Motorsports and the art of climate disruption
Ramblings of a deep green conservative
IT’S the beginning of the motorsport season in Australia’s remote Northern Territory where I live, and we have two superbly organised long distance racing events coming soon.
The Finke Desert Race is a gruelling annual winter for 600 dirt bikes and off-road-buggies through 460 kilometers (286 mi) of red desert sandhill country near Alice Springs in southern NT.
A short version of the more famous Dakar race, it is an extravaganza of fossil-fuelled speed, dust and testosterone. The chief sponsor is Tattersalls, one of Australia’s largest lotteries, along with regional businesses.
About 12,000 locals and visitors camp beside the track and party hard. When a well-known local competitor died from injuries in one of several lead-up races last year, Alice Springs went into collective mourning for weeks.
Then we have the World Solar Challenge, an international biennial race of purely solar powered vehicles that drift down the Stuart Highway for 3030 kilometres (1883 mi) between Darwin and Adelaide. Ironically, the event is sponsored by Bridgestone tires.
Participants are mainly young engineering students from universities around the world. While local interest is minimal, it usually generates a fair amount of national publicity.
What intrigues me is how these two races represent fairly obvious but competing paradigms of how we as a species are adapting (or failing to adapt) to human induced climate change.
If hardcore motorsport fans feel that latte sipping, pushbike riding nerds are making a grab the modern transport agenda, it’s because they are.
While much of the focus is now on electric cars, you only have to go to places like San Diego to realise that the whole people transport paradigm is changing.
In that city, stands of electric scooters and push bikes line the downtown sidewalks. Just download a cool art-deco app and your credit card details, then tap the scooter or bike with your phone and away you go.
I had a marvellous time there recently, scooting around the waterfront like a lunatic while Morna, somewhat challenged by two-wheeled transport, walked.
When I’d had enough, I just parked the scooter near the bench where Morna was recovering, and we caught an Uber back to the hotel. Next time, she said, find a two-seater electric trike.
But if Uber is to be believed, we’ll soon be flying around in drones. Far fetched as it sounds, remember that exactly a century ago it only took a decade for the mass car culture to emerge.
But anyway, back to motorsports of a more gentle kind.
Despite the popularity of races like Finke and Dakar, it’s battery technology that the nerds in solar cars are thinking about.
Zinc bromide gels versus lithium-ion versus all-solid-state versus smart battery management systems — the amount of innovation going on in labs around the world is vast.
The consensus seems to be that in three to four years (sooner if you believe the optimists) car batteries will have the driving range of current vehicles with charging times of just a few minutes.
Which is why a race like Finke should be featuring electric vehicles. Within a few years competition for brand recognition between battery manufacturers could be hyper intense.
And lets face it, watching battery power in action in a high speed pursuit race is going to win fans faster than a glimpse of shiny solar panels sliding down the highway.
But there are far bigger issues at stake here. The great existential choice we face as a species is between continuing to party hard in the sandhills of Finke, or accept the nerds in their quirky solar vehicles.
And while this may seem like a rather clunky metaphor for a serious subject like climate disruption, it’s a pretty universal one.
I did, however, read a recent article in The Guardian which eased some of my consumerist, climate disrupting guilt.
The author argued that as individuals we can only make small and rather insignificant changes to the state of the planet.
Even on a mass scale, as with say the rapid uptake of rooftop solar, the contribution of individuals to moderating climate change is minimal.
It was now the turn of governments, she said, to stand up and curb their own excesses and those of large national and multinational corporations that are driving us towards the precipice of climate disaster.
I think she is right. A lot of us are trying to do a little bit to make the world a more sustainable place, perhaps like having a compost pile in the backyard or riding a pushbike to work.
But when Morna and I come home from shopping and fill a garbage bin full of unwanted packaging from our local multinational supermarket chain, or see local towns running out of water because of nearby mining and fracking, or short-sighted politicians promising even more ring-roads to ease chronic traffic congestion in our cities, you realise who the real culprits are.
One consolation is that the recent IPCC report from the Katowice Climate Change Conference in Poland has put the wind up just about everyone except whacko climate sceptics as to how serious the problem is if we don’t act faster.
With state and federal elections coming up, climate change has suddenly emerged as a leading issue, and in the US nearly all the emerging Democratic presidential contenders are running on climate change platforms.
Welcome to the era of plain vanilla environmentalism.
But the really big question is: do we go watch the Fink race this year, or wave to the solar vehicles passing through Alice Springs?
Neither actually. We’ve booked to go to a folk festival — in our old diesel ute.