Chapter 11 Bicycling Into the Future

More or Less

To most people, progress always means "more." Quite a few worthwhile developments, though, have resulted in "less."

There was once a marvelous invention called the "horseless" carriage.

Then came the "wire-less" telegraph. And now the "cordless" telephone.

Credit cards foreshadow the "cash-less" society; electronic funds transfer systems, the "check-less."

Much progress attended the arrival of "water-less" printing -- better known by its Greekish name, "xerography." (The law of unintended consequences has prevailed. Thus, nearly submerged in a paper deluge, we turn to ubiquitous personal computers electronically networked together. The office of the future might indeed be "paper-less.")

The "feather-less" chicken didn't work out very well, but the "seed-less" grape did.

Some say the "bark-less" dog and the "smoke-less" cigar wouldn't be bad ideas for their neighbors and spouses, respectively.

So, why not the "motor-less" cycle?


In varying degrees, all persons are futurists.

The future is illuminated only by opinion. There are no facts about the future.

Debate is the ineluctable activity of the futurist.

An analogy serves no purpose in speculative controversy except to illustrate an agreed-upon point.

Think seriously about principles. Make your assumptions explicit. Invent a future. Then find a debating partner.

Be suspicious of all utterances that start out in the first person singular. The least reliable source of the common experience is oneself.

You want the common experience? Watch daytime television.

An average is just one measure of "central tendency."

You can drown in a lake the average depth of which is one foot.

Watch those "bimodal distributions." The average American has one breast and one testicle.

People often see in the future what they think ought to happen, not what they think will happen. It is easy to contaminate prediction with advocation.

Surprise-free projections can turn to mindless extrapolation. According to early predictions, all adult women by now should be employed as telephone operators.

"Those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them." Taking this literally can be foolish. Time is the great innovator. Consider each option on its own merits.

"We did that before and we got into trouble." Yes, but (1) did we do it right? (2) If we had not done it, would we still have gotten into trouble? (3) Even more trouble?

Don't forget, for every "because-of," there is at least one "in-spite-of."

Thinking hypothetically in the past tense is injurious to the mind. Thinking hypothetically about the future is all you have.

The law of unintended consequences will always prevail.

The futurist must think unthinkable thoughts about social dislocations, about a world without petroleum, about nuclear winter, about...


How did Malthus go wrong? In 1798, he put forth his theory that growth of population always outstrips growth of production. Poverty is inevitable, he said.

One thing Malthus didn't know about was... petroleum.

Find a twenty-foot wall. Preferably blank. Mark off one-foot intervals along the floor. Each mark represents a century. Over on the left you have the first Christmas. You can write "Magna Carta" at a point twelve feet along the wall and "Columbus' Voyage" three feet beyond that.

At about the eighteen-foot mark is Malthus and his theory. Go seven inches further to the right. That's 1869, when the first oil well was drilled in western Pennsylvania.

The significant growth in petroleum production didn't begin until the twentieth century -- the nineteen-foot mark.

Take a pencil and start a line along the floor right there. Bring the line up so that it is about ten inches above the floor in the year 1950, a half-foot from the end of the twenty-foot wall.

Each vertical inch represents a million barrels per day of petroleum production and consumption world-wide.

Bring your pencil nearly straight up to eighty million barrels per day, six and a half feet above the floor. This should occur about two inches from the right-hand edge of your wall, corresponding to the end of the twentieth century.

Stand back and take a look.

You're seeing the shape of the "petroleum age" in the context of history: a horizontal line signifying insignificance for nineteen and a half feet, then bending to near vertical in just a few inches. Imagine how many historical lines you can draw right on top of petroleum consumption -- industrial output, technological development, agricultural yield, population growth, economic prosperity.

Too bad Malthus couldn't have seen your wall.


"You are sentenced to die within the next ten days," pronounced the judge. "Furthermore, you shall not know in advance the exact day of your hanging."

The prisoner was led away. That night he was heard laughing and singing in his cell.

"What gives with the mirth?" asked his jailor through the bars.

"Did you not hear the judge's proclamation?" replied the condemned man.

"I was about to ask you the same thing," the jailor said. "You're a goner, fella -- and in the next ten days, for sure."

"But I am not to know in advance the exact day of the hanging. You heard the judge say that."

The jailor shrugged.

"You see, I cannot be hanged on the tenth day, for the mere fact of my being alive on the ninth day would tell me in advance that the tenth is the day chosen for the hanging."

