Paul Decauville was a French engineer, businessman and politician who lived between the 19th and 20th centuries. He invented a portable railway that made him a fortune (the Decauville system). It was a tiny railway whose tracks (40, 50 or 60 cm wide) were connected like those of a toy train. The rails and sleepers were made in one piece. A couple of workers could bring their sections and assemble them directly on the ground, as long as it was reasonably flat. In the years before the automobile, Decauville trains made it possible to build agricultural, industrial, forestry, military and passenger railways quickly and cheaply. There were more than 5,000 of them all over the world (La Ricarda, in the Llobregat river delta, for example, had an electric Decauville railway).
Mining wagons running on rails are described and illustrated in De re metallica, the mining classic published by Georg Bauer in 1556, but it was the Decauville trains that revolutionised mining, industrial and construction transport from 1875. Until cars and roads pushed them into a corner. The Decauville railways successfully seized an opportunity. Much like the fax or the photocopier, technologies that reigned for two or three decades and then fell into oblivion. Or like analogue photography, which was revolutionary and indispensable for a century and a half, but has now been overtaken by digital photography. On different time scales (a decade or a century), these technologies arrived, were successful, and disappeared when their windows of opportunity closed. Today we think of them as relics of the transition from metallurgy or from electronics to computers.
The same will soon be true of fossil fuels. History will remember them as a dazzling energy anomaly, capital for the development of industrial society, but unsustainable in the already emerging post-industrial world. Their window of opportunity will have lasted two and a half centuries, three at the most. It is easy to see the ephemeral nature of something when the window of opportunity is only a decade or two, but harder to see it when it is a century. Here is the problem: after two and a half centuries, many people think that fossil energy is the norm. Overshadowed by the short timescale of their lives, they perceive an ephemeral element that is nothing but contingent as immanent.
Otherwise, it may well be that the entire human species depends on a window of only four or five million years, which is not very long on a biospheric scale. Its extinction would be as plausible as that of the fax machine, especially if humans proactively seek to create the conditions for their demise. Viewed properly, sustainability will be an attempt to widen the anthropic window of opportunity. I believe it is an attempt to widen that window, to work against the self-destructive drive of the species. This is the only way to explain why we are turning the climate against us or using non-renewable resources to produce waste. We are smarter than we are wise, I fear. And quite short-sighted too.
Seeing his trains in decline, Decauville started making cars. It was too late. There are four Decauville carriages in a museum, while the number of trains still in service can be counted on one hand. There is a Catalan example, the 3.5km from Castellar de n’Hug to La Pobla de Lillet, the converted tourist remains of the small 13km railway that carried cement from Clot del Moro to Guardiola de Berguedà between 1914 and 1963. They are a good, pitiful metaphor. And perhaps a premonition: in the 23rd century, tourists will probably be queuing up to take a ride in a thermal-powered vehicle. That is, if there are any tourists left. Or if there are any humans at all…