Rising gas costs are … a good thing?

August 12, 2009

book $20

The book of the moment is $20 Per Gallon by Christopher Steiner.  This is a fascinating read that anyone interested in the future of America should read.  Its clear and engaging and reads like an article in the NYTimes magazine.  It will make you think about how you want to plan your life around the inevitable changes that are on the horizon.  Why read it?  Well, as Steiner puts it:

“The price of oil – and thus, gasoline – affects our lives to a degree few realize.  Its not just the BP or Shell portion of your Visa bill.  It’s the bricks in your walls, the plastic in your refrigerator, the asphalt on your roads­, the shingles on your roof, the synthetic rubber in your ball.  With every penny that gasoline moves up, so, too, does the price of most things we consume.”

Smile: gas prices are going to go up … and it will be good for all of us.

This will change our world in dramatic ways.  Most people acknowledge this and then shudder.  Every person I’ve told about this book since I picked it up has responded with a reflexive flinch – what a depressing read they imply.  But actually the tone is in the subtitle: How the inevitable rise in the price of gasoline will change our lives for the better.  Steiners view is that this inexorable price hike will do us good.  First, a moment for the underlying premise:  will gas prices continue to rise?  The answer according to him is an unequivocal yes.  Oil is finite and our demand for it is growing.  You can argue about the date of peak oil till you’re blue in the face but no one seriously believes that it doesn’t exist.  Likewise, the ever expanding global middle class is clamoring for the right to burn as much fossil fuels as the West did when it was on the ascendency.  We’ve seen prices fall from the stomach lurching 4 dollar peak (here in the Midwest) last winter but this is an artificial result of economic variables and doesn’t change the underlying math, as the demand goes up and the amount goes down, prices are going to skyrocket.  And the world will adjust.

Chapter $6: we get our heads in the game

The book is broken up into chapters that consider the tipping point impacts of each incremental price hike.  At six dollars we will finally start to take this whole thing seriously.  At four dollars per gallon most people were still able to screw up their eyes and stick their ATM card into the gas station reader with not too much change in behavior.  I had an odd perspective on this one because although I’m 27 I’ve only owned a car for two and a half years and only driven it consistently and filled it up myself for about 14 months.  Most people I know easily remember gas under a dollar a gallon.  I took the ratcheting up to four in stride and was far more shocked after the drop this spring.  The first time filled up my tank for 19 dollars I drove away from the station feeling as if I might have inadvertently stolen something.  People noticed when gas hit $4.00 – according to Steiner, public transportation make 300 million trips in 2008 than the previous year (19) – but still most people’s habits remained largely intact and when the prices receded we all breathed a collective sigh of relief and went back to business as usual.  When the numbers roll over 5.99 we will have to sit up and take notice in a real way.

This isn’t all bad news.  Rising gas prices will keep cars off the road for unnecessary trips – which will result in reduced fatalities through auto accidents.  “For every 10% gas price increase, there is a resulting decline of 2.3%  in the number of driving deaths nationwide (30).” If gas prices were elevated to just 4 dollars per gallon for a year, 12,000 lives (or a full third of annual fatalities) would be saved.  And the numbers get even better when we take into account that the cars most likely to be given up first are SUVs which are notoriously lethal when compared with other vehicles.   Further a $1 increase in gas prices would prevent an estimated 11,000  obesity related deaths and save $11 billion in health care costs annually (34).  Likewise, a 20% increase in cost would save an estimated 700 lives by reducing air pollution (37).  Tolling will reduce urban traffic congestion.   Beat cops on foot will make city streets safer.  And all this for the low low price of just 6 dollars a gallon.  But hang on to your hats, folks, because the ride doesn’t stop here.

Chapter $12: “They’ll just fall down.”

For me, one of the most interesting points in the book was Steiner’s opinion of what rising energy costs will do to architecture (surprise, surprise).  Its no secret that buildings use a lot of energy.  Steiner focuses on how cities can be planned to be ideally eco friendly and highlights Songdo, a new city in South Korea currently being constructed from scratch.  It will house 65,000 people and serve as a beacon of idealistic long range planning.  I think I’ll just have to address it later because that is a whole other kettle of fish.  The majority of cities in America, however were not planned for density, or planned at all.  They have grown semi-organically and spread outwards into a sprawl of suburban development that won’t survive 12 dollar per gallon gas according to this book.  Regarding the wave of McMansions that have been thrown up everywhere recently, the prognosis is not good.

“There is nothing that can save these bloated testaments to the American largesse of the last ten years.   Put simply, these homes will be doomed by two swords, not one.  The first blade to draw their blood will be the one of transportation.  As we drive less and mass transit marches to the fore of American life, the farthest of the far burbs will lose relevance.  Their real estate values will crash.  …

“The second blade that will deflate America’s outer ring suburbs will be, in many ways, the same blade as the first, but it will come in a different form.  Where gasoline prices chopped off easy concrete and aluminum fascia, natural gas and heating oil prices will cripple them from within, straining home budgets that, in many cases, were stretching to own these pads of magnificent square footage in the first place.  Heating a 3000-square-foot house during a cold winter month in the Northeast or Midwest might have cost little more than $300 when energy prices were low in the late 1990s.  Obviously things have changed.

“… When gasoline prices touch $12 per gallon, the cost of keeping that house cozy in February will have reached scorching heights of $2000 to $3000.  This is not a sustainable burden (129-131).”

As for what will happen to the thousands of acres of McMansion tract housing that we will be forced to abandon, Bill Pedersen of KPF architecture in New York sums it up, “Well, they’re not very well built, so they’ll probably just take care of themselves … they’ll just fall down.”  That’s funny in a vindictive way but I think it will actually take a lot more work.  As I mentioned last week in Chicago a lot of that housing is built on former farm land.  Thats anecdotal but logic says its probably true around most urban areas.  The agricultural belts that used to feed city populations were paved over into winding subdivisions as we started bringing in more and more of our food from California and elsewhere.  But that is another change that rising gas prices will effect – local food will transition quicly from luxury to necessity and we are going to want that farm land back.  I wonder how much remediation will be necessary to render all those pesticide drenched lawns into working farm land again.

Steiner catalogues hundreds of ways American life will have to change as we face ever esclating gas costs but the picture is really far from bleak.  By the time he reaches his titual $20 per gallon, he speculates that the price of gas with have little relevance in our lives; we will have found other solutions and moved on.  Moved forward into a world where families are closer, commutes shorter, healthy local produce taken for granted and people healthier.  Its not a bad future.  And its not that far away.  I’m actually looking forward to it.

Follow this link for an interview with Christopher Steiner on Talk of the Nation from July 16th, 2009


2 Responses to “Rising gas costs are … a good thing?”

  1. […] construction as economically unfeasible as it is environmentally unsustainable.  Follow this link for some thoughts about the future of American housing from Christopher Steiner’s new book $20 […]

  2. […] Gas Costs for More Sustainability August 19, 2009 I think if I keep posting in this vein I’m going to start getting hate mail but I just find it such an interesting twist on all the […]

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