Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Long Arm of Unintended Consequences

It is no great trick to trace this summer’s rush to meet emissions testing deadlines (Reuters story: VW to temporarily park cars due to new emissions testing bottlenecks) back to 1976 and policy responses to oil price shocks and shortages. After four decades of a push to improve automotive efficiency, countered by a resistance to that push, the automobile industry still has not found a sensible balance.

Those with a deep knowledge of colonialism and its effect of the oil industry can add at least another 30 years to the backstory. When the urge to burn fossil fuels efficiently surfaced in the 1970s, it was a reaction to decades of artificially low prices for fossil fuels. That in turn was possible because the oil and automotive industries and the mining tycoons before them had been leaning on geopolitical muscle to transfer and obscure most of the costs of obtaining and burning fossil fuels. Mine owners and automakers just wanted a smoother path to profit. The parking lots full of untested cars in the summer of 2018 are the unintended consequence of compromises made in haste in the 1860s and 1960s.

My point here is not to explore the details of this particular saga, but to count the years. When things get this far out of whack, it can take a lifetime to get things back into a semblance of balance, a second lifetime to reach an effective functional balance. Just taking the example of gratuitous inefficiencies built into cars, there is little hope that this problem can be fully solved before 2050. After all, designs being drawn up this year will result in cars that are still being driven in 2050.

The time scale is the same as that of finding peace after a war, and it is no accident that political leaders used phrases like “moral equivalent of war,” “war on poverty,” and “culture war” half a lifetime ago to describe imbalances that we are still trying to fix today. If war is hell, a culture war means a culture that embodies the energies of hell. It does not matter whether you think of war or hell — the answer to either is peace. Peace comes about by solving the lingering consequences of the past on the level of one person, one car, one building, and one street.

Chances to solve the problems of past “wars” come up often, and they can be surprisingly mundane. In my life, I think of replacing my low-efficiency refrigerator five years ago or throwing away my NFL team apparel last spring. Don’t underestimate the effect on the future, including your own future, when you can put some form of “war” behind you once and for all.