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Bike Walk Life

News and commentary from the world of biking and walking.

Technological utopias and mobility

I recently found a research paper signal-boosted by No Tech Magazine. One of its messages is that technology-based utopias can only succeed within narrowly defined systems. This quote struck me:

For instance, one liter of semi-skimmed milk, bought in a British supermarket, has an energy content of 380 kcal. However, to think of the milk in terms of energy also evokes the far-reaching social and environmental contexts that bring milk to the market.

[…] We might include the energy content of processed cattle feed, electricity used to run milking machines, cooling tanks, water boilers, and lighting, energy inputs in alkaline and acid detergents, diesel for tractors, and a wide range of other energy technologies used in production.

You can read the whole paper here: “System boundaries as epistemological and ethnographic problems: Assessing energy technology and socio-environmental impact” by Gustav Cederlöf and Alf Hornborg.

While many people will agree that our daily mobility uses far too much energy, few of us can comprehend its complete cost. To fully calculate the cost of driving your car down a block, we must add the cost of infrastructure, bureaucracy, land use, maintenance, policing, and not to mention human health and ecological damage. The list goes on. Driving a car can only be considered cheap and energy-efficient as long as we don’t consider the larger system.

Pseudo-utopian visions of all-electric vehicles doesn’t change that big picture. A car, no matter it’s energy source, will always be an inefficient and costly form of mobility.

Biking and walking are antidotes to this problem. Walking down the street relies on no more energy or infrastructure than what our ancient predecessors had. We must be open to embrace low-tech, or no-tech, solutions to our modern crises.