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An unlikely simplification

Image: Geograph

Technological failure of some kind was to be expected as our human impact crisis deepened.  Put simply, as the amount of energy needed by the energy sector has increased, so the amount available to power the much larger non-energy economy was bound to fall.  This, in turn, was bound to result in some technologies becoming too energy-expensive to operate.  But of all of the technologies that might have signalled the spread of this process, few of us would have expected to see the humble automated car wash disappear.

In the early 2000s, automated car washes were a common add-on service to tens of thousands of filling stations around the UK.  Today only a fraction of them survive.  In their place there has been a quiet regression to a far more primitive service – tens of thousands of hand car wash services have mushroomed across the British Isles.  Concern about these was raised late last year with the publication of a report by MPs examining environmental and labour abuses in the car wash sector:

“We were told that a ‘spectrum of exploitation’ is taking place at hand car washes, from non-payment of the minimum wage or holiday pay, to serious cases of debt bondage. Research suggests that hand car washes are linked to trafficking into and within the UK for labour exploitation. This is modern slavery in plain sight on Britain’s streets. Over the last three years the growth of the hand car wash industry has resulted in increasing numbers of Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and immigration inspections, focusing on serious health and safety risks and the possibility of labour exploitation. We heard some shocking cases of health and safety violations, tragically leading to the death of a worker in linked accommodation, and cases of trench foot and chemical burns amongst workers resulting from prolonged exposure to water and cleaning agents. In some cases, hand car washes are charging less than £5 per vehicle, despite employing large numbers of workers. Such low prices indicate that labour abuses, such as non-payment of the minimum wage, are occurring.

“There are also concerns that some hand car washes are allowing their waste water to flow directly into surface water drains or seep into the ground… There are a range of potentially toxic substances within wash water, including acids, oils and phosphates which can suffocate water courses by encouraging the growth of algae…”

One reason why the decline of the automated car wash may have escaped widespread media attention, however, is that it is at odds with the approved narrative of human progress.  We are – we are told – on the verge of a new “fourth industrial revolution,” not a collapse into some dystopian dark age in which homelessness, serfdom and slavery can be found on every high street.  Slavery was supposedly thrown into the dustbin of history back in the nineteenth century; while technology was always meant to liberate us from the drudgery of manual labour.  And yet here, in the fifth (so they tell us) most prosperous economy on the planet is evidence of automated technology being thrown onto the trash heap in favour of a revival of medievalism.

Four years ago, Professor Mike Haynes from the University of Wolverhampton drew attention to car washes as an example of what has come to be called by economists (who do not know any better) the productivity puzzle:

“As the economies of wealthier nations evolved, the machine car wash was one of many technical changes that accompanied capital deepening. Major garages and petrol stations are equipped with expensive machines that now stand idle, while people queue for the hand car wash. This, despite the machines being good at what they do. They are unlikely to scratch your car. They wash it cleaner, use less water and the detergents are more safely taken away. Some countries even ban hand car washing because of the waste and pollution involved.

“The return to an inefficient, labour-intensive model – as with the hand car wash – is therefore an odd regression. It is only possible in a rich economy like the UK’s because labour is relatively cheap – and those working in hand car washes tend to be paid at the minimum wage or below it. They experience long periods of under-employment as they wait for customers and few have proper contracts or conditions…

“Hand car washes are taking the economy backwards. They are part of the low-wage, low-productivity trap. Their proliferation in the UK shouldn’t be seen as merely a quirk of people’s preference for them over the machine wash. And they shed interesting light on Britain’s productivity puzzle.”

Haynes is actually stretching things a little here.  Kept in good working order, automated car washes are, indeed, “good at what they do.”  Let them deteriorate by failing to pay to properly maintain them, however, and they don’t always wash cleaner; and in the worst cases they can damage your paintwork.  Post-2008, a lot of operators cut back on maintenance; opening the way for – often cheaper – hand car washing to make a revival.

