A Glimpse Into The Future

Would you like to see a glimpse into the kind of embarrassing shit Americans are going to come up with as the climate crisis continues to bite? My prediction is: if you think our response to COVID-19 was lethally stupid, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Volkswagen famously cheated on its diesel emissions tests, by putting “test defeat” subroutines in a car’s engine control computer. The computer would detect when an emissions test was being performed, and would adjust the engine’s parameters so it ran cleaner but produced less horsepower. In default operation, the engines emitted something close to twice the carbon target under California law. When VW was caught, it was particularly problematic, because it was obvious that there was a test defeat in place – the engines exhibited exactly the same behavior – then, it was time to start subpoena’ing memos to see whose clever idea it was.

source [vice]

I’ve had experiences in companies that are poorly/autocratically run, and have seen employees take risks like that, on behalf of the company, and it never seems to end particularly well. Note that, as I say that, I am thinking of both SolarWinds and their customers – everyone was busily avoiding having to think about the things which are within the purview of “IT Manager” to think about. Accounts I’ve read about the VW disaster are that engineers kept trying to hit the emissions targets, but couldn’t, and their jobs were being threatened by management that didn’t want to hear about problems. So, they figured “since my job is already on the line, why not cheat?” It’s an inevitable result when individual outcomes are jeopardized in favor of corporate outcomes. Hold onto that idea, because…

America’s got a big problem, right now, with “toxic individuality” – that’s a form of libertarian-style personal independence in which people’s right to be stupid is preferenced over doing something sensible that aligns with the collective. While everyone (“the collective”) may be forgoing a certain activity the toxic individualist deliberately engages in that activity as a sort of protest against the collective. Usually, terms like “political correctness” and “free speech” get thrown around a lot by toxic individualists. Exploring the extreme limits of behavior in order to “own the libs” is bullshit – we libs aren’t “owned” or “triggered” – we just think the individualist is stupid and is making the worst possible case for their rights. For example, I do support people’s right to openly carry weapons, in certain situations – but they’re fucking idiots if they exercise that right when they go shopping for groceries. The problem is that a certain kind of liberal falls into the trap of saying, “Hmmm, I do support your rights…” which the toxic individualist takes as “… always.” So, we get things like a rather stupid article at Vice, which asserts that rolling coal probably doesn’t make environmental pollution much worse. [vice] After all, semis, which are regulated, make more pollution (because there are a lot more of them, jackass!) than private vehicles.

Progressives are panicking over diesel truck drivers who intentionally blow smoke at hybrid cars. But rolling coal isn’t about Obama. It’s about America.

It’s not about America, at all. It’s about a toxic version of an imaginary America – a version of America in which entitled people (which also means white people) are able to do whatever they want as long as they can afford to do it. So, this kind of toxic individualism is tied into having money, too. That means it’s pretty easy to break it down into a simple case of potlach: “I can afford to be a jackass, so suck it.” The problem is that the entire US can afford it, mostly, and the US is driving atmospheric pollution.

Over the past few weeks, there has been a lot of hype and hysteria over “rolling coal,” a redneck motorsport trend that involves tricking out diesel pickup trucks to emit giant plumes of black smoke. Mostly, this is done for fun or performance enhancement, but nowadays it seems the kids are “rolling coal” to piss off cops, Prius drivers, and anyone else who happens to get in the way of their big-ass trucks. Naturally, this has driven the left into a panic.

There’s a lot to unpack, there, but one thing that’s interesting is the Vice writer’s attempt to dismiss it as a problem because it’s for fun or performance enhancement (so what?”) and then, it’s a class issue (redneck trend) and – best of all – it pisses off cops and maybe a few Prius drivers. Except that, actually, cops don’t give a shit about stuff like that; the target is really “the left” and “Prius drivers” and the writer at Vice appears to see that as an overlapping Venn diagram. Anyhow, it’s just toxic individuality, right, nothing to see here, political correctness gone wild.

Needless to say, I immediately orient toward claims of “political correctness” because it’s a rhetorical flag akin to hoisting the stupid roger – I know that when someone talks about “political correctness” they’re just demonizing something because they don’t have an actual argument to make; it’s so transparent.

The problem is: it does make things worse. The EU’s equivalent of the EPA determined that, following the VW test defeat device, air quality went down. And the US EPA has determined that, yes, it’s making a difference over here:

[The Drive]

A new report by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Enforcement found that just over half a million diesel pickups on the road have been producing 9 million trucks’ worth of excess emissions, reports the New York Times. The reason why? Aftermarket performance modifications that illegally disable vehicles’ emissions control technology.

Oh, oops. Next, we can expect the toxic individualists to switch to their other axis of attack: it’s protected free speech. Just watch.

According to the report, which you can read in full here, the cheatin’ trucks in this study release 570,000 tons of nitrogen dioxide into the air over the lifetime of those vehicles, which is ten times the nitrogen dioxide released by cheaty diesel Volkswagens in the United States.