Stepping closer to the jail door, the jailor commenced a quizzical frown.

"If I am alive on the eighth day," the prisoner went on, "I would then know that the sentence will most assuredly be carried out on the ninth day, since the tenth day has already been ruled out. Thus, my knowing in advance would violate the judge's order."

The jailor struggled to comprehend the prisoner's logic.

"The ninth day having been eliminated along with the tenth leaves only the first eight days for the hanging. In like manner, however, the eighth day can be disqualified. And the seventh and so on, back to this very day."

The prisoner smiled through the bars. After a moment a light flickered in the jailor's mind.

"What you're saying..."

"What I'm saying," interrupted the prisoner, "is nothing more than what the judge did say and thus caused to be law. I am not condemned at all but must be set free, for the sentence cannot be carried out."

"I think I get it," said the jailor at last.

"Good. Then join me in my song."

In a few days, six, to be exact, the prisoner was taken from his cell and hanged. He had not known on the fifth day that the next was his last.

Why the retelling of this old paradox?

Perhaps it can serve as a parable for the petroleum age. Nature has pronounced a death sentence on the automobile to be carried out before the gallon reaches $10.00. Motorists won't be allowed to know in advance the exact price at which it will happen.

Rates of Change

Measuring the beginning of an "age" is easier than predicting the end of one. What criteria -- technical, economic, social -- should be used? One thing for sure: some time before the last drop of oil is pumped out of the ground, the petroleum age will have come to an end.

To make meaningful projections about the future, it's usually a good idea to look at rates of change. For the case at hand, petroleum is being used up at some "consumption rate." Meanwhile, petroleum is being found at some ''discovery rate."

Consider the situation in which the discovery rate exceeds the consumption rate. When that occurs, the size of the world's petroleum reserves increases. For some time now, the opposite situation has held. Consumption rates have exceeded discovery rates, and reserves have been decreasing. Experts in the petroleum industry like to argue that this doesn't necessarily mean the world is running out of oil.

Another type of calculation takes into account the difficulty of finding petroleum resources. Of necessity, oil wells are being drilled deeper year by year, at a rate greater than the discovery rate. It's not easy to explain why this doesn't signal the approaching end of the petroleum age.

One of the things that confuses matters is the fact that it's not always possible to tell how much petroleum will ultimately be pumped out of a new well. A preliminary estimate is all you have. Years of pumping must go by before you know the actual amount.

Estimates, in the past, have been inaccurate. Mostly on the conservative side. Actual production generally turns out to be higher than the estimates. This would seem to be good news. However, when you go back in history to the time of a discovery and replace the low estimate with the higher actual, you cause a backward shift in effective discovery rate. Meanwhile, the accuracy of estimating procedures has improved, such that in the future, the backward shift will be far less.

The combined effect of these revisions is a further diminution of the world's projected petroleum reserves.

And an earlier end for the petroleum age.


In the post-petroleum age, all living things must attain equilibrium with the earth's periodic ration of solar energy.

Consider the case of a family of four living in the temperate zone. The post-petroleum age has begun and they are determined to "equilibrate."

Solar heating of their home would not quite keep them warm in winter, so our model family might make up the difference by burning firewood. With access to a small forest, the family could cut their own. They'd require approximately two and a half acres of trees in order to ensure a continuous supply of firewood year after year.

For food, our model family might keep a garden and raise some poultry. They could get along on about two and a half acres of land. This allows for crop rotation, but petroleum-derived fertilizers and pesticides would be ruled out by the equilibrium model.

Now, let's assume that one member of the family commutes by motor vehicle five miles to work every day. An additional two and a half acres would provide the requisite non-fossil fuel, grain alcohol.

Finally, it is reasonable to suppose that a family of four will have other needs requiring the impoundment of even more of the solar ration -- factory operations, health care, fabrics, paper, community services. Figure another two and a half acres.

If these estimates are correct, about ten acres of tillable land would be necessary to support a family of four in the post-petroleum age. Thus, one can estimate the carrying capacity of a given area. And the limits on population.

The use of bicycles for commuting might provide room for 25% more people in the temperate zone.

By the way, the motor vehicle in the model set forth above is not an automobile. To go ten miles a day on the yield of two and a half acres of biomass, the daily commuter would be limited to a moped.


Scenario: Two futurists meet in a park. One is a particular automobilist, A, the other, a certain bicyclist, B.

