Hi, I'm Brandon Thomson. Welcome to my little corner of the Internet.
I'm gonna start with a serious topic, so brace yourself!
After studying the issue, I think the world in the coming decades will be increasingly affected by scarcity of critical resources like petroleum and fresh water. In this essay I'd like to focus on cars as a "jumping-off" point to help you begin or continue your own research on resource depletion. I'll also share an experiment I'm trying which you may find interesting.
Why would anyone research this?
I'm a computer engineer by training and a software developer by trade: obviously not an expert on resources or geology. But one reason I am observing these trends is to help me change my behavior. In the future, I expect there will be fewer resources available for me. By choosing to develop more sustainable habits now, perhaps I will have less to worry about later on?
Cars and Resources
Cars are a tiny part of a very big problem. Most cars rely on petroleum, which is one of several resources that are becoming scarce. And a lot of very important things compete with cars for use of petroleum, including semi-trucks, tractors, and combines.
Many people are unconcerned about the situation with petroleum because they assume that even if oil does go into permanent decline, clever new technologies (like electric cars) will allow us to continue living the way we do without major changes. However, you may want to learn about the many limitations of these technologies before you pin your hopes on them.
Today, cars are sometimes used for important tasks. But perhaps more often they are used for things that are not truly essential. In the future, many of these non-essential uses will end to keep more petroleum available for the essential things (like food production and fixing power lines).
This process of eliminating non-essential uses has already begun and perhaps so smoothly that you did not even notice. But for others it is very difficult, and I expect their difficulty to grow.
Why is car ownership falling?
Since 2007, the number of American households without a car has been rising. There is not a consensus about the reasons for this. In some essays it is framed more as disinterest than economic difficulty: for some reason Millenials don't mind living in cities, and they don't need cars because they have smartphones and Uber and public transit! These claims are sometimes backed up by polls.
Don't get the wrong idea. I think it is wonderful that people are finding alternatives to car ownership. This is something that needs to happen. It is simply that I want to understand the cause and effect here. And because it is well-documented that Millenials are facing an epic student debt load and greater wealth inequality than previous generations, perhaps economic difficulty is a part of this puzzle for this segment of the population?
What does economic difficulty have to do with resource scarcity?
You might be aware that there was a drop in the percentage of people working that began around the year 2000 and accelerated after the "Great Recession". That drop has not reversed itself. Here is the chart, take a look:
And unfortunately, it seems likely that the imminent peak in oil production will further aggravate the employment situation. Prolonged economic recession is a very real possibility. Therefore, I do not expect there to be much relief for the many people who are looking for work.
So what? Who cares?
If you are a technology worker like me, then you are luckier than most. We tend to have better-than-average wages and job security. And so although it seems likely that cars will eventually be unavailable to us, too, for now we are fine. In fact, it seems likely that other problems associated with resource scarcity will begin to directly impact most of us long before we experience trouble purchasing and driving automobiles.
But consider your peers: a lot of people really live at the edge as far as finances. They don't have a lot of "buffer" to deal with unexpected changes. So when used car prices rise quickly but their wages do not, it is a tricky situation. When they have difficulty finding a job at all, it is a tricky situation. Not everyone who experiences financial difficulty is going to be able or willing to relocate to a city where a car is less necessary. And even within cities, public transit is not always sufficient to get people to jobs.
Personally I do not view this situation as hopeless or futile, but it is going to require people to change. Next, then, let me talk about one approach I've personally tested.
My experiment: Bicycling in the suburbs
Over the last few years I've been learning to get by on the outskirts of the Northern Virginia suburbs without owning a car. Having grown up with ready access to vehicles, it's been quite a pain in the ass! But I've been doing it for four years now and I've learned a lot.
I am not talking about this here because I hope to receive praise or accolades. Rather, I want to present my own experience so that you can use it to help you figure out whether a bicycle is a realistic option for your personal situation, or not.
And before I talk more about it, let me make it clear that I am not a bicycling nerd: I am interested in the bicycle mostly as a tool to help me meet my survival needs, not in bicycling for its own sake. If I just wanted to have fun, there are much more fun things I would rather do with my time than ride and maintain a bicycle! In other words, I am very practically-minded when it comes to bicycling.