It’s not harmless fun if they’re releasing the same amount of additional emissions as having another 9 million trucks on the road. That’s a lot of trucks! Also: it’s not a necessary performance upgrade – a consumer truck with a great big Cummins turbo diesel engine in it does not lack for horsepower under any circumstances. I also own a V-8 powered truck, which I use for hauling stuff to/from my shop and put less than 6,000 miles on/year, and even a little bitty V-8 engine is dangerously overpowered in a typical light truck; I do not require dragster-like performance when I’m hauling loads of plywood.

The real problem, in my opinion, is that this sort of toxic individualist response is likely to be about half of the US population’s response to global climate change. “OH YEAH? WATCH THIS!” It’s the same dumbass angry white men that voted Trump in, cheered when he withdrew the US from the Paris Climate Accords (which, the US was already cheating on) and who expressed their freedom of speech by spreading COVID-19 wherever they could. It’s all tied together and the big picture looks really bad.

I’ve said this before, but I’m afraid that America’s reaction to climate change is going to track right in line with its reaction to COVID-19: it’s going to be a great chest-thumping festival of toxic individuality. Trump is not quite there, yet, but opening the Alaskan preserves for oil exploration, as he’s disgraced and being dragged out of office, is exactly the kind of “it’s my right to punch myself in the face!” bullshit we saw in the pandemic, and we’re going to see it again – only worse – in coming years as the climate crisis continues to bite.


  1. Dunc says

    “Performance enhancement” my arse. I’d be incredibly surprised if modding am engine to run that dirty doesn’t result in a significant performance impairment. It’s also going to massively increase particulate emissions, which are the ones with serious health impacts.

  2. says

    “Progressives are panicking over diesel truck drivers who intentionally blow smoke at hybrid cars. …Naturally, this has driven the left into a panic.”

    [citation needed]

    The only people I can see panicking over this are drivers who are suddenly blinded by a huge cloud of black smoke. Everyone else can see these fuckwads for what they are.

  3. billyum says

    As an aside, potlatch does have status implications, but is an example of charity (gift giving) as conspicuous consumption. It was the inspiration for potluck dinners in US culture.

  4. bmiller says

    Prius drivers are still inside a protected, air conditioned car. As a cyclist, we particularly love these bearded toxic yahoos. How dare we delay Bubba McFentanyl by thirty seconds on his drive to the local Walmart to buy “soes with lights in them”?

  5. Bruce says

    Someone like Toyota should make 3-D wraps for other models of car or truck to make them look like a big diaper on the back. Then Prius drivers can get add-ons so that they can “roll coal” IRONICALLY by emitting a brown cloud from their “diaper”, making it look like everyone who tries to roll coal is just dirtying their own diaper. Then the rednecks will be humiliated, and will shoot the Prius drivers. Or something like that. Somehow, this should become obvious to all as a redneck self-own.

  6. JM says

    This is really two different things that often get lumped together under the name “coal rolling”. They two can overlap but don’t always.

    Disabling the emissions controls improves performance. This is mostly modifying/disabling software or physically bypassing/removing parts of the truck engine that reduce emissions or clean the exhaust. There are a bunch of different ways of doing this and the real benefits are usually exaggerated. If done correctly it does improve performance because it means faster air flow through the engine and removing performance caps in the engine software.

    Actual coal rolling is doing something that causes the truck to produce black smoke without concern for improving performance. One common way of doing this is to disable the exhaust filters and pump more diesel into the engine that it can handle. This means disabling the emissions controls like above but all the extra smoke probably reduces performance in the long run. The name coal rolling comes from installing containers of coal in the exhaust. This produces clouds of dirty smoke when the hot exhaust flows through the coal. This would have little impact on performance and is literally just being obnoxious to be obnoxious.

  7. lanir says

    For me the warning sign that the article was written by an imbecile was the last sentence in the second quote: “Naturally, this has driven the left into a panic.”

    Hyperbole like that is a sign you secretly know you don’t have a leg to stand on and your entire argument can be trivially dismissed as groundless. It’s only there to drive off people who don’t agree with you before they realize how bad the your idea really is. And how poor a job you’re going to do at justifying it.

  8. jrkrideau says

    @ 4 bmiller
    As a cyclist, we particularly love these bearded toxic yahoos.

    My thoughts exactly though i have not seen any of them in my part of Ontario. The cretinous, legally blind, SUV drivers are bad enough.

  9. says

    When you look at Japan with its Kei cars and Europe with its econoboxes, you have to wonder how it came pass that the US only sells SUVs and other oversized and wasteful vehicles.

  10. says

    When you look at Japan with its Kei cars and Europe with its econoboxes, you have to wonder how it came pass that the US only sells SUVs and other oversized and wasteful vehicles.

    US car manufacturers and their lobbyists have carefully manipulated emissions regulations so that they can continue selling their best-selling product: gas-guzzling SUVs. There are various designations like “light truck” and crew trucks, so that basically a great big truck is not treated as a passenger vehicle, even if someone buys it so that they can spend all their time sitting in stop-and-go traffic in it. Out here in rural Pennsylvania, the default is a truck with a 6L V-8 engine that gets 14MPG with a tail-wind. It’d be one thing if all those people were towing 4 horse trailers, but they’re basically just cars.

