Sunday, December 27, 2009

Out of gas but a better future awaits

Two new books say the rising price of oil-based energy will force us to change our lives for the better.

$20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the BetterWhy Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization  

Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization. Jeff Rubin. Random House. 304 pages.

I devoured these two fascinating books over the recent Independence Day weekend, a propitious occasion to discover that one of our most cherished American freedoms will soon disappear. Both books spell out the ways our lives will change as the price of oil, gasoline and petrochemicals continues to rise.

We may already feel that current prices at the pump are outrageous, though both authors agree that they're actually quite low — but will be rising shortly. The resultant climb will affect nearly every aspect of modern life around the globe. In the United States, more than anywhere else, where we work and live are functions of the low price of gas. When it rises to 10 or 20 bucks a gallon, we simply won't be able too afford to live far from our jobs. But that's just the beginning. Both authors ably demonstrate that our food and other real or imagined necessities depend largely upon the plentiful supply and low price of petroleum.

Authors Steiner and Rubin agree that we're burning around six gallons of gas for every one found. Most of the major oil deposits around the world have been tapped or soon will be, they say. The ''Drill baby, drill'' crowd is just blowing a bilious cloud of natural gas; there just ain't that much to be had. But the world's demand for oil hasn't gone down. It's gone up and is growing rapidly. The nascent middle classes of China and India represent millions of new drivers and a huge demand for an untold amount of fuel. The numbers they say, clearly, indicate a steep price rise; we may in fact be looking at $6 a gallon by next year.

Both writers separately posit a future that resembles the pastoral past in many ways. The suburban sprawl that has become the hallmark of contemporary America will be impossible to sustain when high gas prices eliminate the personal automobile as we know it. It will be supplanted by an infrastructure that includes mass transportation systems like rail but doesn't include very much internal combustion-powered personal vehicle traffic -- except for some small cars fueled by ammonia. Hydrogen fuel cells? Not so much. Electric cars? Maybe.

But the population will either live in small towns with local services or dense cities like New York. Agriculture will be local too, as it will become prohibitively expensive to ship over long distances. You can also forget about eating things like sushi, unless it's cut from local fish. Globalization and world trade will essentially cease.

Much of what these guys write reads like science fiction, though like the best SF, there are recognizably plausible elements therein to ease the suspension of disbelief.
As scary as they are, I enjoyed these two books and recommend them both, with Steiner's getting the slight edge for readability as his more expansive outlook is engagingly depicted — but he quotes Rubin several times, so the unanimity between the two seems strong.

Neither author, however, presents the alternative, dystopian scenario that would result if we fail to successfully adapt our lives and livelihoods to accommodate the new, nearly gas-free way of life. Perhaps the possibility is far too horrible to comprehend, or has already been ably depicted by Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and others.
Originally published in The Miami Herald

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