Speeding down a dead end road

Also published at Resilience.org.

Since the birth of car culture more than a century ago, lavish consumption of energy has not been a bug but a feature. That’s now a feature we can ill afford, as we attempt the difficult and urgent task of transition to renewable energies.

Notwithstanding all the superlatives lavished on Elon Musk by mass media, one of his great achievements has gone unsung: his ingeniously simple contribution to the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

I refer, of course, to his donation of a used automobile to the possible inhabitants of outer space. If there is intelligent life out there, they will recognize Musk’s Tesla Roadster as a typically energy-guzzling death trap of the genus known as “car”, and they’ll promptly return it to sender, COD.

Wait a minute, Musk’s Roadster is not a typical car, some might protest – it’s electric! True enough, but the Roadster, like its newer sibling the Model 3, was designed to seamlessly fit into and extend our current car culture. And one of the key features of car culture is that it was structured, from the beginning, to consume energy with careless abandon.

That giddy attitude to energy was understandable in the early days of the age of oil, but it will make our current transition to a clean-energy economy far more difficult if not impossible.

The invention of car culture

Americans did not invent the car, but they quickly came to dominate both car production and car consumption – and more than any other country, they put car culture at the centre of a way of life.

In his excellent book Consuming Power, David E. Nye notes that

“[By 1929] there was roughly one car for every five Americans, and an astonishing 78 percent of the cars in the world were in the United States. In France or Great Britain there was only one car for every 30 people, and in Germany only one for every 102. The automobile had become the central American consumer good and the engine of the American economy, stimulating a wide range of subsidiary industries and suppliers.”[1]

The pattern continued after World War II. “Americans drove 75 percent of the world’s automobiles in 1950,” Nye says. “Moreover, they wanted big automobiles.”[2]

The taste for big, fast cars was cultivated long before most Americans could hope to buy a car. Tom McCarthy’s Auto Mania shows how a small coterie of wealthy young men, hyped by the new mass media, captured public imagination with their expensive quest for speed – starting in 1900. That was the year when an heir to the Vanderbilt shipping fortune set tongues wagging with his powerful new toy.

“In June 1900, Vanderbilt bought a Daimler Phoenix, his first Daimler and his first racing car for which he had to pay the impressive price of 10,000 dollars. This car – nicknamed “White Ghost” and powered by a 23 hp engine which accelerated the car to a top speed of just under 100 km/h – was at last completely to Vanderbilt’s liking.”[3]

At least, the Daimler car was completely to Vanderbilt’s liking for two years. By 1902, he needed a more powerful car – a 60 hp Mors Z – to set a new speed record of 122 km.[4]

Other wealthy Americans got into the racing game too, and it was essential not just to go fast, but to go fast uphill. In each city with an expensive auto dealership, McCarthy notes, the steepest hill was the standard place for a test drive. “By 1904, when vehicles such as Vanderbilt’s 90-hp Mercedes proved too powerful for the annual hill climb at Eagle Rock, New Jersey, the hill climbs had made their point.”[5]

There was no practical use for this speed at the time – there were very few stretches of road smooth enough or straight enough to be driven at 50 km/hr, let alone 120 km/hr. But in America, unlike in Western Europe, the love of overpowered cars quickly became not just an elite hobby but a mass movement – with effects that remain strong today.

To suburbia and beyond

As one component of car culture, Americans developed a new way of living that was simultaneously industrialized and decentralized – with residences, office complexes and factories all moving out of central cities to the edges of urban areas.

As Nye explains, “This post-urban society was based on a historically anomalous situation: multiple sources of energy were all in oversupply.”[6]

Timothy Mitchell also takes up this theme. In the US in the first half of the twentieth century, he writes, oil gushed out of the ground so readily that it was hard for major oil companies to keep control of the market, and over-supply often threatened their profits. Regulation of domestic competitors was one prong in their strategy, while purposeful restrictions on the flow of abundant Middle East oil, prior to the 1950s, was another prong.

