The ideas that hold court in my head owe their provenance to a January 2009 New Yorker article profiling doomsayers and other assorted crackpots – or so I thought at the time. I found one of the subjects, James Howard Kunstler, especially memorable, both from his humor (“the United States has “a railroad system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of”‘) and from his direct and alarming language; Kunstler describes post-WWII suburban sprawl as “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world” due to the wasted energy resources needed to service the suburban living arrangement. In the past two years I’ve been an ardent follower of Kunstler’s weekly podcast and have brought up Kunstler’s themes of “peak oil” and “post-peak living” in conversations with friends (no wonder I’m so much fun to be around).
Kunstler re-visits his favorite themes frequently, which includes the following: most Americans understand on a basic level that oil will run out within the not too distant future. Most Americans also understand that much of our economy depends on oil. When pressed to imagine what will happen when oil runs out, most Americans – assuming they think this far ahead – assume that the MARKET will take care of this; for example, if gas jumps from $4 to $24 dollars a gallon, businesses will have incentive to develop new technologies that will replace oil. End of problem.
There are two chief concerns with this line of thinking. The first is the assumption that we can build technologies to replace oil dependence. Oil is not technology. Oil is a resource that the sun and earth spent millions of years to create. And which, starting arguably in 1859 at Drake’s Oil Well in Titusville, PA, we started depleting in what may turn out to be less than 200 years. A replacement for oil that is as useful, easy to transport, and safe as oil. Good luck. I don’t mean that with sarcasm.
Even if a replacement “technology” can be found, the second concern is…will it arrive in time? With the world’s population currently pushing 7 billion people, can we afford even a short disruption to the world economy? The optimist would say that the MARKET will foresee the coming oil shortage and make sure that the new technologies are in place by the time oil runs out. I’m being generous by calling this wishful-thinking. A systemic shift in energy/economic systems away from oil must take 5, 10, 15 years to fully accomplish, not 5, 10, 15 months (take your pick on the number of years). Is the MARKET really so wise that it can see 5, 10, or 15 years in the future, and on a scale large-enough to overhaul our system of oil dependence if and when a final oil-shock wakes up the world?
The suggestion is not to abandon our overall free-market economy, but to recognize where market-based solutions have their limits and also to recognize that our oil-dependent economy is subject to subsidy itself. There are many people already making positive change, but I fear that all of these efforts won’t amount to much until the public actually believes things need to change.
In the wake of the March 2011 earthquake Tokyo has undertaken, and continues to follow, a wide range of energy saving initiatives, from keeping indoor temperatures hotter in the summer to reduce AC use to encouraging climbing stairs instead of using the escalator. Most visibly, Japan’s neon lights have been famously dimmed, something I noticed immediately upon my return here two weeks ago.
Will America ever voluntarily dim its lights? Or do we prefer to have them dimmed for us?