The beautiful look of civilisation gone mad

While I was casting around for a peg to hang this New Year rumination on, an email drew my attention to the lovely barrier island of Longboat Key off the west coast of Florida.

Longboat Key is 10 miles long and mostly only a few hundred yards wide. Today every inch of it looks like this:

Longboat.jpg

This highly ‘aspirational’ environment is what you get when an ingenious species breaks into hundreds of millions of years of stored sunlight and then burns through it in a two-century splurge. A hundred years ago, Longboat Key was still more or less what it had been for thousands of years: a few dozen square miles of sandy scrub. A handful of families lived at the northern end, fishing and growing guavas and other fruit. Only when the discovery of the East Texas and Gulf oilfields kicked off America’s unprecedented expansion of the mid-20th century did the Key begin to develop into the richly-manicured fairyland you see today.

Even in the 1960s, its human population was only just over 1,000 folk. It’s grown six-fold since then, although summer and winter visitors swell the total considerably. And of course, Longboat Key is just one relatively insignificant example of the mass conversion of the Earth’s surface into what’s really, if you look at it objectively, a vast fossil fuel-drenched playground.

Maybe 5% of the world’s human population has a realistic chance of travelling to somewhere like the Key on a holiday. Most people sincerely hope that ‘progress’ will eventually allow everyone in the world to enjoy the good life epitomised by the quiet, safe streets, neat houses and well-tended vegetation of energy-intensive developments like the Key.

Doesn’t sound much to ask does it? But the further you go down the biophysical pyramid supporting our apparently harmless lifestyles, the more contradictions you encounter. In the globalised version of industrial civilisation that’s been built in the few decades since I was born, everywhere is interconnected to everywhere else. Picture postcard Cotswold villages and breezy seaside resorts keep their hands fastidiously clean by outsourcing manufacturing and waste disposal to the other side of the planet – though not for much longer – but we’re no less involved in the human exploitation, habitat destruction, degradation of life-support systems and accelerating extinction rates that go with our ‘natural desire’ to ‘better ourselves.’

I find the contradiction at the heart of all this really hard to deal with. For the more we build out our industrial civilisation, the faster we approach the appoint where it starts to collapse rapidly in the face of impossible complexity combined with steady diminution of the net energy needed to ‘solve’ the complexity problem. This is nothing new. It’s happened to every human civilisation in history – though nothing like on the scale ours will face.

Why I’m worrying, I can’t say. It’s safe to say most of Longboat Key will look like this sooner or later:

But the chances are that it won’t be in my lifetime. Perhaps in another century or two, a dozen families will again fish and farm amid the crumbling concrete remains on the Key. Although, given that its highest point is only about four metres above sea level, who’s to say climate change-driven events won’t completely erase the island.

Incidentally, the sad-looking place in the above pic was a thriving tennis resort for a few years. Over 40 years the spot went from unspoilt wildlife habitat, to 17-acre resort, to ruin. Now a developer is talking about spending a billion dollars to knock it all down and build another upscale playground for a tiny sliver of humanity. What a way to fritter away the last of mankind’s allocation of fossil sunlight.

Madness is doing the same thing over and over again hoping for a different result.

Whatever happened to the driverless car?

 

Is that a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a flying car.

Doubtless egged-on by the hype lavished on driverless cars, wild promises of levitating family autos are all the rage again.

Yup, the prospect of flying to meetings in your own car instead of a helicopter is right back on the agenda.

Terrafugia Flying Car Prototype on Road

See – here is the TF-X, Terrafugia’s bid for aero-motoring immortality. A deeply unsexy prototype that could become a sleek, er, road-legal helicopter-cum-plane.

fly-car-rendering

Call me a bit skeptical but to my untrained eye the TF-X visualised in the pics displays all the aerodynamic qualities of a Corgi toy attached to a lolly stick. Those skinny wings might lift a super-flyweight body – but not something that would conceivably get an NCAP collision rating for a family vehicle.