Another “method of preventing energy abundance,” Mitchell writes “involved the rapid construction of lifestyles in the United States organised around the consumption of extraordinary quantities of energy.”[7]

This American project began in the early 1900s and eventually became self-driving.

Overcoming performance anxiety

At the beginning of the 20th century, “The speeding millionaire sportsmen so effectively demonstrated and publicized the speed and power of the automobile that its introduction had an ‘in-your-face’ quality,” McCarthy writes. “Their behavior aroused strong emotions in other Americans, provoking a bitter reaction while also stoking the desire of millions to own an automobile, too.”[8]

Thus was set in motion a habit exhibited by Americans ever since: buying cars that can reach top speeds well in excess of the limitations of most driving conditions and most laws.

That would have been of little consequence, unless someone started building cars that could be sold to working-class Americans, and paying workers enough that they could afford cars. That was the role of Henry Ford. His Model T hit a sweet spot of size, speed, and affordability:

“Ford made the Model T inexpensive enough, well-made enough, and, most important, just large, powerful and fast enough that buyers could close most of the status gap between themselves and the wealthy without hypocritically aping them or leaving themselves open to ridicule for choosing a cheap, slow, poorly made car.”[9]

With its 26 horsepower engine and a top speed of 55–65 kilometers/hour, the Model T was more  than fast enough for the typically rough, rutted roads of rural America in 1910 (and 64% of the first million Model Ts went to farm and small town markets).[10]

The market for cars, of course, would have been very limited without the right legal and physical infrastructure, and government readily offered an essential helping hand. As Nye notes,

“Automobiles are not isolated objects; they are only the most salient parts of a complex energy-consuming system that includes production lines, roads, parking lots, oil wells, pipelines, service stations, and the redesign of urban spaces to accommodate drivers.”[11]

He further explains,

“As much as half of a city’s land area was dedicated to roads, driveways, parking lots, service stations, and so on. … This reshaping of the environment was not caused by the automobile itself. Americans were extremely active in defining their landscapes by means of zoning boards, park commissions, and city councils.”[12]

By mid-century, the US was systematically decommissioning public transit infrastructure – intra- and inter-city trains, streetcars and buses – in favor of the private car. This change happens to have been in the financial interests of both the car companies and the oil companies, the most powerful corporate interests in the country.

In energy consumption terms, the consequence was simple: “The largest growth in energy use began in the late 1930s and lasted until the early 1970s. In these 35 years energy consumption grew by 350 percent.”[13]

The comparison to comparably-industrialized western Europe is illuminating. By the early 1970s, “Compared with equally affluent Europeans, Americans used roughly twice as much energy per capita. Half of the difference was directly attributable to their transportation system ….”[14] In the first 70 years of the 20th century, western Europe had no significant domestic sources of oil, and thus no powerful corporate interests to make a case that it was in the “national interest” to consume as much energy as possible.

Car culture in the US, however, had acquired seemingly unstoppable momentum. In the early 1970s the US reached its peak of conventional oil production, and the country had already become dependent on steady supplies of imported oil. Yet the blip of the 1970s “energy crisis” made little difference to a high-energy way of life.

“Between 1969 (just before the crisis) and 1983 (just after), the number of miles driven by the average American household rose 29 percent. There were 39 percent more shopping trips, and the distances traveled on these trips increased by 20 percent.”[15]

Fighting for space

At the heart of car culture is a contradiction. The essential allure of speed can be reliably achieved only on sparsely travelled roads. But the increasing profits of oil companies and auto manufacturers alike depend on selling more cars to more people – and most people live and/or work in densely populated areas.

As noted by Nye, when half of a city’s land area was devoted to roads and parking lots, that pushed residents further apart and further from urban centres. By design, the new suburbs had insufficient density to support good public transit – which further locked suburbanites into car dependency. Traffic congestion, once a phenomenon of urban centres, became a regular rush-hour phenomenon on essential arteries 30, then 40, then 50 km or more from urban cores.

