Tuesday, December 20, 2011

More thoughts on "peak oil"

In the book "$20 Per Gallon", the author points out that one of the most basic distinguishing features between the middle class and the poor are that the middle class owns cars. Now, I don't know that this is necessarily true in the U.S., since I've known plenty of poor people (myself included, back when I could truly describe myself as "poor") who've owned cars. But for most of the world, owning a car is a giant barrier to the middle class lifestyle. With a car, you have more mobility and more options. Thus, most of the world aspires to owning a car.
However, we're getting so backwards in the U.S. that not owning a car (or being "a one-car family") is becoming a sign of how well-off you are. It means that you can afford to live in an area with lots of choices in shopping and transit. And food. Most poor urban areas are considered food deserts, meaning that they don't have easily accessible grocery stores and farmer's markets. This leaves poorer people more dependent on their cars to get the basic necessities of life, as well as to get to and from work. It's a horrible cycle because most poor people can't afford nice cars, so the very thing they're dependent upon is also keeping them in a state of desperation by constantly breaking down and being very expensive to own and operate. I wonder how many people we could bring into the true middle class (as I think of it, noted more by a lack of debt than by car ownership) if we focused on making our cities and towns less dependent on cars? How many accidents each year would we prevent, and how many deaths and injuries? How much "car debt" would be erased in just a few short years?
I think that one of the changes we'll see as our nation changes, as oil gets more and more expensive, is that there will be a greater demand for walkability and mass transit. When gas hit $4/gallon, how many more people chose mass transit than cars? Since mass transit is still dependent on fossil fuels, how much more emphasis will there be on walking and biking in the future? Fewer and fewer people want to be dependent upon their cars. I know I don't, and I'm so glad I'm not. If we had to get rid of it tomorrow, it would limit some of the things we could do in the winter (like seeing friends across town) but wouldn't be a disaster. I'd like to keep it that way, thank you.
I do know that this past summer there was an uproar in downtown Fairbanks over an initiative that was started to make downtown more walking and biking friendly. I tend to avoid the downtown area, because it's across town so it's harder for me to get to and it's a warren of confusing streets. Not fun. But the houses there are affordable, so it's a place I've considered for living. (The transit station is there, so I would be able to bus to and from work.) The biggest factor against that is that it's not a friendly place for walking and biking. There aren't really any grocery stores, and all of the amenities I've gotten used to having nearby would more than likely have to be driven to.
The initiative that was up for a vote was backed by almost all of the downtown businesses, but was killed by the city council. (I don't know what the reasoning behind it was.) They've placed more of an emphasis on building big box stores at the fringes of town than on rejuvenating the downtown businesses and for that I'm upset since it can only hurt my community. And in the long run, I see the steps they turned down as being necessary for my community.
I'm rethinking already considering who not to vote for the next time city council members are up for reelection.
As far as the book, "$20 Per Gallon", it was ok. Not great. I think that as an overview for some of the changes we'll have to make in the future it's decent, but the author takes an overly simplistic view of things. He derides some of the clean technology that's been come up with (wind, solar) and praises nuclear as the best option for the future. Granted, this was before the Japanese earthquake and the disaster at Fukushima. But I still don't think that nuclear is the direction we're headed in. It's expensive, and unlike that author I don't gloss over the small amount of very, very harmful byproduct it creates. I think we'll just have to do better than that in the future. Honestly, I'm excited for the new technologies that we'll come up with to work our way out of this problem. I don't think that we'll ever go back to living the way pioneers did because people are resourceful. We're not going to essentially go back in time.
The author also claimed that electric cars are the wave of the future. And yes, I see a lot of people moving that way right now (or at least to hybrids--I now know at least two people who own Priuses) but no matter what people say, electric cars are not zero emissions. You have to plug them in, and roughly 50% of the country's electricity is powered by coal. So they don't have oil fumes spewing out of them, true, but unless you're purely powered by wind and/or solar, they're producing harmful fumes somewhere. They're not zero emissions, just better than anything else we have.


  1. I'll be interested in hearing what UAF's oil economist (Doug Reynolds) says on the topic Monday night. He'll be speaking at College Coffeehouse that night at 7pm ...

  2. ... so I went. (This was a few weeks ago; I forgot to check back in.) It was an interesting presentation but amounted, in the big picture, to a plug for Doug's new book. Meh.
    I am, however, doing a bit of reading on oil — not specifically peak oil — myself. Over the next 30 hours I'll put together a synopsis of what I'm finding out. I'll post it Tuesday morning at 7:30 am.
    Just saying.