MPs report the loss of 1,100 automatic car wash facilities in the decade 2006-16 even as the hand car wash sector has grown by between 10,000-20,000 outlets.  But while examples of illegal polluting, serfdom and slavery are rife across this largely unregulated sector, this can obscure the fact that even those hand car wash facilities that do comply with environment and labour regulations still out-compete their automated counterparts.  This suggests that something more profound has been happening.

Data from Statista show a marked decline in the number of filling stations in the UK, from more than 13,000 in 2000 to just over 8,000 in 2018.  Although the number has stabilised in recent years, it marks a steady decline from nearly 35,000 filling stations back in 1973 according to UKPIA.  While the majority (66%) of filling stations are independent, they only account for 37% of fuel sales; the supermarkets accounting for the majority of sales.  According to the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) Forecourt Report just 29 percent of filling stations now provide automatic car wash facilities.  A further 37 percent offer self-service manual jet washers; while 7 percent offer an attended hand wash.

Importantly, the filling station sector is also highly competitive; and not particularly well-rewarded.  As the ACS report notes:

  • 13 percent of independent forecourt owners work more than 70 hours per week
  • 8 percent take no holidays
  • 34 percent have been operating for less than 5 years
  • 72 percent of investment into these businesses comes from the owners’ reserves with just 4 percent coming from financial institutions.

Less obvious to most British motorists – whose eyes water at the price per litre of their fuel – it is extremely difficult to sell petrol and diesel at a profit in the UK; as Maria McCarthy from Saga explains:

“We all complain about the price of fuel, but it’s government taxes that make up a significant chunk of it.

“’Fuel duty for both petrol and diesel currently stands at 57.95p per litre, with VAT added on at 20%,’ says Brian Madderson chair of the Petrol Retailers’ Association (PRA).

“’Then there’s the cost of the fuel itself and delivery. Retailers try to make about 4-5p per litre, but out of that they have to pay staff, business rates and corporation tax. Fuel stations often depend heavily on sales from the shop – a retailer can make more on selling a Costa coffee than on 40 litres of fuel.’”

This brings us back to automated car wash facilities which, like the Costa coffee machine, began life as a profitable activity to attach to a business that for all practical purposes is merely a £27 billion private tax collecting facility for the UK government.  In the good old days before the 2008 crash, British motorists had sufficient income to pay for an automated car wash.  As a result, filling stations with spare land invested in the technology.  After the crash, as incomes plummeted, however, many filling station owners were faced with ongoing maintenance costs and decisions about replacing the technology.  No doubt the supermarkets – which have largely cornered the market in fuel sales – will continue to provide automatic car washes; since their business model is more concerned with getting customers onto their premises.  But the independent filling stations – largely funded out of their owners’ savings – are unlikely to invest in a technology whose costs can be undercut by even an entirely legal hand wash facility.

In this sense, the automated car wash is merely the latest casualty in a retail apocalypse that has been gathering pace in the last decade.  Falling surplus (non-energy sector) energy manifests in the monetary system as a decline in prosperity – the amount of money people have left over after their non-discretionary spending has been deducted.  If people cannot afford to do something discretionary like eating out, fashion shopping or – in this case – using an automated car wash, they will stop doing it.  The result is that the service provider can no longer operate at a profit and will cease offering the service.

However, the fact that it is a technological step backward helps to expose the fallacy behind the techno-utopian fantasy of permanent progress that is more often served up by the mainstream media.  Here is a clear example of a collapse of complexity of precisely the kind envisioned by those paying attention to surplus energy economics. 

Because the amount of surplus energy – the amount left over after fuel production and electricity generation – has been declining since the 1970s, the amount of things our economy can do is also in decline.  As John Michael Greer explains:

“The energy needed to get the sand out of the tar sands or the oil out of the shale oil has to come from somewhere, and that energy, in turn, is not available for other uses. The result, however you slice it conceptually, is that the upper limit of complexity begins moving down. That sounds abstract, but it adds up to a great deal of very concrete misery, because as already noted, the complexity of a society determines such things as the number of different occupational specialties it can support, the number of employees who are involved in the production and distribution of a given good or service, and so on. There’s a useful phrase for a sustained contraction in the usual measures of complexity in a human ecosystem: ‘economic depression.’