    These things are really expensive, too – $60,000-$70,000 new. Folks out here spend more on a truck than their home. Because: freedumb.

  11. JM says

    @#9 & #10
    A lot has also gone into keeping the price of gas down, too many to easily list. It runs the whole gamut from subsidies to international politics. Plus the US supports vehicle ownership in general by spending a lot on roads and little on public transport.

  12. brucegee1962 says

    I love the phrase “toxic individuality,” and hope to use it whenever possible in the future.

    I’m trying to think back to historical examples. One that occurs to me is the “liberum veto” of 17th and 18th century Poland, where any single nobleman could cancel any pending legislation. The result, of course, was that it was easy for Poland’s enemies to bribe noblemen to paralyze the Polish government, which in turn led to the partition of Poland among said enemies and the end of the Polish state.

    Given enough time, toxic individualism may well have the same effect on America. Let’s hope that we’re not powerful enough to pull down the rest of the world with us.

  13. says

    As an aside, potlatch does have status implications, […] potluck dinners in US culture

    Are you saying that the word “potluck” is derived from “potlatch”? I don’t think it is. That would be interesting, though.

  14. starblue says

    The cheat by Volkswagen that made big waves was not for carbon dioxide emissions but for nitrogen oxide (NOx). The reason for cheating was that cleaning up the exhaust well requires a urea-based additive (i.e. blue-colored piss), and they didn’t want to install a big tank nor bother customers with regular refilling of the small tank. Volkswagen got on the hook because they used lack of steering movements to detect the test. Other manufacturers did basically the same thing, but used engine related parameters like temperature or acceleration to turn cleaning on or off (the test used lower acceleration than normal drivers, and ran in a narrow temperature range), and claimed is was necessary to protect the motor and get full performance (which IMHO was mostly a lie). For example, there was a talk at 33C3 how Opel cheated by turning off cleaning during initial acceleration, and not turning it on afterwards until the car stops, resulting in up to 10x emission in normal operation.

  15. says

    MR (#10) –

    America’s reaction to climate change is going to track right in line with its reaction to COVID-19: it’s going to be a great chest-thumping festival of toxic individuality.

    Which again brings back to cars, how many rationalize their speeding and dangerous driving with “it’s my right to drive fast! if you don’t like it, get off the road!”

    And often fault is determined by price of the vehicle and wealth of those driving it (i.e. pedestrians and cyclists run over by careless drivers, but no blame is assigned).

  16. bmiller says

    I am addicted to Google Maps Streetview, and it is just amazing to me how NARROW European streets are when compared to their American counterparts. And not only because the European streets are pre-automobile. We require local serving (less than a dozen houses) to be 35 feet wide. Plus sidewalks on each side. And then wonder why people blaze down said streets at unsafe speeds.

    Another horrible thing about SUVs is the raised stance of these trucks basically makes them more dangerous battering rams for pedestrians and smaller vehicles. It is almost as if they are designed to kill! But hey, the NEW NEW NEW Hummer is ELECTRIC and that makes it all good!

    “This would have little impact on performance and is literally just being obnoxious to be obnoxious” Why does bubba/redneck culture seem perpetually frozen at age 13? “You ain;t the boss of me” is the plaint of a poorly evolved 13 year old.

  17. says

    Go look at streetview of Istanbul.

    If you get a chance to play with a VR rig, e.g. an HTC Vive, make sure to check out google Earth VR. Holy crap! It’s like you are floating in the air a few hundred feet up. I traced some of my favorite walks in Paris; you can recognize the cafes, etc. it is really mind-blowing.

  18. bmiller says

    seriously, though. Google “Hilborn Road, Fairfield, CA” and look at this four lane thoroughfare with no driveways or other obstructions and let me know if you think people REALLY drive 35 mph along this highway?

  19. komarov says

    “their big-ass trucks”

    Given the context, I think the XKCD-rules of hyphenation ought to be applied with all rigor: “Big ass-trucks”


    As others have already mentioned, coal-rollers also like to target pedestrians and cyclists. Aside from the visual hazard of dense smoke in traffic, the health effects are probably not immediately dangerous (excepting prior ill health) but still not something anyone would shrug off. Makes me wonder what the overlap between coal-rollers and mask-refusers “because it’s hard to breathe” is. The irony would be lost on these people, however, and even otherwise they would not care because it’s not them getting blasted with toxic fumes.

    Re: Bruce (#5) and the diaper suggestion

    If you fight fire with fire you just end up with more fire. In situations like that, I believe dynamite is sometimes used to great effect to suffocate the flames. There are plenty of movies and video games that provide inspiration for appropriate car add-ons in that vein. Before objections are raised let me point once more to the rights to bear arms and freedom of expression. (Besides, who’d ever suspect the left-wing Prius? There’s barely room in there for a family of twelve and their luggage, let alone a minelayer) For the inevitable slang I’d suggest “capping the well.”

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