Since the first object you encounter on the project’s web page is a button labelled “$ Invest”, it’s a safe bet that there’s a long way to go and a lot of cash to burn before ‘une brique volante’ lands in a back garden near you. Ad astra per pecunia you could say.

(And by the way, what’s with the utterly crapola and mega-depressing, round-the-back-of-in-industrial-unit-next-to-the-dumpsters destination of the TF-X in the promo? Failure of imagination or a teeny hint that flying cars won’t fit in normal workplace parking bays?)

But each to his own, I say. It’s your money. If you’re excited enough to invest, be my guest. Really, if you think that road-legal helicopters have a future, I think someone might have a Moller M400 Skycar to sell you.

With driverless cars, at least there are a few potential benefits – like having multi-user vehicles that deliver themselves to drivers. The reason flying cars have remained a pipe dream since the 1950s is they’re basically a solution looking for a problem.

On wait! Silly me. Of course, we’ll soon have self-driving flying cars. Where else could today’s utterly fabulous technology lead us?

The title of this article? Oh, that’s just irony.

Mass aviation? Forget it, counsels Solar Impulse pilot

As the Solar Impulse electric plane nears the end of its fraught, £73 million trans-America flight, project leader Bertand Piccard has some wise words for starry-eyed techno optimists:

“What we are doing with the Solar Impulse is not for the goal of making a revolution in air transport,” said Piccard. “But the Solar Impulse does have a goal of having a revolution in the mindset of the people.”

(The Guardian)

Solar Impulse at night

Solar Impulse proving flight. © Solar Impulse | Jean Revillard

Yes, the revolutionary realisation that, without the cheap liquid fuels of the past 100 years, most future options for long distance travel will be slow and expensive. And some, like mass aviation, will be impossible.  Enjoy it while it lasts.

I’ll never see a white elephant fly

There’s much to ponder in last week’s recommendation by UK MPs that their government should back further expansion of Heathrow.

As anyone with even a smidgen of energy literacy knows, there is a huge question mark hanging over the future of mass aviation.

So the question isn’t really whether Heathrow or ‘Boris island’ is the better way to ‘secure Britain’s future as a major air transport hub’. It’s why anyone should still want to keep flogging what looks like a very dead horse.

That’s where things start to get interesting. But first let’s recap why the outlook for civil aviation is increasingly uncertain.

planescrap

Mass aviation is a creature of liquid fossil fuels. Raw oil is now about four times as expensive as it was 15 years ago. Although the airlines have weathered that move – just about – they can’t go where oil is going next.

That’s to perhaps $150 a barrel, which will happen when the balance of oil demand shifts from the OECD countries to the ‘developing’ countries sometime in the next two years. Head over to Gregor Macdonald’sTerrajoule.US site to read how and why this repricing will take place.

Bear in mind that $100 oil has already caused a significant transfer of oil consumption away from the West, where the per capita rate of oil ‘waste’ (think SUVs and millions of holiday flights) is much higher than in the rest of the world.

The UK is in the initial phase of ‘the long rebalancing’ of its economy. We’re sliding toward lower levels of liquid fossil fuel consumption because that is what we can afford. We can expect commercial flying to decline in line with affordability. In short, the growth projections for air travel in Britain and Europe are mostly pie in the sky.

So where does this leave the national debate about expanding London’s airport capacity? Well there are three ways to look at the glaring disconnect between the expansionist rhetoric and the energy/capital reality on the ground.

  1. The protagonists are all energy-illiterate worshippers of the god of progress, who don’t realise the world has changed.
  2. They’re not bothered about the long-term outlook for UK civil aviation: they’re really angling to cash in on the infrastructure investment bonanza that would be unleashed by airport expansion.
  3. They’ve weighed everything up in private and decided that, between now and the inevitable contraction of airline traffic, the UK/London economies risk losing more if runway capacity isn’t expanded than if we decided to get out of the doomed game gracefully, and sooner rather than later.

There’s a lot of (1) around, and undoubtedly a lot of (2) involved too. But (3) is intriguingly credible. After all, it’s characteristic of bubbles that the majority of players want to stay in the game even when it’s obvious that things are heading for a crunch.

