Sunday, November 2, 2008

A look at the Set America Free Coalition

Set America Free is described as a coalition of several sorts of interest groups, "Tree Huggers, Do-Gooders, Sodbusters, Cheap Hawks, and Evangelicals". They are aiming to set America free from high oil prices.

Their problem statement is:- a) No Fuel Choice: Our Cars Are Addicted To Oil, b) No Fuel Choice: Our Economy Is Controlled by OPEC, c) No Fuel Choice: Our Dollars Are Bankrolling Hostile Foreign Nations

Despite the dizzying array of choice in car models they all have one thing in common: Fossil Oil, primarily gasoline, is the fuel.

The huge choice we have, is no choice at all. My observation over decades is when someone has no choice they tend to choose only the options available. We have only fossil fuel based fuel options because those are the only choices in the automaker showrooms. Theoretically any of us could build an electric car, like I have built an electric motorcycle, but trust me on this, that is not a viable solution given the amount of time it takes for an electric car conversion.

But let's take a second look at their problem statement. Can cars be addicted? Cars are lumps of metal without emotion or any other ability to be addicted. It is the people who drive those cars who are addicted. But they are not aware of the addiction, generally, because gasoline is just the way things are. Just like the question "is a fish aware of the water it breaths" are car drivers truly aware of the level to which they're dependant on fossil oil?

Is our economy controlled by OPEC specifically? In many of the videos on this site they equate purchases of oil products with the funding of terrorism. It is Arab OPEC countries that have the majority of the oil in the world. OPEC however is not entirely Arab, as there are other countries besides the Arab countries who are OPEC members. Further I've seen it said that the U.S. purchases of oil primarily do not come from Arab countries but elsewhere.

To some extent however OPEC sets the price of oil. Maybe. And one thing is clear, that the Arab countries are rich beyond wildest imagination because of the price of oil.

Another idea which should have been on their problem page is this: If there's one hard economic truth, it's this: monopolies lead to higher prices. And, they give inordinate power to the owner of the monopoly. That may be true, or may not be true. Monopolies are part of the market and as Peter Wells said at the ASPO-USA conference the Arab countries are striving to maintain oil prices within a fruitful range. They recognize that if the price is too cheap they don't get enough income, and if the price is too expensive the customers (us) will be looking for alternatives. While it seems oil is in a monopoly position over transportation there are alternatives.

Their solution? Flex Fuel Vehicles & Plug-in Hybrids.

Oil's status as a strategic commodity - as opposed to just another commodity - derives from its virtual monopoly over transportation fuels. Yeah, sure, youbetcha. While there are alternatives it is hard to make use of them and practically speaking we have little choice other than cars driven with fossil fuel. Since we individuals do not control mega corporations that make cars, we individuals have no power other than to buy whatever the car companies make for us. So their solution is to beg and plead with lawmakers and carmakers to deign to sell something that we want rather than the crapola they push on us.

That's the stereotype I read on their site.. that we individuals are powerless and all we can do is plead for the big megacorps to do the right thing.

To a large extent that is the way things are. But there are things we can do which do not require begging and pleading the megacorporations to do something.

One of the simplest things to do is to buy a biodiesel vehicle or flex fuel vehicle, and start using biofuels. It's useful to do some research into the source of the fuel you're using because of the concern over the effect of biofuels on food prices and food supply. Some biofuels come from non-food crops, and some biofuels have a high energy-return-on-investment (EROI) so if there were to be a massive switch to biofuels those are two important factors to utilize.

A little more complex is to convert a hybrid car to plug-in hybrid. There are service centers springing up to do this conversion. It will take some investment of money.

But there are more radical-seeming actions to take which are very reasonable. First thing I have to suggest is to take your blinders off and think outside the box. That is, the box that sits on four wheels. The car is a limiting conception. It takes a lot of energy to move a car around, it takes a large infrastructure to provide cars with places to drive, cars and their roads take over huge swaths of our landscape.

Mass transit often will take you where you want to go. Unfortunately America has undermined its mass transit systems with decades of neglect beginning with the destruction of mass transit systems supposedly perpetrated by GM so they could sell more cars. But most cities do have a mass transit system and mass transit operators should, when faced with increasing ridership, take the hint and increase the service offerings.

Riding two-wheeled vehicles often is more fuel or energy efficient, and has some side benefits. Bicycles for example give you exercise, and all two wheelers give you more contact with the environment than you have shielded within the cocoon of a typical car. Further there are many choices of electric bicycles and scooters which are more prevalent than electric cars. Many motorcycles are far more fuel efficient than the typical car.

Telecommuting is a growing option for many types of jobs. Electronic communications make it possible to perform many types of work without having to travel to perform that work. Obviously some professions cannot take advantage of this.

In any case those are a few ideas.. My point is that this Set America Free coalition is presenting a limited range of options, when there are more one can consider. I wonder why this is that the options they offer still have people driving in cars.

A few years ago while stuck in clogged traffic during rush hour I had this epitome. Even if all those cars were replaced with clean electric cars, we'd still have the traffic jams. Our quality of life would still be harmed by having to sit stuck in stop and go traffic. Our quality of life would still be harmed by the huge swaths of land taken up by cars and their roads. etc.

In terms of good positive policy solutions -- I'm not impressed by this coalition.

In terms of real action -- I'm not impressed. Their site gives no indication that they're doing anything real about this problem. They've got some statements on a website and a few videos hosted on youtube. Ho hum.

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