Imagine the delight! In years to come we could all be zipping merrily across continents at almost the speed of sound through massive low-pressure tubes!
Even better, we’re talking eco-chic sustainable speed, with fossil fuel air and motor transport reduced and the super-duper shiny new “Hyperloop” tubes powered by a host of solar panels.
Following the stalling of plans for a Los Angeles to San Francisco route, US entrepreneur Elon Musk reported last year that he has now received some written authorisation to start work on a Hyperloop connection between New York and Washington, DC.
Pods travelling at 1,200 kph (750 mph) would take passengers from one city to the other in 29 minutes, he said.
The Hyperloop concept has been offered by one of Musk’s companies as open-source technology and various businesses have beens showing an interest.
South Korea signed a deal to develop Hyperloop and is hoping the scheme will allow people to replace a three-hour drive from Seoul to Busan with a 20-minute trip.
Plans are also underway in France for a 40-minute Hyperloop connection between Paris and Toulouse, while the first operational route could be in the Emirates, with a Hyperloop tube planned to span the 150km between Dubai and Abu Dhabi in 12 minutes. The first stretch is due to be launched in 2020.
India, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Indonesia are also said to be interested in building their own Hyperloops.
Over the last few years, Musk and his cheerleaders have been making much of Hyperloop’s supposedly “green” credentials.
Josh Giegel, president of Los Angeles firm Hyperloop One told the Inverse website: “We’re advertising, and we really believe in, a fully kind of green solution here.”
The techno-enthusiast Digital Trends website gushed about the “fantasy of futuristic transportation” and declared: “The Hyperloop could revolutionize mass transit, shortening travel times on land and reducing environmental damage in the process.”
Norway’s Green Party also jumped aboard the “renewable” high-speed bandwagon when it called for a Scandinavian Hyperloop connection between Oslo and Copenhagen.
But potential passengers should prepare to mind the gap… between hype and reality.
Christopher Laumanns of the degrowth.info web portal in Germany warned that there were a number of questions that needed to be asked about Hyperloop, such as “do we really want to go that fast?”, “is this the kind of technology we want?”, “who will profit from this?” and “what is the real, full ecological impact of this project?”.
He told Shoal: “The hyperloop is a mega-infrastructure-project. These projects have a rich tradition of being way more expensive than the ambitious investor says they are at the beginning.
“It will have a huge impact on the landscape, especially if the pods have to travel in a very straight line, just like highways and high-speed rail, which cut through landscapes, often with tunnels and bridges”.
Plans reveal that the giant Hyperloop tubes would either run underground, as in the New York to Washington project, or be raised above ground level on pylons – in either case cutting swathes through vulnerable landscapes and fragile habitats.
And what of the steel or reinforced concrete that would be needed to construct these continent-spanning tubes? Would this be sourced, manufactured and transported with zero environmental impact?
Not exactly. Steel depends on iron ore mines, mainly opencast, and the production process involves high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, wastewater contaminants, hazardous wastes and solid wastes.
Concrete, meanwhile, is made largely from cement and that the cement industry is notoriously one of the primary producers of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.
On top of that, all the aggregates that make up concrete have to be quarried or dug out of the Earth somewhere, then transported, with further use of fossil fuel and other resources and increases in pollution.
The inclusion of solar panels in the Hyperloop marketing vision is also something of a green herring.
Enthusiasts for solar power often seem to conveniently forget that the panels themselves have a heavy environmental footprint, starting with the quartz mining, which threatens miners with the lung disease silicosis, and continuing with the caustic chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and hydrofluoric acid used in their manufacture.
The process uses not only precious water but also large amounts electricity and there is a problem with waste.
In 2011 residents of Haining in eastern China rioted for four days because the local solar panel factory was seriously polluting a nearby river, dumping toxic levels of fluoride into the water and killing large numbers of fish and some pigs.
It is unsurprising then, that Hyperloop’s claims to be eco-friendly have been greeted with scepticism by environmentalists.
Grayson Flory, editor of the Earth First! Journal in the USA, told Shoal: “The Hyperloop project is another example of dangerous greenwashing, pure and simple.
“It is a blow against a sustainable future for the planet disguised as a solution to industry-caused climate catastrophe. Environmental claims about the Hyperloop demonstrate the dominant culture’s obsession with technological progress and speed over all else.
“To prioritize high-speed transport over actual necessities for survival – such as non-toxic air, pure water, and thriving, intact ecosystems – is to ignore the very problem proponents of the Hyperloop claim they are trying to solve.
“Increasing our reliance on and dedication to technology and industry is not a rational or holistic approach to problems caused by increased reliance on and dedication to technology and industry.
“High-speed travel is not sustainable, no matter what new technology we use to make it appear so.”
Laumann, in Germany, said the broader issue of high-speed transport was important from a degrowth perspective:
“Capitalist acceleration creates the illusion of giving you more time, while it actually leads to a greater number of activities in the same amount of time, thus also creating more growth.”
José Ardillo, author of books such as Les Illusions renouvelables (“Renewable Illusions”), also agreed that the contemporary capitalist demand for high-speed transport, which Hyperloop seeks to meet, was the underlying problem.
He told Shoal: “The need for high-speed transport in modern industrial society comes within a wider historical context which was already underway at the time when the first railways were being built.
“You could say that the first need for capitalism was to efficiently link energy resources with the centres of industrial transformation, on the one hand, and on the other, of course, with distribution networks.
“The first war fought by industrial society at that stage was a war against distance. It had to nullify distance. Now contemporary industrial society is at war with time.
“Once towns and centres of production across the territory are linked together, you have to eliminate as far as possible the time needed to move between them.”
The great English writer and art critic John Ruskin died in January 1900 and so never knew the industrial insanities of the twentieth century, let alone the twenty-first.
But when he wrote in the 1870s about the madness of the railways he could just as easily have been describing the hyperloopiness of certain contemporary high-speed projects.
“There was a valley between Buxton and Bakewell, once upon a time as divine as the vale of Tempe”, he recalled.
“You enterprised a railroad through the valley – you blasted its rocks away, heaped thousands of tons of shale into its lovely stream.
“The valley is gone and the Gods with it, and now, every fool in Buxton can be at Bakewell in half-an-hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton; which you think a lucrative process of exchange – you Fools everywhere”.