I commend Ray Stubblefield for keeping our impending energy crisis in the public eye. I would like to offer a few clarifications which I hope will heighten the urgency.
First and most important, Mr. Stubblefield says, “We will eventually run out of oil…” This commonly held thought isn’t strictly accurate, is somewhat misleading, and belies the urgency of the situation because many people think we won’t “run out” for decades. In actuality, we will never truly “run out,” because there will always be some left in the ground, either undiscovered or unrecoverable, either because of remoteness or simply because the energy required to extract it will exceed its energy value, thus a net loss. The notion itself is irrelevant. However, we will reach a point when all the worlds’ consumers need more than the earth’s wells can provide. A small gap between supply and demand is wholly enough to foster a multiplying of costs and shatter our economy. Think of it this way…. If you are king of a growing population on a remote island and you have enough food to feed 100 this year but only 98 next year, that 2% shortage is a problem right now, long before you “run out.” That time is perhaps very soon, as near as a few months to a few years, certainly not decades away.
Nay-sayers waggishly proclaim “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stone. The earth is awash in energy and we’ll go onto something else.” Maybe there is a new energy source on the horizon just waiting to be discovered and exploited, but I doubt it. Scientists and engineers continue to search aggressively, yes nothing looms. New Orleans is awash in water right now, but still hundreds are dying of thirst. Oil is simply the densest, most convenient, historically abundant energy source around. My friend the rocket scientist says “My favorite (substitute for oil) is thermal depolymerization.” Well, until you can pull into your local Exxon station and buy twenty gallons of thermal depolymerization, petroleum will be vital to our economic survival.
Mr. Stubblefield correctly decries the abundance of automobiles, but his solutions to reduce their prevalence might be better guided. Motorists won’t drive less because Mr. Stubblefield and I think they should; they’ll drive less because of shifting economic necessities. Today we have lots of cars because gasoline is cheap and because our governments have provided lots of roads, rather than trains, transit systems, bicycle and pedestrian amenities. Roads begat cars because they allow for the type of community development that de-magnetizes new construction, meaning sprawl, which makes cars necessary for every trip. Conversely, trains, transit and pedestrian systems magnetize communities, bringing development inward. In recent decades, automobile use has grown faster than population growth, as all the things people need to access – schools, workplaces, stores, etc. – are only accessible by car! If we stopped building roads today and put our transportation dollars towards trains, transit, and pedestrian systems, our communities would begin to re-magnitize and our cars would become less important. We’d save precious farmland and forests in the bargain.
Mr. Stubblefield espouses a grand expansion of our rail-trail network as sort of a “pedestrian interstate.” While these are great recreational facilities, a “separate but equal” bikeway system will not address our transportation needs because these facilities seldom link places people want to go. A better bet would be to ensure that our exiting transportation corridors – our roads – are all bicycle and pedestrian friendly.
If I were president (and that, too, is a scary thought), I would impose a $0.05 per gallon per month increasing tax on gasoline, essentially indefinitely. As the price rose over the months and years, people would gravitate to more efficient options: motorcycling, bicycling, transit, and walking, but more importantly would look to more local sources for their everyday needs so that shorter trips would become the norm. Our communities would naturally condense. With the funds generated, I would make every community more pedestrian and bicycle friendly and would invest in alternatives to automobiles and consumption of petroleum.
These real solutions will prepare us for an energy deficient future.