For most of the non-petroleum-based alternatives proposed for our fossil fuel free future we will somehow have to get over a bunch of "humps". What the "hump" means in every case I can't really say, but I have tended to obsession over a few of the "mini-humps" I see in our immediate path.
At the top on my list, I place the issue of (for a lack of a better term) built-in obsolescence. BIO occurs for just about every modern gizmo, but it varies widely depending on how much the consumer tolerates it. In my opinion, BIO consists of two marketing strategies:
- Newer technologies obsoleting older technologies
- Fast wear and tear leading to frequent repurchases
Hard-disk drives, for all intents and purposes, occupy the first BIO niche. These devices truly demonstrate high dependability and would last indefinitely if technology advances suddenly stopped. Makers of disk drives realize that the human reaction to disk crashes -- :( -- forces them to invest more intellectual and monetary capital on reliable systems, on which they will hopefully recap on more advanced models and those same customers making new purchases. In other words, disk drives can never occupy the second niche, without a groundswell of objection accompanying it.
A bunch of crap occupies the second BIO niche. I may sound a bit tin-hatty here, but I believe we can make ordinary shoes last a lot longer than they do in practice, but won't any time soon due to the forces of capitalism and a bit of collusion within the industry. Companies simply don't have the incentive to sell only one pair over a person's adult lifetime. (On a trivial note, ever notice how headphones and ear-buds happen to last on average less than a year? Usually the cord hardens and breaks or the padding hardens and cracks. Even the stuff you pay a premium for? Because acoustics has no technology glide path like computer hardware does.)
I really believe that we have to get over the BIO attitude for many of our alternative energy strategies. We really should get in a good habit of making and demanding quality products that occupy neither of the BIO niches. In other words, we need to enter the paradigm of quality superseding profitability; a likely dismal prospect unless consumers drive this.
The reason I mention this at all arises from my constant battles with the bicycle. Lucky that I have the patience of a saint, because the BIO of today's bicycle parts will predictably drive the run-of-the-mill consumer nuts if we ever enter a human-power-friendly transportation environment. Case in point, I have had two inner tubes break at the valve stem on my road bike within the span of a week. Now, I can handle changing tires or applying a patch without getting exasperated, but I fear that most people would never get over the hump if they learned of the day-to-day tribulations and long-term prospects of bicycle commuting. Having commuted by bicycle for over 25 years, I can say that the median priced bicycle can frequently act like a shoe that spontaneously starts on fire. And it doesn't necessarily get any better if you pay more. The quality is only as good as the weakest link in the chain; and when your bike chain goes through the rain/snow cycle a few times, you begin to realize that bicycles occupy the second BIO niche.
So what can we do to get bicycles into the first niche of BIO? I don't really know and I fear that history shows some resistance to change. After all, the design of the conventional road bike has not changed much over the last century.
I just have a sense that something will force the bicycle into the dependability regime of the disk drive. And I say: Profits for inner tube manufacturers be damned.