His solution, of course, is to ask our legislators to relax drilling restrictions in areas like ANWR (the Arctic refuge in Alaska) and off our coasts. Events which will send the signal that everything is back to normal and we can safely resume our excessive (patriotic?) consumption habits. And when we finally do run out of oil, in the distant future, robust American market forces will fix this temporary problem with Adam Smiths invisible hand of the marketplace.
Price, profit incentive, and technology are all we need to correct any imbalance between supply and demand, say the oil companies. In contrast, author Richard Heinberg (“The Partys Over,“ “Peak Everything:) takes a different and longer view: Cheap oil is the party weve been enjoying for the past 150 years, and that party is coming to an end, in our lifetime. Were going to see the end of the age of oil, and the result of that will be the end of the American way of life.
Likewise, author Jim Kunstler (“The Geography of Nowhere“), is also wary of oil executive pronouncements as nothing more than the typical bias towards shareholder interests (short-term profits) that will only increase the painful consequences awaiting us (on par with a new Mel Gibson film: Mad Max IV, The Last Hummer“).
Hofmeisters prescription for lowering high gas prices will give us a few more years of denial that we have an economy dangerously addicted to a finite resource.
Our addiction is a direct result of public decision-making that not only built a landscape around cars, oil, and short-term economic interests, but also the creation of a media built for ratings and profits that renders the electorate ill-equipped to make informed choices about public investment schemes longer than our attention span.
A short review of transportation/land-use decisions over the last 70-80 years reveals the evolution of this classic American problem. The two major legislative decisions responsible:
1. The ubiquitous adoption of separate use zoning instead of more sensible mixed use codes as the template for all master plans for cities. By instituting separate use zoning you automatically infer auto transit dependency, and by not democratically debating the long-term design consequences (i.e., sprawl, strip development, inequitable bias against non drivers), we set in place a land use model heavily dependent on cheap oil.
2. The huge public surrender to the auto/oil industrial complex via the construction of the inter-state highway system without mandating an equal investment in bike, pedestrian, and public transit-friendly land-use designs.
The whole suburban project can be summarized pretty succinctly as the greatest mis-allocation of resources in the history of the world. America took all of its post-war wealth and invested it in a living arrangement that has no future, says Kunstler.
Our marketplaces moved from human scale, walkable and friendly neighborhoods to big box & drive-thru retail on our high-traffic highways. We get low-priced domestic goods from China, but the costs in congestion, maintenance, public health, environmental degradation, and visual blight diminish us both politically and culturally. We now have a dismal cartoon (pun intended) architecture landscape designed around obedient car consumers enslaved to a daily banal economic routine almost everywhere.
Our investment in sprawl has failed to improve either mobility or quality of life. Pundits lament: Weve become a nation full of lonely, overweight, impatient, single occupant commuters, stuck in traffic, trying to communicate with each other with bumper stickers.
Not only is sprawl as obvious as obesity, it is the primary cause of our collective road rage. Instead of diversifying the modes of transit to reduce congestion we decided (with a little help from lobbyists) to build our way out of auto gridlock by adding lanes and investing in more roads, which only encouraged more automotive use.
Kunstler says America is sleepwalking into a future of energy scarcity, climate change and geopolitical turmoil, while still caught in a dream of denial. No amount of wind, solar, or even nuclear, will allow us to keep living the way we do, he says.
Are these guys just doomsday purveyors crying Wolf! or are they truly attempting to steer us from the edge of a cliff? Does the cliff represent the chasm of psychological change we are about to undertake? Can we develop a code to live by that can replace our current economic growth/culture of excess model? As we assess the veracity of these dire predictions, the question arises; how can we possibly craft some humane solution?
Does any relatively quick energy fix seem plausible, or on the horizon?
Venture capitalist John Doerr is optimistic. Renewable energy is the next Silicon Valley, he says, urging government leadership to make green technology the solution.
Others, less enamored by the promise of science and technology, hold a different view: If it cant be done without fossil fuels, it cant be done, cautions author Richard Heinberg. Bioregionalist and author Stephanie Mills (“Epicurean Simplicity“) sees the economy shifting from global to regional and is also pointing to the re-localization approach as a transition from the old economy. Only in place will we learn anew, in myriad ways, to carry on, she says.
Mark Nixon of Traverse City is involved in real estate management and development with an active interest in public policy on transportation, media and environmental issues. He is a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism on urban & rural land-use design solutions.