Owning a bicycle has been a helpful part of making the “car-free” thing work for me. Here, we have zero public transit. Nadda! And you can't realistically rely on your feet to go more than a mile or so. The bicycle has opened up better choices for grocery shopping and allows me to reach a local farm and the post office without hiring a taxi.
As I mentioned before, I live on the outskirts of the Northern Virginia suburbs and the infrastructure here is not set up very well for bicycling. It's doable, but the traffic is heavy and high-speed, the shoulders are small, and the signals sometimes ignore you. To get some idea, check out this video I recorded in 2013:
Bicycle ownership is not the perfect solution for all transportation needs. That's doubly true here in the US where things are spread out and bicycling infrastructure usually sucks. But if you're interested in learning more about using a bicycle for chores or commuting, I have prepared a separate essay including the useful things I've learned from bicycling in suburbia.
So check that out if you like, and consider reposting this content or sharing it! But here I am going to return to the subject of cars and resource scarcity.
Will there be abrupt changes?
History shows that difficulty with automobiles can sometimes increase abruptly for large numbers of people. In the past such events have been resolved relatively quickly, which is good. But when considering the possibilities for the future, I try to remember that the present situation is not like anything we have ever experienced before. I do think it is helpful to learn from historical events, so long as we remember that the overall situation now is not the same as things were then.
Hopefully we'll be able to avoid those kinds of shocks going forward because it is much harder to adapt to abrupt change. For example, you cannot realistically relocate to a city in a week because you're suddenly unable to buy fuel for your car.
Making effective changes in your lifestyle
When people discover Peak Oil or the problems that are related to it, they are often motivated to make changes in their lives. That is good, and it is necessary. But it is also important to make sure that you are really making improvements. Changes which are merely neutral or even detrimental are not helpful.
For example, if you get involved in "local food," that is good! But if you drive your car 25 extra miles each week to visit a "local farm", then it is quite possible you are consuming more resources than if you had just continued to stop at a closer grocery store on your way home from work. If that is the case, then it is a setback and not an improvement. Therefore, that is an example of a way that you might accidentally make a well-intentioned but foolish change.
I have made plenty of these kinds of mistakes myself. The problem here is taking action prematurely, before you really understand how the world works and what you are getting yourself into.
This is one reason why I do not promote a lot of random ideas on this website. Instead, I am talking about one idea: using a bicycle instead of a car. Of course, this is not the only change I have made in my life... not by a long shot! But I do not want to encourage people to do the things that I am doing which might turn out to be unexpectedly harmful, or too impractical, or that I do not yet fully understand.
Likewise, I want to make sure that if you take my suggestion and consider using a bicycle instead of a car to get around, that you understand as many of the implications of that as possible before you actually do anything. That way, you can avoid doing something foolish with the idea (like buying a bicycle that you will never use because it simply cannot work for you).
Will increased efficiency solve our energy problem?
Greater efficiency makes it at least theoretically possible to get better use out of a declining supply of oil. For example, if everyone's cars magically doubled in efficiency tomorrow, then twice as many people could drive consuming the same amount of oil as before.
I said theoretically because it's tricky: sometimes greater efficiency just leads to greater waste. Also, greater efficiency doesn't necessarily solve economic problems: if a person doesn't have a job so they can't afford to buy a car, then simply doubling the car's efficiency might not help them much. You'd have to make the car cheaper, too.
That said, compared to what they could be, our current cars are relatively fast, large, and bulky. In a certain way, that is good: it means incredible efficiency gains are available to people who can switch to lightweight vehicles. These are already in wide use in less affluent nations, but they are generally unsuitable for highway speeds and do not meet current US safety standards. So for now people here have to make do with things like mopeds which have different rules.
Motor vehicles are so useful that they will obviously still be used even if oil becomes very scarce and costs 10x or 50x what it does today. But they would have to become a lot slower and lighter, and the whole paradigm of using a car to commute to work would obviously break down for the average person at that point. Small motor vehicles would be used more in the way that draft animals have been used in the past: for farming tasks and to move heavy loads (possibly including people, but mostly larger numbers of people) shorter distances at slower speeds.
Would you recommend the car-free lifestyle to others?
Not necessarily. People's circumstances vary wildly. Some have children, others don't. Some can work online or locally, others cannot. There is value in conserving petroleum and being prepared for disruptive changes, but we also have to be realistic.
