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The Rube Goldberg Machine

October 4, 2015

It sometimes happens, always with good intentions. Troubles emerge predicated on a societal improvement, but humanity marches on, like a coral colony growing ever larger and more complex on the bones of what came before. The low compression, thirty or forty horse power Model T Ford has been replaced by a computer controlled, multi-port fuel injected, turbo charged, after-cooled engine, creating toxic emissions by the pound, treated by one or more platinum coated, catalytic converters, while a series of oxygen sensors send data to the powertrain control module, reporting the burn efficiency. Despite all of these best efforts, the fossil-fueled automobile is the largest creator of air pollution in the industrial world.

You glide into your local UB Screwed station expecting the fuel to be there and to always be there. A complicated series of trucks, pipelines, refineries, storage facilities and supertankers, ensures the spigot will always be open, backed by the full faith and military power of the United States of America. A foreign and domestic policy of oil hegemony, regulates the economy as much or more than anyone elected in Washington. I wonder, asks my cynical side, what a chart of election year oil prices might reflect?

The development of the automobile was a simple progression of technology. There’s nothing wrong with the idea, but what happens when the tool controls the operator, when the tool becomes the master and the primary source of our nation’s maladies? When we must squander trillions of dollars and send our children off to die, maybe, just maybe, there’s something wrong with our fuel?

Ford is building $60,000 aluminum pickups to save weight, getting a whopping 26mpg. Wow, a whole twenty-six miles on three or four dollar gallon fuel. Plus the cost of maintenance, each vehicle requiring oil changes of a gallon of petroleum or synthetic lubricant. We all have our automotive war stories, from fan belts to dropped valves. Automobiles manufactured today are the most technologically advanced and expensive devices ever mass produced. The price of the technology in new vehicles is primarily a failed effort to burn petroleum cleanly, pushing them out of the reach of the masses they were intended to serve.

In the early days of the automotive revolution, electric vehicles held an equal market share with fossil-fueled vehicles. Coal-steam vehicles had long start times and a complicated system of operation. Electrics lost out because the technology to make improvements didn’t exist. Plus, electrics faced an additional sales hurdle at the dawn of the twentieth Century: few Americans outside of cities had electricity. Yep, an electric vehicle around the farm wasn’t much help. But the Zen like simplicity of battery voltage applied to an electric motor controlled by a foot petal can no longer be ignored; especially one powered by the newly developing energy grid of wind and solar.

Clearly, fossil-fueled vehicles are crashing into a technology wall. Where is the line? Where and how can a cost benefit analysis determine a formula for the societal cost to curry and clean fossil fuels? How many thousands should be spent per vehicle and for what level of emissions control? Capitalists, being capitalists, rely on the appeal of shiny, pretty, killer sound systems with in-dash margarita makers.

In this incredibly complicated Rube Goldberg machine, oil companies become the richest corporations on the planet, treating elected governments as their servants, dictating to their servants, their wish lists of pet projects and wants, becoming super governments. All of this done in our name, so that the average American can get back and forth to work. Perhaps with the right investment Ford could develop an $90,000 truck that gets twenty-eight miles to the gallon! Hello? A Tesla gets the equivalent of nearly a hundred miles to the gallon today.

A national energy project could mean a renaissance for this country. A national goal that doesn’t involve killing people for a change. When we spent twenty billion dollars going to the moon, all we got in return was the technology of the modern world. Investments in space returned a million fold, whole new industries appearing out of thin air. Investing in a national energy project of wind, solar and geothermal while building the new energy grid could reap similar rewards, no differently than when FDR built an energy grid in the Tennessee valley. For the cost of the first two years of the Iraq war, we could be free from the tyranny of fossil fuels. An MIT study found fossil fuel emissions responsible for 53,000 early deaths of Americans each year. We subsidize pollution, tax it, then legislate its correction, creating this incredible Rube Goldberg machine, trying to teach camels gymnastics to pass through the eye of a needle, when the solution is obvious.

Suppose, our goal was to double the Tesla’s maximum 300 mile range, while cutting its price by half in ten years? Is that possible? Or is it more probable, to double the 42 mpg of a Prius, while raising the price by twenty-five percent, just to bring it up to a Tesla’s mileage today? Electric vehicles have zero emissions, the only two obstacles are range and cost. These problems could seem daunting, if we forget the reality we actually face. The use of fossil fuels is an existential threat to our lives. The use of fossil fuels is damaging the only world we have to live in, choking its atmosphere and poisoning its water. The fracking debacle illustrates the lengths and limitations of fossil fuels. This conversation can happen now or when the next oil shock hits, throwing the world economy into disarray.

This nonsense, this Rube Goldberg machine of pipelines, profits, Machiavellian politics and pollution, all in private hands, is controlling our world as it slowly strangles the life out of it. Controlling our politics and our future, while the largest energy generator in the galaxy patiently waits, largely neglected. The United States of America has the potential to be the Saudi Arabia of solar power. This country has the largest wind energy potential of any place on the planet. These technologies exist today, why does the US lag instead of lead? Why then, are these technologies largely ignored? The answer is simple… capitalism.

The benefices and glories attached to capitalism shrink from the page when the horrors of the supporting structure are exposed.


About the author: David Glenn Cox is a senior staff writer for TLR and an award winning author and musician. He is the author of the novel, “The Servants of Pilate.”



3 Responses to The Rube Goldberg Machine

  1. JasonR on December 30, 2015 at 10:36 pm

    We’re forgetting who the country is owned by — corporate America. We’re not a democracy, not a republic, but a corporatocracy.

  2. liberalvoice on December 30, 2015 at 10:24 pm

    It’s the power of profit which makes lobbying issues out of existence possible. While oil is profitable and climate science can be challenged by the array of right-wing think tanks, progress on climate change will be marginal. After all, as Republicans have argued, god wouldn’t let something catastrophic happen. When did he ever allow such things? Don’t answer that!

  3. pvequalkt on October 31, 2015 at 11:34 am

    I kind of equate the development of human societies with entropy. And capitalism would be the primary proof thereof.

    The principle of entropy holds that complexity will naturally increase *AND* that all endeavors to decrease complexity (increase order) will cost more (energy, work, whatever) than the degree of decrease in that complexity.

    Society has created, over the past 150 years or so, a world that not only depends on oil, but DEMANDS that it be plentiful and cheap. Starting in the ’50s, big oil colluded with Detroit to force out city trolly systems to be replaced by millions of cars. Then big oil and Detroit (et al) colluded with the Eisenhower admin to create our interstate highway system, which made rail transport nearly superfluous and resulted in millions of trucks to add to the mess.

    To the point now where we build each little piece of our millions of cars overseas to save on labor, assemble the cars and trucks using robots in mexico and Canada to save on labor, and add thousands of dollars of tech to ameliorate their natural production of poison a little, then sell them for 10s of thousands of dollars for fun and profit… and demand that it be so because … jobs. Most of those jobs are not here… but americans are too stupid to consider the logic of any of this.

    Human societies have a long history of, when they get big and complex enough, being just too damn stupid to change even when the need for change is pummeling them in the face. Easter Island. Read “Collapse” by Diamond.

    The end point here is going to be a partial or total collapse of human society. CO2 will befoul earth such that humans will be unable to survive in current numbers (or at all). And along the way humans will war in order to try to keep their little piece of the rube Goldberg kluge operative longer than anyone else’s. From oceans swamping Florida to billions in Asia losing potable water from glaciers going poof, humans will be killing humans for their dry land, water and food.

    We simply lack the intellectual capacity to do anything other.

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