petroleum distillates such as kerosene, jet fuel, diesel oil and bunker fuel.
If it weren’t for widespread private car ownership, gasoline would have to be flared off at refineries, at a loss. In turn, the cost of petroleum distillates – which are all of the industrial fuels – would double, and this would curtail the technosphere’s global expansion by making long-distance freight much more expensive. The technosphere’s goal, then, is to make us pay for the gasoline by forcing us to drive. To this end, the landscape is structured in a way that makes driving necessary. The fact that to get from a Motel 8 on one side of the road to the McDonalds on the other requires you to drive two miles, navigate a cloverleaf, and drive two miles back is not a bug; it’s a feature. When James Kunstler calls suburban sprawl “the greatest misallocation of resources in human history” he is only partly right. It is also the greatest optimization in exploiting every part of the crude oil barrel in the history of the technosphere.
The proliferation of small gasoline-burning engines in the form of cars enables another optimization, forcing us to pay for another generally useless fraction of the crude oil barrel: road tar. Lots of cars require lots of paved roadways and parking lots. Thus, the technosphere wins twice, first by making us pay for the privilege of disposing of what is essentially toxic waste at our own risk and expense, then by making us pay for spreading another form of toxic waste all over the ground. Suburban sprawl is not a failure of urban planning; it is a success story in enslaving humans and making them toil on behalf of the technosphere while causing great damage to themselves and to the environment. Needless to say, you have absolutely no control over any of this. You. Are. Not. In. Control. You can vote, you can protest, you can lobby, donate to environmentalist groups, attend conferences on urban planning … and you would just be wasting your time, because you can’t change petroleu
That the need to make people buy gasoline trumps all other considerations becomes obvious if we observe how the technosphere reacts whenever gasoline demand falters. When rampant wealth inequality started making owning a car unaffordable for more and more people, the solution was to introduce larger cars for those who could still afford one: minivans for the mommies, pickup trucks for the daddies, and for everyone the now common SUV. And now that gasoline demand is dropping again because of falling labor participation rate and an increase in the number of people who telecommute, the solution will no doubt be driverless cars which will cruise around aimlessly burning gasoline. Mommies may think that a minivan will keep their kiddies safer than a compact would (not true unless they have eight or nine kids). Daddies may think that the pickup truck is a sign of manliness (true if you are some sort of gofer/roustabout; pickup trucks are driven by picker-uppers, a subspecies of gofer/roust
about). But all they are doing is obeying “The Third Law of the Technosphere”, if you will: “For every improvement in the efficiency of gasoline-fired engines, there must be an equal and opposite improvement in inefficiency”.
So, perhaps you should just relax and go with the flow. After all, being a slave in the service of the technosphere is not immediately life-threatening … unless you crash into a tree or get run over by a drunk. But there is another problem: this arrangement isn’t going to last. The net energy that can be extracted out of a barrel of oil is quickly shrinking. In less than a decade the energy surplus required to maintain a car-centric lifestyle will no longer exist. If private car ownership and daily driving are required of you in order to survive, then you won’t survive. There goes at least eighteen percent of the world’s population, which will find itself stranded in the middle of an impassable landscape. Oops!
Given that you are not in control, and given that the car-centric lifestyle is an evolutionary dead end for your subspecies, what can you do? The answer is obvious: you can plan your escape, then join the other 82% of the world’s population, which is able to live car-free. Some of them even manage to live entirely outside of the reach of the technosphere. Let their example be your inspiration.