Monday, January 11, 2010

Book Review: $20 Per Gallon

How would your life change if gas cost $4.00 per gallon? $8.00? $12.00? $20.00?

That’s the premise of the new book by Christopher Steiner. While many books on the prospect of higher fuel costs driven by lessening supply and increasing demand are typically of the doom-and-gloom variety, the premise of $20 Per Gallon is that our lives will actually change for the better.

Each chapter looks at the impact of our American lifestyle at ever-increasing per-gallon price points ($4.00, $6.00, $8.00… all the way to $20.00). It’s an interesting and thought-provoking ride through a number of well-research scenarios of what will be lost and gained as we spend more on fuel. Historical perspectives that helped shape our current situations add context, while first-person interviews with field experts help ground the proclamations. Consider the following key game changers from the book:
  • At $6.00 per gallon the SUV dies and we drive fewer miles by the billions. Fewer lives are lost to traffic fatalities and as a society we begin the great Slim Down.

  • At $8.00 per gallon, air travel as we know it goes the way of the dodo and the airline industry is stripped of all but the most savvy players. This drives families and friends to re-localize to a smaller geographic area.

  • At $12.00 per gallon suburbia begins to wither on the vine as more and more people relocate to cities to live more energy efficient lifestyles and take advantage of all that higher density living has to offer.

  • At $16.00 per gallon food shipped from half way across the globe is a thing of the past. Localized food systems based soundly on organic growing principles (no fossil fuel derivative fertilizers here!) take center stage. Processed foods begin their fall from grace as people continue to evolve their healthier lifestyles.
I won’t spoil the "cliff-hanger" $20.00 scenario for you. Now, of course WHEN we see this dramatic rise in gasoline cost is the Million Dollar Question. Mr. Steiner does not get into that. He doesn't have to. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Why? Consider peak oil.

Prior to reading the book, I was already a committed believer of peak oil and the inevitable changes (good and bad) that will ensue as the world’s demand for carbon-based fuels far outweighs the supply. When you consider all of this through the lens of our suburban Sakonnet community, I began to feel a growing sense of urgency. An urgency to engage our community – from elected officials to businesses to citizens just like you and me – to start the discussion of just how we should be proactively planning for that inevitable time. We all need to be a part of this process.

You may remember the post on Saving Suburbia through the creation of a Transition Town movement. I picked up the “handbook” through the inter-library loan system and am giving it a read-through. It’s all about just that – putting aside the typical short-term thinking of municipal affairs to start engaging the broader public in a collective think-tank for creating solutions for evolving and sustaining our communities in the face of peak oil and climate change.

But when I step back from the eco-pulpit, I look out and see very few people out there with that same sense of urgency. As a society, we have forsaken the long-view for the more instantaneously gratifying shorter variety. Proactive planning is a long-lost art. Yes, some of the new recently-passed business zoning laws start chipping away at this, but that is no silver bullet.

The inherent design flaws of our own municipal government structure are a case in point: We are so wrapped up in the (sometimes important, sometimes not) minutiae of day-to-day operations we can never take the time or effort to look out five years, let alone 15 or 20. Few of our elected officials are willing to risk even small-scale political careers on such big and often complex ideas. Further, our simpleton financial process, with its 12-month birth-death cycle, will never allow for long-term planning and investment in serious and substantial community change initiatives. The broader community lacks the necessary context for an informed vote in that knee-jerk, group think arena known as the Financial Town Meeting.

I ask for your honest opinion: Do you sense the same urgency for engagement and planning? Why or why not? Is the vast majority of the population just bogged down by the day-to-day to even care? If you've read this book, how has it changed your perspective on things?

1 comment:

foulaideas said...

Yes on urgency and planning, and yes--I'm already volunteering in several areas, along with so many others in Town.
I haven't read this book yet; currently reading "Natural Capitalism" by Hawken/Lovens c.1999--one of those seminal works on the subject referred by an architect friend. Interesting to see the subject from our 2010 viewpoint. Still relevant.
Inter library loan is such a great value!