A. Have you been thinking much about the future of the mails?
B. No, but your question implies that you have.
A. Will there be mail in what you have chosen to call the "post-petroleum age"?
B.What do you mean by "mail"?
A. Come, now, we're using your native tongue. Must I make like a dictionary?
B.If you mean "mail, comma, delivery of," it seems doubtful.
A. Shall we take that as our proposition?
B.Under the doctrine that assertion carries the burden of proof, might it not be more appropriate for you to frame the proposition?
A. All right. But perhaps you miss-spoke yourself with the word "proof." As usual, we shall be talking about the future.
B. To be sure. We must reserve "proof" for a more rigorous context.

A. Very well, then, let us take as our proposition: "Resolved, delivery of mail will continue, even in the 'post-petroleum age'."

B. Still seems doubtful, but go ahead.

A. Mail is an essential form of human communication. As long as there are documents, there will be a need to deliver them from one place to another.

B. Mind an interruption?

A. Already?

B. "Need" may well be a necessary condition for the perpetuation of a given technology, but it is hardly sufficient.

A. For the moment, though, can you just accept the premise?

B. No. There's a technological revolution already underway, affecting all aspects of information processing and communications. Your premise makes the questionable assumption that "documents,” as we now know them, will survive this revolution,

A. Worldwide, they will. And for a very long time. Well into the "post-petroleum age." Besides, except for smoke signals, no form of communications technology has ever been completely replaced by a successor.

B. Do you really expect your position to prevail on the strength of historical analogies?

A. Not at all. Even when every home has a computer terminal and every resident knows how to use electronic mail, there will still be paper documents sufficient to warrant the continued operation of the mails.

B. What kind of paper documents, junk mail?

A. The proper term is "third-class mail," and, yes, that will be one kind.

B. Most people today resent junk mail, though. Giving it up will be among the least of the inconveniences in the post-petroleum age.

A. Yet, it facilitates a channel of commerce in the U.S. several tens of billions of dollars wide. There's just a negative perception.

B. Ah! But, a perception is real -- or, if not real, more important than that which is.

A. You're especially quick with the platitudes today, my bicycling friend. In the past, you' ve argued that a perception can also be wrong.

B. Your retroactive concession is accepted. Proceed.

A. For the case at hand, if a person is not interested in the importunings of third-class mail, that person has but to throw it away unread. You can get rid of a whole week's worth in less time than it takes to endure just one television commercial. And don't forget, unlike the newspaper, which is mostly advertisement and contains just as much throw-away bulk, third-class mail is free.

B. There must be more to people's resentment of junk mail than that.

A. Indeed. Disappointment. People open their mailboxes like a daily present, only to have their expectations dashed by the discovery of bills...

B. And junk mail. Let's get back to technical matters. How feasible will it be, after the world's petroleum is gone, to deliver tons of documents every day?

A. The expression "every day" loads up your question with an assumption of your own.

B. You mean the mail might be delivered less often?

A. Why not? My model for mail-of-the-future would have weekly rounds. Isn't that often enough? For the urgent stuff, you'll have electronic alternatives. Automated funds transfer systems, for example, will long since have taken the "float" out of our banking processes, driving the effective velocity of money to dizzying rates.

B. Perhaps so, but by what means does your model provide for the requisite hauling of the remaining paper documents, however seldom?

A. Let's put the problem into perspective. The incremental energy required to deliver mail is quite small.

B. Can you be more specific?

A. You are familiar, of course, with the term "boustrophedon"...

B. Did you just make it up?

A. It means "as the ox plows."

B. Oh, that boustro-... How did you pronounce it?

A. The mails are delivered in a singularly efficient pattern -- back and forth, up and down streets, house by house. The way one mows one's lawn or the way a librarian returns books to the shelf.

B. Is there any other way?

A. There's the "raster" -- the way you read a page. In raster mode, the post-person would start at one end of a street, picking up and delivering along one side, then dash back to the starting end before serving the other side.

B. The raster doesn't make any sense.

A. The “star" is even less efficient.

B. Of course it is. What's the star?

A. Star routes require separate trips from, say, the local post office out to each delivery point. Don't laugh. Energy-intensive, star patterns have been used a lot. Special delivery almost works that way. So do some package delivery services. Not to mention pizza-parlors.

B. Enough specifics. How about some relevance?

A. Consider first what might be called the "reverse star." That's what suburbanites use today for getting their groceries.