The stressed-out commuters on these routes might indeed be able to drive part way to work at high speed. But in spite of (because of?) the fact that they drive increasingly powerful vehicles, they also, on average, spend more and more time commuting.[16] So what good is that speed and power?

The promise of cars was that speed would conquer space. But the reality of car culture is that space triumphs over speed.

A specific example illustrates how this dynamic has played out across North America. Consider the collection of bridges and ramps now under construction at this site:

(Photos taken Friday March 16, 2018)

What vast complex of engineering wizardry is this? Actually, it’s an intersection. An  intersection of two rural highways, about 70 km from downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada.[17] And nothing so complex as a four-way intersection, just a three-way T-junction.

Why is it deemed necessary to invest so much in one T-junction out here? Well, as North America’s busiest road,[18] Highway 401 regularly stalls to stop-and-go traffic anywhere along a 100-km stretch. And as the ripples of auto-dependent sprawl spread ever wider, there is a perceived need to build even more traffic-facilitating infrastructure. (Meanwhile, as in jurisdictions across North America, it’s almost impossible to find money to fix the crumbling auto infrastructure built decades or generations ago.)

In Ontario, the quest for congestion relief has taken the form of a new privately-operated toll road, taking a wide swing around the northern edges of the Toronto megalopolis. On Highway 401 a single careless driver can at any time cause a traffic-snarling accident that delays thousands of other drivers, often for hours. But on the new toll expressway, tolls are set so high that traffic nearly always moves at standard “highway speeds”.

And that’s a good thing, since at these far edges of exurbia, there are a high proportion of “extreme commuters”.[19] A lot of drivers at the new Highway 401/418 t-junction will be commuting a long distance, so it’s very important to them that they can drive these entry and exit ramps at full highway speed. (Too bad for those who can’t afford the tolls – they’ll have to stay on the low-class public highway. And even the toll-payers will at some point have to exit onto slow-moving, congested arterials.)

The method to Musk’s madness

When Elon Musk decided to sell electric cars to Americans, he followed a century-old playbook. First, put out an exclusive product endowed with marvelous powers of acceleration and speed. (Never mind that the buyers will be subject to the same speed limits and traffic congestion as everyone else – you can accelerate from 0 – 97 km in less than 4 seconds!) Then, having cleansed his electric-car brand of any taint of performance anxiety, he began marketing the later Model 3 at a price point that average American motorists could afford.

But an individual car is of no value. It only functions as part of an elaborate system of laws, roads, parking lots, and energy production and distribution – car culture, in other words. And car culture has proven to be a colossal waste of space, time and energy.

So if there are indeed intelligent aliens, they won’t be taken in by Musk’s unsolicited offer of a used car.

If there is extraterrestrial intelligence, that stray Roadster will be marked “Return to Sender.”


Top photo: composite by An Outside Chance from StarMan in Space video.


[1] David E. Nye, Consuming Power, MIT Press, 1997, page 178

[2] Nye, Consuming Power, page 205

[3] quoted from “Willie K.’s Cars #1: The 1900 23-HP Daimler “White Ghost

[4] Greg Wapling, “Land Speed Racing History

[5] Tom McCarthy, Auto Mania, Yale University Press, 2007, page 2

[6] Nye, Consuming Power, page 196

[7] Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy, Verso, 2013, page 41

[8] McCarthy, Auto Mania, page 7

[9] McCarthy, Auto Mania, page 39

[10] McCarthy, Auto Mania, page 37

[11] Nye, Consuming Power, page 177

[12] Nye, Consuming Power, page 180

[13] Nye, Consuming Power, page 187

[14] Nye, Consuming Power, page 223

[15] Nye, Consuming Power, page 221

[16] Washington Post, February 22, 2017, “The American commute is worse today than it’s ever been

[17] While both Consuming Power and Auto Mania restrict their focuses to the United States, car culture in Canada closely mirrors that in the US. Not only does the manufacturing chain function as if there is no border, but the pattern of car-dependent suburban development is pretty much the same in Canada as in the US as well.