One prize the UK establishment might have its eye on is to own the last major international air hub standing in Europe when flying turns into an elites-only game. The airport that claims that prize will doubtless be – for a while – a real honeypot: a key staging post for those involved in the transfer out of Europe of whatever chunks of knowledge, property and power that still have value to developing economies.

But why they imagine that such a hub would be at Heathrow – poorly connected and on the far side of Europe from the new customers for Europe’s wherewithal – is anyone’s guess. National pride, maybe? How very 18th century.

There’s something cargo cultish about politicians’ touching faith that building runways will keep the planes coming. Are those shining spears of tarmac really all we have left with which to fend off the loss of the rest of Britain’s greatness? Letting go of expansion would be like allowing the ravens to fly away from the Tower of London .… presumably to Frankfurt or Schiphol.

That kind of hubris could conceivably keep the Heathrow expansion panjandrum rolling drunkenly onward for another five or 10 years.

All the same, I hope the UK motoring industry is paying close attention to this issue. Because although Birmingham airport today staked its claim for the hub expansion lolly, this isn’t a fight over runways. It’s a fight over who gets to burn the shrinking oil supply.

Behind its brave, business-as-usual face, the auto business is feeling the heat from too-costly fuel. Only corporates and a relatively small number of private buyers are willing to pay the price of the increasingly frugal new models it produces. Fewer young people see car ownership as a priority. Used car buyers, who outnumber new buyers by 10 to one, struggle with motoring costs.

At some point, the auto industry is going to have to fight back against the airports’ special pleading. If I were the SMMT or the RAC, I’d be making noises to the Government about the very different quid pro quos that operate in motoring and aviation.

Although, motoring still gets plenty of public cash support in the form of road maintenance and improvements, it pays stiff taxes on fuel and vehicles in return. The air cavalry are lobbying for massive public funding for necessary infrastructure (e.g. tunnelling the M25 to allow Heathrow to expand westwards) in return for a paltry airport tax bill and no tax on fuel at all.

I don’t expect the car lobby to let that sleeping dog lie for very much longer.

Heathrow – the scramble for investment hots up

As Nicole Foss of The Automatic Earth  frequently points out, finance will be the first of  three big crises to really start to bite around the world (the other two being peak oil and climate change of course).

Pools of investment capital are steadily getting shallower. As they do, the fights over who gets the lion’s share become fiercer.

Here in the UK, the post-crash game of ‘Capital Fight’ is crystallising around plans for a third runway for Heathrow airport.

BAA, the airport’s operator, and the consortia of infrastructure-building interests are desperate for government to give the go-ahead. And they bandy plenty of bollocks about to try to support their case.

BAA claim that transfer passengers contribute an average of £500 each to the UK economy as they pass briefly through Heathrow’s hallowed arrival and departure gates.

But since many of those passengers transfer to flights to non-UK destinations, those who do go on to domestic flights must be spending a helluva lot per head while they’re here.

Time is running out for the pro-expansion lobby. It won’t be long before it’s clear to everyone that the runway’s economic usefulness will probably be over before it’s even finished.

Mass aviation is dying in by inch as airlines fail and passenger numbers stall in the face of high fuel costs and stagnating incomes.

Not that that matters a jot to the expansionists. BAA needs to show investment to stay in the hub game against the likes of Schipol or Frankfurt over the next critical few years before the game is up. The banks and infrastructure consortia, as always, are only concerned with the money to be made from building the new facilities. Who cares what happens to them afterwards?

If you can’t believe that banks and builders would pour all that capital into a massive white elephant then you should read James Howard Kunstler’s chapters on mall-building in The Long Emergency and The Geography of Nowhere.  Once there was a way for backers to make oodles of dosh while ensuring they weren’t left holding the baby when the malls failed years later.

Now, not so much. The Heathrow expansion lobby is competing for scarce capital against genuinely important investments in UK energy infrastructure, food security and non-road transportation (not including the sexy but not-exactly-vital high speed rail line from London to Birmingham).

