Saturday, November 18, 2006

What happens if...

Entry for Friday, 29 July, 2005


National Geographic this month has an interesting article entitled "After Oil: Powering the Future." I also have a couple of interesting books on the subject of oil. One is called "The Prize" and it was a gift from someone I used to know. The other I brought recently, entitled "The End of Oil," which you could probably consider "the rest of the story."

The first book tells how the corporations wrangled and bribed their way into their exclusive contracts with the various Ottoman governments, and later the middle eastern leaders who took their place after they gained their "independence." I use that term loosely, of course. Eventually the people realized they were being screwed royally and nationalized their oil fields and operations. Later still, they realized cartels make more money that competitors, and OPEC was born. Corporations that deal in petroleum based products spent all of this time still scheming and trying to position themselves in ways that ensured their continued obscene profits.

Part of that process involved suppressing alternative technologies, usually by buying the rights to them and then sitting on them for decades. Another part of the process involved pushing congress to favor highway bills and highway development instead of light rail, electric trolleys, cable cars, subways, and airlines. The results of this strategy you can see today - highways are heavily subsidized while the other methods of transportation are ignored and even scorned. The airlines are going broke because they can't get much more in the way of government help. The petroleum companies have their product's resources bought, paid for, and built for them by taxpayers.

Oil is a non-renewable resource. Once we have used all of the reasonably accessible oil deposits, there aren't any more. There have not been for many decades and will not in the future be any more giant oil fields discovered. The Saudis and others have been increasing their reserve figures for decades with not a shred of evidence that any more oil has actually been found - talk about slight of hand accounting! Meanwhile, the aging fields have to be force fed more and more pressurized saline to cough up oil, and the economists pretend that they don't notice.

For all of you wondering when the price of oil is going to go down - it isn't. It will probably stay at this level for some time, several years or even a decade or more - to give people the opportunity to get used to the idea and adjust their budgets accordingly. But the truth is that petroleum products will soon be too expensive for the average family to afford. In fact, many families already can't afford to pay more for gasoline and household goods manufactured using petroleum. And thanks to the petroleum companies stomping out their competition, there are no viable alternatives, either in the manufacture of automobiles or in the use of transportation that could be used in place of automobiles.

Part of the blame for this needs to be put squarely where it belongs - on urban planners whose worship of the almighty car has been the guiding force of city, suburban, and neighborhood design for decades. I should know - I served my architecture internship in the local city-county's Division of Long Range Planning. At no time was viable mass transit (and I don't mean buses) ever considered, and in fact the trolley system the city used to have was removed. No subway, no light rail - nothing but acres and acres of parking lots. Even the local bicycle enthusiasts have had to fight tooth and nail to get bike lanes on two - count them - two roads, one of which is, of course, by the University campus (which itself actually outlawed bikes on campus. You can only ride to designated areas on the outskirts.).

Not only did urban planners make sure that the vast majority of people were buying homes that were literally miles and miles away from the nearest grocery or pharmacy, they also should take the blame for giving tax breaks and incentives to those giant big-box corporations that have run all of the mom-and-pop neighborhood shops out of business. Even people who live in the urban area cannot realistically walk to do their errands anymore, thanks to the unfair and short-sighted bias the government has toward supermalls, sprawling shopping centers, and wally-world retailers. Not one dime in tax breaks are given to neighborhood shops whose clientelle could have walked there. No, they are shunned like the plague.

Remember the old adage of government: you get what you subsidize? Well, they got it.

Now, here we are, and we have to ask ourselves: what will happen if there is another oil crisis or the price for gasoline simply becomes prohibitively expensive?

Well, first and foremost, as soon as people realize they don't live anywhere near food or medicine or household goods and hardware, they will try and move. Suburban homes will flood the market and the prices will crash and burn. On the flip side, the cost of urban lofts, condos, townhouses, and even apartments will go through the roof in places where they aren't already, and where they are already outrageous - well, I can only imagine. Supply and demand, you know.

Cities of a quarter million people or so, like ours, will suddenly realize they don't really have viable mass transit and try and cram it down people's throats - however, tax increases are about the last thing people are going to put up with at that point.

In the meantime, discretionary income will disappear under the onslaught of taxes and petroleum costs. Guess what that will do to the economy, class?

So in a perverse and ironic way, the petroleum companies' and the government's actual incentive is to try and keep the status quo. Change to real mass transit and widespread use of alternative automobile technologies are simply prohibitively expensive - it can't be done. And obviously having masses of people starve and die in suburbs cut off from their medicine and necessities of life isn't really a good option, either. (Although I'm sure there are some wacko-environmentalists who don't think that's a bad idea.) So, here they are. They have to try and keep the illusion going as long as possible.

Which means, of course, by the time the government starts admitting that they're concerned, well, we're well past the point of no return. In fact, I predict they will not admit there is a problem until it is so obvious to everybody else that they look like idiots. (Of course, one has to suspect that the Department of Transportation has the collective IQ of a turnip to allow the situation to get like this in the first place.) You don't see Europe allowing their passenger train systems to disappear, now do you? Japan has really cool commuter trains, bullet-trains, mag-levs, subways - the whole nine yards. Where are ours?

Well, class, what solutions are there? Honestly, I have no idea. There is no way to divest oneself from the petroleum economy quickly or easily. In most places there simply is no alternative - city planners and councilpersons have spent the last several decades with their heads in the sand, or somewhere behind them and a bit farther off the ground - I'm not sure which. We have sacrificed both our security and our economy on the altar of the almighty automobile.

Somehow, I don't think I got my money's worth.

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