[18] From many sources, including Business Insider, Aug 29, 2012

[19] See chart “Extreme commutes are the fastest growing” in Washington Post, Feb 22, 2017


An enthusiastic embrace of a mysterious planet

Also published at Resilience.org.

Let’s face it, most of us don’t love the environment most of the time. More often than not, the environment is too cold, too hot, too buggy, too dry or too wet, and we try to keep it safely on the far side of a window or a TV screen.

Bicycle travel has a way of breaking us out of that narrow band of comfort. When we ride for more than a few days in one direction, it’s almost certain to rain or to snow, the wind will blow in the wrong direction, or perhaps it will get still and sultry and we’ll complain that there’s no wind at all. We either give up cycle touring, or we expand our appreciation beyond “nice” weather.

Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road, by Kate Harris, 2018, Knopf Canada, 300 pages

Yet few travelling cyclists will embrace the environment, in all its moods, with the eagerness shown by Kate Harris. That enthusiasm is just one of the qualities that makes Lands of Lost Borders so inspirational. Her book is one of the finest bike-trip travelogues ever written – but the wide-ranging reflections spurred by long hours on the road make her memoir a great read even for people with no interest in cycling.

Ironically, Harris’ deep dive in this earthly environment – via a months-long ride on the Silk Road and through Tibet – resulted from her growing disenchantment with an extra-terrestrial itinerary. A childhood dream of becoming a Mars-bound astronaut led to a stellar academic career, with a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford and admission to a PhD program at MIT.

It wasn’t the difficulty or the danger of a Mars mission that put her off. Rather, a summer-long Mars simulation exercise in the Utah desert brought an unbearable sense of separation:

As four crewmates and I trundled around Utah in canvas spacesuits, I found myself disconcerted by the fact that when I gazed at a mountain, I saw a veneer of Plexiglas. When I reached out to touch canyon walls the colour of embers, I felt the synthetic fabric of my glove instead of the smooth, sun-warmed sandstone. As all kinds of weather howled outside my spacesuit, I heard either radio static or my percussive panting amplified in the plastic helmet, like I was breathing down my own neck.”

Giving up the dream of going to Mars wasn’t easy. “The first sign of doubt is a renewed fanaticism,” she observes, and she threw herself into preparatory work doing a master’s degree at Oxford followed by graduate work in windowless labs at MIT. Eventually, though, she could not resist the urge to clear her head by going for a bike ride with her long-time friend Melissa – a 10,000 km ride, from Turkey to Tibet, through snowstorms, days of winter rains, against fierce winds on plateaus higher than any mountain peak in North America, across baking deserts and into teeming cities.

Her book would be superb if it merely catalogued the adventures of the road, or if it merely described her gradual coming to terms with the flaws and limitations of childhood heroes such as Marco Polo and Charles Darwin. But she also allows readers to share her sense of wonder at the lands she is visiting:

Deserts have long been landscapes of revelation, as though the clean-bitten clarity of so much space heightens receptivity to frequencies otherwise missed in the white noise of normal life. This was especially true just before dawn on the Ustyurt Plateau, when the horizon glowed and shimmered like something about to happen. As the sun rose it tugged gold out of the ground and tossed it everywhere, letting the land’s innate wealth loose from a disguise of dust. The air smelled of baked dirt spiced with dew and sage. Our bicycles cast long cool shadows that grew and shrank with the desert’s rise and fall, its contours so subtle we needed those shadows to see them. The severity of the land, the softness of the light – where opposites meet is magic.”