Still, I think it is wise for everyone to consider the possibilities and to have plans for what they could do if fuel suddenly became difficult to obtain. And regardless of your plans here, I am glad that you have read this essay. Even if you cannot personally find a way to make use of these ideas, they can spread through you to others who will be able to use them.
Clearly I can't conclude this essay without mentioning electric cars. Perhaps while reading you have been scolding me with this thought: oil is peaking, but we will all switch to electric cars and continue as before! There is no problem! But I have left this until the end for a reason: I do not think "electric cars" are a good solution.
It really comes down to resources. Earth has a limited supply of them, and very many people need them. Given this fact, does it make more sense for one wealthy American family to get an electric car, or for 100 rural families to get access to light, cooling, and cellphone charging? I think one of those things is more fair than the other. And if you assume that cost is an accurate proxy for resource usage, then that really is the magnitude of the trade off we're talking about.
The problem isn't only in developing nations. As we've seen above, car ownership is declining in America as wealth inequality is increasing. Conservation of resources is happening, and it's happening because increasing numbers of poorer people are being denied access. So I ask you, is an expensive new car technology really the wisest use of our limited resources?
And indeed, electric cars are not cheap. Many rely on government subsidies to be cost-competitive. And although the auto industry likes these "high-end" vehicles because they are more profitable, it seems that what we really need are vehicles which are easier to afford for people experiencing economic difficulty.
Oh, and if we do switch to electric cars, the pollution impact could be immense. That's because renewables will never provide more than a tiny portion of our energy needs, and we don't seem to be building new nuclear plants, either. That leaves coal to make up most of the slack. And in the US there is a lot of coal available to make extra electricity for electric cars, which could be seen as a good thing or a bad thing depending on how much you dislike pollution.
Personally, I'm much more interested in electric bicycles or quadracycles. If you can keep the vehicles slow and lightweight, their efficiency goes up by orders of magnitude. And low-speed vehicles are safer, too! But they aren't much fun in the rain, and a 50 mile commute at 15 mph isn't very realistic. So there are obvious limitations.
My Final Thought
To wrap up, I will repeat what I said at the beginning. In the greater picture, cars are a relatively small concern. Semi-trucks are more important. Tractors and combines are more important. Fresh water is more important. Life cannot possibly continue without these things. Just something to keep in mind as you proceed with your research.
Thanks for reading,
There are no comments on this site, but comments are enabled over on the Change Log. That's a blog where I discuss updates to this site, and the posts are short and informal. If you have some thoughts you'd like to share, that's the place!
You can also find me at: Github
Since you're reading this, I assume you might be curious about using a bicycle for chores or commuting. Here are a few things you might not be aware of:
Compared to a car, it takes more time and effort to get ready for bicycle trips. Particularly in the winter, careful attention must be paid to wardrobe. If there is a chance of rain or snow, you must consider that. You have to check your tire pressure. If you use clipless pedals, then you need to change shoes. You might have to mess with your cargo rack or your bags.
There is more to do at your destination. You have to lock up the bike (and that may not eliminate the risk of theft, depending on where you live). If you don't want your lights and accessories to get stolen, they have to be removed and brought with you. Detaching baskets or bags from your cargo rack takes some time. During the winter you will also want to remove some of your heavy winter clothing because businesses are heated to absurd temperatures.
At first, all of this will seem like a great hassle. But do not assume that it will always seem like a great hassle. Give it time! If you bike regularly and develop habits, it is not bad. You will eventually start getting ready 10-20 minutes earlier than you would for a car trip, and everything will magically take care of itself as you go through your routine.
Unlike a car, it is very realistic to do all your own maintenance on your bicycle: one book will teach you pretty much everything you need to know. Depending on where you live, tools and replacement parts can be ordered online for delivery. If you lack a car, this fact makes bicycle ownership a much more realistic and affordable option in suburban/rural areas where you're not going to have a bike shop within walking distance for the inevitable repairs.
More advice for beginners:
That's what I know about bicycling!
I earn my living through software development and I do most of my work in the Go language. I'm not sure Go is a great choice yet for people who want job security, but the language is excellent for building maintainable software and I can highly recommend it if that is your primary concern.