Moreover, UK taxpayers now know that they’ll be on the hook, via their ‘ownership’ of the TBTF banks’ liabilities (though mysteriously never the profits), for any Government-sanctioned projects that turn out to be dead ducks in the long term.

Will voters in the West, Midlands and North be happy if their lights start flickering on and off just as politicians, playboys, pop stars and fat cats – soon to constitute much of the constituency of the still-flying – get to enjoy sauntering through the wide open spaces of Heathrow+1 on their way to Jersey or Zurich?

Do politicians care? Tim ‘About Turn’ Yeo MP doesn’t seem to. On the grounds that jets are a bit quieter these days, and that emissions aren’t a problem because EU carbon caps will make fuel even more crushingly unaffordable for airlines,  he’s performed a timely abandonment of his opposition to expansion and challenged his boss to be a man not a mouse and back it too.

To QuadRanting, that looks like the ultimate in short-termism and running scared of the Tory DailyGuff – arch backer of a narrow spectrum of City and construction sector interests.

Why now? Only the expansionist lobby knows. The delicious thing is that the “man or mouse” call coincided with the Essex Lion Fiasco, ensuring that Yeo has had to endure a barrage of animal related gags and catcalls (naturally) from all sides.

Aviation dispirited

We’re repeatedly told by the Murdoch media that Britain’s businesses will suffer unspeakable indignities on their way to a slow death unless Heathrow gets a third runway.

It’s nonsense, of course. The biggest ‘real’ story about Heathrow is the Borders Agency’s inability to handle the volume of passengers delivered by the two existing runways.

Now, a new report into alternatives to travel has knocked several more spikes into the third runway argument

It highlights the millions of pounds that businesses have added to their bottom lines by avoiding airports and airlines altogether. Since it’s axiomatic that jetting around the world willy-nilly is a vital sign of corporate machismo, I will disguise the identity of the firms in question – but here goes.

  • M*cr*s*ft saved $93 million in a year by avoiding 100 million miles of air travel thanks to teleconferencing
  • Gl*x*Sm*thKl*n* cut 38 million miles of air travel, saving itself a packet and improving its employees’ work-life balance enormously. Avoiding a single meeting saved £60,000.
  • *vrsh*ds cut its air-travel-related CO2 emissions by 85% by holding electronic meetings instead of making employees do the sardine can tango at 35,000 feet. That’s a big drop in flight bookings and airport landing fees.

Airlines are the canary in the peak oil coal mine. With 2011 shaping up to beat 1864 as the year with the highest-ever average price per barrel, even the biggest carriers are starting to look a little peaky, if you’ll excuse the pun.

And, if airlines are looking sicker by month and businesses like Mcrs*ft are boosting their bottom lines by eschewing air travel, what’s to be gained from feathering the nests of BAA and the construction business by building a white elephant for soon-to-be-redundant jumbos at Heathrow?

To fly. To survive. Maybe.

The day after Airbus launched a new game called Fantasy Plane Orders, IATA announced that airline profits will fall by 29% next year because high oil costs make their already-inadequate margins so thin that they could rose-tint them and give them to plane makers to use as spectacle lenses.

As someone from ASPO Australia commented on Economist.com, it’s not just a question of the cost of fuel now; it’s a question of its availability. Airlines must compete with a billion drivers and hundreds of millions of portable and fixed generators for a no-longer-growing supply of liquid fossil energy. Guess we’ll soon find out how ‘essential’ flying will remain to ordinary people whose first priority for fuel is to use it to get to work, have jobs and feed themselves.

These huge uncertainties seem to have got to British Airways, despite last year’s return to profitability. Their much-hyped new TV ad looks wistfully back to a golden age of air travel (mostly the ones when, BA artfully omit to mention, only the relatively wealthy could afford to fly).

The film’s lavish production values can’t disguise the hollowness at its heart. It begins well enough in deep, solid shadows – all leather coats, gloves, goggles and waxed moustaches – but climaxes with an unintentionally hilarious piece of CGI which looks as if someone’s pasted planes on to the whizzing quidditch players in a Harry Potter movie.

 

File under whistling past the graveyard.