“The economic troubles that are shaking the industrial world more and more often these days, in other words, are symptoms of a disastrous mismatch between the level of complexity that our remaining concentration differential can support, and the level of complexity that our preferred ideologies insist we ought to have. As those two things collide, there’s no question which of them is going to win. Adding to our total stock of knowledge won’t change that result, since knowledge is a necessary condition for economic expansion but not a sufficient one: if the upper limit of complexity set by the laws of thermodynamics drops below the level that your knowledge base would otherwise support, further additions to the knowledge base simply mean that there will be a growing number of things that people know how to do in theory, but that nobody has the resources to do in practice.”

Two more obvious things (because they stood at the apex of human technological achievement) that we know how to do but can no longer do in practice are commercial supersonic flight and manned space flight beyond low earth orbit.  It is not that we have forgotten how to do these things; nor do we lack the resources to do them.  What is lacking is any kind of purpose with which to make them happen.  Neither could operate entirely commercially, so market drivers are not going to put in an appearance any time soon.  Nor is there a government on the planet that is not now so overburdened with debt that it dare borrow the additional billions to restart these largely unproductive activities.  Doing so would necessarily remove funding from other activities such as providing people with healthcare, social housing or indeed food.

The demise of the automated car wash may seem trivial next to these former triumphs of homo technologicus but it sits on the same continuum.  It is just one of a gathering list of technologies that we used to be able to use, but can no longer express (through market or state spending) a purpose for.  More worrying, however, is the direction in which we are willingly going in our collective decision to move from complexity to simplicity.  The demise of the automated car wash has not followed a return to the practice of people washing their own cars (or paying the neighbours’ kid to do it).  Instead we have more or less happily accepted serfdom (the use of debt and blackmail to force people to work) and slavery (the use of physical harm) as a reasonable means of keeping the cost of cleaning cars to a minimum (similar practices are also keeping the cost of food down in the UK).  This, too, is precisely what is expected when the surplus energy available to us declines.

Almost every human society that has ever existed operated entirely on renewable energy.  None was capable of sustaining itself without some form of slavery or serfdom (its more moderate form).  What made modern industrial societies different was only that the energy provided by fossil fuels was sufficient to allow the various affluent classes around the world to dispense with their slaves.  There is some irony that it is Eastern Europeans (for now) who make up the majority of modern slaves (the word “slave” is a derivative of Slav) however it is unlikely that modern slavery will end with this population.

One of the problems with an MPs report that focuses attention upon slavery in this sector of the economy is that it has little to offer beyond warm words.  Government funding has itself has been cut beyond the point where adding new laws and regulations can do more than add to the list of criminal and civil offenses that can no longer be enforced.  There may be a brief crackdown and a few high profile arrests (at the expense of policing other sectors) but where one illegal outlet is shutdown another will soon pop up to take its place; there is simply too much profit to be made from modern slavery.

To some extent – for now – this situation is the result of deliberate vandalism by the UK government itself.  There were and are other far less important areas of expenditure that could be cut in order to maintain the number of law enforcement officers.  As the economy continues to decline, however, even these choices will be limited.  In the near future we will face hard decisions about which laws and regulations we continue to enforce and which we either repeal or tacitly accept will not be enforced.

Car washing was unlikely to have been on anyone’s list of technological failures as surplus energy continued to decline.  Nor is it particularly important given that the days of happy motoring are numbered for the same reasons.  Nevertheless, the process will be the same across the wider economy as the crisis continues.  There is no puzzle about falling productivity – as with car washing, we are simply witnessing more and more functions in society dropping energy-intensive technology in favour of a return to (increasingly forced) manual labour.

As you made it to the end…

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