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May. 30 2010 - 2:08 pm | 183 views | 0 recommendations | 12 comments

Where are the Steve Wozniaks of the energy revolution?

BP Oil Plume, May 29, 2010

Just as the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico clouds the waters there, all the drama and tragedy of BP’s oil disaster obscures a larger issue, writes Bill Kovarik. Now a professor of communications at Radford University, Kovarik covered the environment and other issues for wire services and daily newspapers for many years.

He posted the following note to a professional listserv this morning, reprinted here with his permission:

“I’m worried that most of the discussion of the larger problem is fairly anemic. Scanning my Google News, I’m seeing a few weak ideas about more hybrids and better fuel economy and maybe some subsidies for public transport.

I don’t see much about the larger problem of how we are going to replace petroleum in the international economy over the long term. I mean, is it even possible? Who has thought of it? How can we get “beyond rhetoric” and think about really getting “beyond petroleum”?

Why it is that the social construction of energy technology is so much more difficult than the social construction of, say, computing and the digital media revolution?

Was IBM that much less of a challenge than Standard Oil?

Where are the Steve Wozniaks of the energy revolution?”

Great questions. What is the next step after the oil well is finally capped? Business as usual? Even though that’s what got us here in the first place?

Or, something else – something new?


Bill Kovarik teaches at Radford University and Virgina Tech. He is currently writing a textbook, Revolutions in Communications: From Gutenberg to the Digital Age, for Continuum Books, London.


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  1. collapse expand

    Again, wow. Just wow. I just don’t understand how someone who is supposed to be “informed” can be so benighted.

    “Why it is that the social construction of energy technology is so much more difficult than the social construction of, say, computing and the digital media revolution?”

    Because computing and digital media are dependent on a particular energy infrastructure. A socioeconomic energy infrastructure of a certain energy density is a prerequisite for these technologies. You’re not gonna spin up a DVD with a hand crank. You can’t stick a wind turbine on a bulldozer. The energy density simply isn’t there.

    “I don’t see much about the larger problem of how we are going to replace petroleum in the international economy over the long term. I mean, is it even possible? Who has thought of it? How can we get “beyond rhetoric” and think about really getting “beyond petroleum”?”

    I’m afraid the cold hard facts are that the answer to all these questions is “No.” I’ll give just one example right off the top of my head: the so-called hydrogen economy. It sounds good superficially, but only because most people aren’t familiar with the devil in the details. And the devil in this case is “hydrogen.”
    It’s simple really. A gallon of gasoline has five times as many hydrogen atoms in it as a gallon of liquid hydrogen. That’s what makes gasoline so damn useful (I’ll spare you the chemistry). When you realize this, you realize that we’re already running on a “hydrogen” economy, and what’s really being discussed is a transition from a high energy density hydrogen economy to a much lower energy density hydrogen economy. Suddenly the idea loses a whole lot of its luster.
    That’s the whole problem with a “green” economy. There is nothing green about industrialism. Industrialism is a socioeconomic system that employs the concentrated consumption of resources to raise the human carrying capacity of a given piece of real estate.
    You can’t grow enough food in the physical space occupied by the city of Chicago to feed the people who live in that space. That’s as cold and hard a fact as there is in this world.
    Like everyone else, the environmentalists are simply in denial.

    • collapse expand

      Amen. Notice that the good Professor (of *Communications,* not exactly a subject awash in scientists) works at the same place OP does.

      Also let’s not forget that the H-H bond contains far, far less energy than the C-C bond.

      As far as “where are the [Apple Cos.] of energy” goes, here’s your answer: gasoline is still dirt cheap. It’s cheaper than milk. Unless you’re really willing to tax the shitload out of it or soak the rich to let people buy hybrids (AND pay for replacement batteries, the biggest cost and biggest problem), your pipe dream will remain just that.

      Thus, subsidies for public transportation and creating urban density are really our best options. But they’re not sexy. Which is probably why a Communications prof thought it was safe to weigh in.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      I’m sorry but what the fuck are you talking about? Who are the environmentalists that you think want to plow under Chicago for farmland?

      When you realize this, you realize that we’re already running on a “hydrogen” economy, and what’s really being discussed is a transition from a high energy density hydrogen economy to a much lower energy density hydrogen economy

      Maybe we don’t need all that energy density in the average vehicle. Is it really necessary for your car to store two weeks’ worth of fuel at a time? Especially if it can “fill up” overnight at your house?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        “I’m sorry but what the fuck are you talking about? Who are the environmentalists that you think want to plow under Chicago for farmland?”

        I’m sorry that you’re an idiot who can’t read fucking english. Since reposting my original comment would be pointless (as you couldn’t understand it the first time around, how the hell is a second time going to help?), I’ll simply point out what everyone else who speaks english on this board already knows:

        AT NO POINT DID I SAY ONE WORD ABOUT PLOWING UNDER CHICAGO FOR FARMLAND YOU FUCKING MORON.

        The key phrase in my comment was “carrying capacity.” You obviously have a computer in front of you. Look it up. But be very careful, or you just might fucking learn something.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      “You can’t grow enough food in the physical space occupied by the city of Chicago to feed the people who live in that space. That’s as cold and hard a fact as there is in this world.”

      I’m glad to see someone say that. I hear many people in the slow food and local food communities defend the opposite. That everyone in Chicago or New York City can (and should) be fed locally. I just don’t see how that can be accomplished.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Jesus Christ. When they say “local” they don’t literally mean that you should plant a farm on your roof. They mean your tomatoes shouldn’t have to be shipped in from Peru.

        The farms of Illinois can feed Chicago; the farms of New York State can feed New York. That’s “local.” Nobody’s talking about plowing under Chicago for farmland except darth-retarded up there.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          Hi Justin,

          Sorry. I was referring to the locavore’s definition … where all food is produced within a few hundred miles, and inputs are also sourced locally (water, fuel, fertilizer, crop amendments). A self-reliant loop, organic to boot … which I think is pretty hard to do. (Yes, vertical farming too.)

          The FDA says that 60% of our fresh produce is imported, 80% of our seafood. We import a lot of beef from South America (FAO says that livestock are responsible for 18% of greenhouse gases, more than global transport!). According to people I’ve spoken to from these movements, the goal is to have all of that sourced within 100 miles. Cattle grazeland, wheat fields. It’s just one tall order!

          In response to another comment. See in context »
          • collapse expand

            Again, a few hundred miles is meant to refer to the rural farms of your state. Vertical farming is an exciting technique to magnify land productivity, but it’s not in place anywhere in the nation.

            Localvores just want your tomatoes to come from your state, not another hemisphere. “A few hundred miles” is more than enough range to get you out to the farms that exist in your area.

            It’s just one tall order!

            Is it? A circle of 100 miles in radius from the center of the average American city encompasses an area of almost 31500 square miles, only about 20-30 of which will be urbanized. Plenty of room for agriculture.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          Well congrats, you’ve clearly come up with a brilliant plan, one I obviously am too stupid to see. So full steam ahead. Let me how that works out.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Mr. Davidson,

    The simple fact of the matter is that it is really difficult to develop a truly new technology of any kind, even more so for energy. Information technology does not generate energy or even use very much. Most of the ideas for new energy sources have already been identified and technology is pretty much already developed. Sun, wind, or wave -based technologies already exists and the basic physics and engineer are already known. While there is plenty of room for refinement, fundamentally new technology is not just waiting about to be found.

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