Here are some of my open-source golang packages:
I still have a lot of Go code I use privately that needs to be cleaned up and released, so this section will surely grow over time.
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Legend has it that the standard QWERTY keyboard layout we all know and love was designed to slow typists down so they wouldn’t jam up the keys on old typewriters with long levers. True? Who knows. In the modern era we have an alternative in the Dvorak layout, developed in 1936 by a guy named (you guessed it) Dvorak. Supposedly he studied common English texts and assigned letters proper positions based on their frequency, thus saving us all many many miles of finger travel, if only we would use it.
Sounds reasonable, right? I certainly thought so.
I used a Dvorak keyboard layout for more than seven years. It was fun and liberating in the beginning. Not only was there the sense that I was cooler than everyone else, but I invariably got to enjoy a humorous little moment whenever someone tried to type something on my machine (alternate keyboard layouts are very rare in this country and almost always elict profound confusion). “Having a little trouble there? Oh, ha ha, let me help you with that.” That was always entertaining.
Truth is, though, I never typed any faster with Dvorak. I’ve always been around a 60wpm typist when I’m trying, and it was generally the same after a month or two of full-time Dvorak use.
The biggest difference with Dvorak was how comfortable it was for normal English sentences. It’s hard to explain how a keyboard could be more “comfortable” to someone who’s never tried an alternative layout, but basically there’s less stress on your fingers because they don’t have to move as far. Typing feels very fluid with Dvorak; QWERTY is just frenetic by comparison.
You’re probably wondering why I switched back after seven years. It’s true that it was annoying to need to learn how to change a keyboard layout every time I used a new operating system (Windows, Mac Classic, Mac OS X, FreeBSD, Linux, I knew how to do it everywhere), but it was certainly doable.
But no, the real problem is that if you do not control the machine, you cannot change the layout.
Back when I was attending a university I was embarrassed to look like a computer novice in front of the other students whenever I needed to use a public terminal. I had to revert to hunt-and-peck because the keyboard layout was not changeable (and for good reason, I suppose). I don’t much mind looking stupid, but it does get old explaining to people why you cannot in fact type on a standard keyboard.
The issue became more serious when I needed to use locked-down Windows and Solaris systems to take exams. Typing speed was essential and it just wasn’t possible for a mere user to change the keyboard layout. You could say the school deserves blame for failing to allow this, but didn’t I deserve more blame for being a weirdo? Anyone who considers using Dvorak should know that any time you take a computerized test like the GRE, you can bet you won’t be able to change the layout.
The other big problem with Dvorak is that programming languages and keyboard shortcuts are almost invariably designed around a QWERTY layout. Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V? Not exactly convenient in a Dvorak layout. Linux commands like ‘ls’ which are easy to type in QWERTY are more painful in Dvorak. These things are more important and annoying than you might imagine unless you have used Dvorak for a long time. It also wasn’t uncommon to find software, especially full-screen games, which ignored the system keyboard layout and assumed I wanted QWERTY. Flash games that used the keyboard were usually pretty awful too.
I wasn’t a Vim user at the time, but I doubt Vim with Dvorak is as nice as Vim with QWERTY. Sure, some users have written little hacks that change the keys around to make it more usable, but I bet there are plugin incompatibilities, problems, and stupid annoyances that come because it’s just not a popular configuration.
I loved Dvorak for all its merits, but I’ve also learned the value of adhering to a flawed standard. I suspect I won’t be switching back.
Lately I've been making an effort to publish more of my "internal" software. You know, the stuff that I wrote just for my use on my own box?
I'll admit I have mixed feelings about publishing this stuff. On the one hand, it seems like a crime that so many tens of thousands of lines of interesting code will disappear forever if I get hit by a bus or something, especially when it's so easy for me to post it online. On the other hand, I do like for there to be a certain minimum level of quality in software that I publish, and my own internal tools are often not up to snuff. I also recognize that much of what I write is hyper-specific to my own needs and will probably never be used by even a single other person, so there's no point in polluting the global hive mind with it.
Thus, while I'll never be one of those people who publishes every last bit of my code and configuration data, I think I should probably publish more of it than I have in the past. Without further ado, then, here are a few of my internal tools:
golang-scrollback-search — A terminal app that helps you search in a running command's scrollback. Particularly useful for servers which spew huge amounts of log data.
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