Blizzards, sandstorms, endless mud, these are challenges to be relished – but borders are insufferable. In spite of her success in sneaking across border checkpoints for unauthorized rides across Tibet – not once but twice – some of the borders are non-negotiable, causing long delays and major changes in route. With enough time for reflection, however, even these borders help her to deeper understandings:

Whether buttressed with dirt roads or red tape, barbed wire or bribes, the various walls of the world have one aspect in common: they all posture as righteous and necessary parts of the landscape. That we live on a planet drawn and quartered is a fact most Canadians have the luxury of ignoring, for our passports open doors everywhere – with the notable exception of Central Asia, where North Americans face the kind of suspicion and resistance would-be tourists from Uzbekistan get from Canada ….”

Is there a recipe for a successful bike trip across a remote continent? Kate Harris would likely say that’s the wrong question. It doesn’t matter how far away, how exotic, how difficult or how long your journey is, it only matters that you throw yourself into the experience:

Departure is simple: you step out the door, onto your bike, into the wind of your life. What’s hard is not looking back, not measuring gain or loss by lapsed time, or aching legs, or the leering kilometre markers of ambition. You are on your way when you decipher the pounding of rain as Morse code for making progress. You are getting closer when you recognize doubt as the heaviest burden on your bike and toss it aside, for when it comes to exploring, any direction will do. You have finally arrived when you realize that persistent creak you’ve been hearing all this time is not your wheels, not your mind, but the sound of the planet turning.”


Illustration at top adapted from “Lands of Lost Borders Highlights Reel” video, viewed via kateharris.ca.

Acoustic conditions, conservation planning, and the St. Marys mine

How much external noise can you add to a wetland environment before the wildlife inhabitants really start to suffer?

Relatively little scientific research appears to have been conducted on this subject. Yet an understanding of cumulative noise pollution is essential to properly assessing the long-term impact of the proposed St. Marys Cement under-the-lake mine south of Bowmanville.

A recently published research paper found biochemical markers of increased stress levels, as well as reduced hatching success, among birds chronically exposed to industrial noise. We’ll get to that paper below, but first, here’s a refresher on the setting for the mine proposal.

The St. Marys mine proposal (official Project Description here) describes a mine-entrance tunnel near the bottom of the existing limestone quarry on the Lake Ontario shoreline. The tunnel will lead to under-the-lake caverns, which will be excavated over a 100-year period.

The project site is adjacent to two Provincially Significant Wetlands, Westside Marsh and Bowmanville Marsh. These wetlands are among the remnants of what was once a very extensive array of coastal wetlands all around Lake Ontario. The remaining coastal wetlands are still of key importance to resident and migratory bird populations and to many freshwater fish species who depend on the wetlands at some stage of their life-cycles.

If the project is approved as proposed, 4 million tonnes of limestone will be blasted and hauled out from these caverns each year. The operation will require ventilation fans moving fresh air into the mine and exhaust air back out, to enable work to be conducted throughout a network of chambers that will eventually extend approximately 14 square kilometers under the lake.

Mining trucks will carry the limestone out of the mine and into the quarry, where it will be crushed into aggregate suitable for construction use. Then approximately 500 truckloads per day (based on seven days/week haulage) will leave the St. Marys site carrying aggregate to the primary market on the east side of the Greater Toronto Area.

The environmental viability of the project must be assessed by looking at the cumulative effects. The blasting, drilling, ventilation fans, trucks and crushers will add noise to an environment that is already anything but quiet.

At present both Westside Marsh and Bowmanville Marsh are subject to significant anthropogenic noise levels on a 24-hour basis. The operations of St. Marys are just one component of that noise.

Noise from St. Marys existing operations comes from blasting and hauling limestone immediately to the west of Westside Marsh, trucking of cement products, and major excavation and berm-building directly north of Westside Marsh.

Another constant noise source is Highway 401, just to the north. At present the traffic noise consists of a constant loud hum, punctuated by accelerating trucks, motorcycles, and sirens. The St. Marys mine would add to that traffic noise, as 500 or more additional trucks come and go every day. (The route in and out of the St. Marys property, and on and off the 401, are shown in yellow on the above map.)

