Switch: What If?

Time for another Wired-magazine inspired entry. This month’s issue looks at the possibility of a breakthrough in cracking ethanol from cellulose. Current biofuel technologies are inefficient and don’t present a real alternative to oil. But if this breakthrough comes — and billions of dollars of venture capital investment suggests it will — the world is going to be a radically different place…

Imagine if the US no longer relied on oil for fuel, but instead could grow its own ethanol without a dramatic impact on food production. The effect would be far reaching. For a start us Europeans could stop being so uppity about their 83-litre V8 SUVs spitting out tons of carbon dioxide. Without the demand for oil, US interest in the Middle East would likely fall sharply. Would having so many troops stationed in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait seem like such a good investment (political, financial, and most of all human)?

With the demand for fuel oil slashed, surely the economics of other oil products would change. The price of plastics and other by-products might rise to make currently disposable products rather more expensive. Clothes, white goods, cars, gadgets, Swedish furniture, CDs and DVDs — many of the trappings of consumerist life might become economically unviable.

Combined with the current trend towards ecological thinking and organic food, there might be a wider trend towards quality. A return to objects designed to last a lifetime. Obviously the price would be higher, but it is a much more sustainable model. It could trigger a switch to materials that are currently considered too expensive for everyday objects — lightweight ceramics and composites for example. Traditional industries like tailors and carpenters might see business boom….

Of course this is all a bit utopian, but there’s no harm in being optimistic when all the world seems to think only in terms of doom and gloom.

This post forms part of my Future of Cities series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Future of Cities page.

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Tom Cheesewright