B. By any chance are you going to suggest that in the future, people will have their groceries delivered by mail?

A. It's already been done. Until the middle of the twentieth century, in some European countries where postal systems were far more de-centralized than in the U.S., not only were groceries delivered by mail, but it was customary to place one's grocery orders by mail as well. Often, the same day.

B. You' ve trapped yourself. That would have required more than one mail-round per day. In your model, it would take two weeks to have your groceries delivered.

A. Not at all. You've forgotten the telephone -- which is both energy efficient and ubiquitous. With modem refrigeration and preservatives, you can get along quite well with one delivery of groceries per week.

B. Somehow you seem to be ducking the main question. You haven't helped matters at all by loading up the petroleum-deprived mails with groceries...

A. And a lot of other things, while we're at it. Catalogs published even today offer for sale almost any product imaginable through the mails. Your question is indeed still pending, though. Patience.

B. The suspense is bearable.

A. As an order of magnitude, the annual postal revenues are $17 billion in the U.S. There are about 87 million households, or postal delivery points. Performing the indicated division, you get about $200 per year for each delivery point.

B. How much petroleum is consumed?

A. This may surprise you. Only about 6% of the total postal expenses are attributable to gasoline and diesel fuel. That's about $12 per year per delivery point. A buck a month per household.

B. It's because of that fancy word

A. Boustrophedon. Converted to gallons, the postal service must burn less than a gallon per month on behalf of each household. The individual delivery is really some fraction of that. What's needed is just the incremental energy to get from your neighbor's house to yours each day.

B. And in your mail-of-the-future model, you' ve postulated weekly deliveries, a reduction by a factor of one-sixth in energy consumption.

A. It comes down to less than an eighth of a gallon per month. Even my little compact car, commuting 5 miles per day, consumes more than one hundred times that each month.

B. You still need a lot of postal vehicles running around.

A. Yes, but at these very low incremental consumption levels, are there not several alternative energy sources that qualify to propel them?

B. Your model postulates more decentralization of the mails, does it not?

A. Along with nearly everything else, yes.

B. Well then, biomass comes first to mind. Methanol, whatever.

A. Also, you might consider wind-generated electrolysis of water and hydrogen powered vehicles.

B.And one more idea.

A. I'm wincing.

B. The bicycle.



In April 1972, a certain bicyclist began a five-year personal experiment. The idea was to see what it will be like to live in the post-petroleum age.

The simulation required making a number of changes in life-style, including the following: adapting to a vegetarian diet, eschewing canned goods and other forms of throw-away packaging, wearing natural fabrics, installing a clothes-line, purchasing as much as possible from catalogs, and accepting mail delivery only once per week.

The most important part of the experiment was renouncing the use of an automobile for the daily, five-mile trip to the office" Just by riding a bicycle, it was possible to eliminate the largest individual use of petroleum.

Here's some advice for the bicycling commuter.

If you're going to commute on a bicycle, you have to make preparations. For example, since leather shoes slide right off the pedals, you'll want to wear some sport shoes on the bike and change into your wing-tips at the office.

That's just the beginning. You need to take a systems approach. For all-weather commuting, most of your wardrobe will have to change. You may wind up performing a sartorial metamorphosis every morning and evening. Particularly in summer. In winter, you need the equivalent of ski togs on the bike. For rain, get a sailor's foul-weather outfit.

Your bicycle will need special equipment, too. A luggage rack and bungies will let you carry your briefcase. Try strapping on removable saddle bags for your fresh underwear, socks, and shirts. Don't forget a generator-powered headlight. It gets dark early in the winter.

You're all set. except for a portable radio for the morning news.

At the end of five years, including four exceptionally snowy New England winters, there were only two problems to report. Neither will be factors in the post-petroleum age. The first problem was the embarrassment of showing up at work dressed like Captain Marvel.

The second problem was breathing automobile exhaust -- the ultimate flatulence.

Future as History

Not all bicyclists are futurists. Some might be called "past-ists." No matter. The post-petroleum age will be quite a lot like the pre-petroleum age.

There'll be some important differences, though.

Our telephones -- we'll still have them. You can make 75,000 transcontinental telephone calls for the energy equivalent of a gallon of wood alcohol.

We'll keep television, too. But our sets will be smaller.

The clothes dryer will have to go, but the electric razor won't.

Indoor plumbing will continue in common use.

Central heating, however, will be a problem in colder climates unless we give up windows.

The bicycle will return as the most practical form of adult transportation. Not the high-wheel bicycle, sad to say. There's something majestic about those old contraptions.

Ask any past-ist.


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