One of the busiest rail lines in Canada passes directly north of the quarry, about 500 meters north of Westside Marsh, and through the north end of Bowmanville Marsh.

Above, an eastbound CN freight train skirts the St. Marys quarry and cement plant. Below, a CN freight train on the bridge over Soper Creek at the north end of Bowmanville Marsh.


Noise and stress in bird populations

A recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US) notes that noise pollution “alters habitats, degrades natural acoustic conditions, and partially or fully excludes species that are sensitive to noise exposure from affected areas.”1

Among the species that remain in noise-affected environments, the effects on survival and fitness are complex. One way to study this is to correlate measured noise levels with measured levels of baseline circulating stress hormones (glucocorticoids) in birds. The paper notes,

To date, no studies have simultaneously examined relationships among noise, GCs [glucocorticoids], and fitness in animals that settle and breed in natural areas exposed to chronic anthropogenic noise.

The paper looked at three species of cavity-nesting birds with different noise tolerances, in a New Mexico wildland which is now interrupted by an array of natural gas compressors. The evidence “strongly suggests that chronic anthropogenic noise induces stress and hypocorticism in birds.” Furthermore, with one of the studied species, the western bluebird, increased noise was correlated with a lower rate of hatching success.

There are a number of explanations for the stress response.

At lower exposure levels, anthropogenic noise is more likely to elicit stress responses indirectly by increasing the difficulty of coping with external challenges (e.g., territory defense) or by creating anxiety through reduced detectability and predictability of threats (e.g., acoustic masking of predator alarm sounds), or both.

Given the capacity for chronic noise to consistently mask biologically relevant cues, animals living in areas with high levels of noise may fail to receive information about their local habitats, leading to a continual state of perceived unpredictability and reduced security.

Citing a range of other studies, the authors further explain how chronic noise pollution disrupts the normal sensory perceptions of wildlife.

The distance over which birdsong and other sounds are effectively transmitted, their ‘active space’, is significantly reduced by increases in ambient background noise. Anthropogenic noise, acting as an acoustic blanket, can reduce or inhibit detection of hetero- and conspecific vocalizations that birds and other animals use to gain information about predation threats. For example, the presence of birdsong and chatter is thought to signal the absence of nearby predators.

How does noise pollution affect the wildlife in Westside and Bowmanville Marshes? Are there species which would otherwise make these wetlands home, if it weren’t for chronic noise levels? With increasing noise levels, will some of the existing species be driven out, or will the populations be weakened due to lower reproduction rates? These are complex questions – but they must be answered before the impacts of additional noise, due to a major mining/extraction project, can be properly assessed.

In spite of huge environmental challenges these wetlands remain home to a wide variety of species. Within this small area there are cattail marshes, open water, wetland forest, upland forest, and even a small fen. Among the many species that live here are various waterfowl, fish, wading birds, osprey, kingfisher, beaver, muskrat, and predators including otter, weasel, marten, raccoon, coyote and fox. These wetlands are also vital staging areas for the many migratory birds which fly over Lake Ontario in the spring and fall.

Raccoon on the bank of Westside Creek at the north end of a beaver pond; ospreys which nest each year on platforms in Westside Marsh; juvenile Black-Crown Night Heron photographed in Bowmanville Marsh.

These wetlands are officially designated as “Provincially Significant Marshes”. The review process for the St. Marys under-the-lake mine must make us ask, how much significance does the province actually afford to this environment?

The authors of the paper on noise pollution and avian stress levels note,

In this era of unprecedented, large-scale human-driven environmental change, preservation or recovery of natural acoustic conditions should be a key aspect of conservation planning and is a critical step toward successful conservation of protected species.

Given the importance of natural acoustic conditions to conservation planning, should the province of Ontario give the OK to increased noise pollution from St. Marys Cement?


1“Chronic anthropogenic noise disrupts glucocorticoid signaling and has multiple effects on fitness in an avian community”, Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, 14 November 2017