Peak Oil News: Things to come: part 1

Monday, February 27, 2006

Things to come: part 1

The Austin Chronicle


Britt Ekland was a gorgeous "Bond girl," Miss Mary Goodnight in The Man With the Golden Gun, a celebrity more than an actress, but no fool. In a recent interview, Ekland, now 62, offered an idea to be remembered if we are to endure the enormous changes that are overtaking us: "The key to life is being able to downsize without losing your dignity."

That thought will run through this series of columns, in which I'll sketch, as best I can, what we're in for (for good as well as for ill). One disclaimer, though: I'm assuming a best-case scenario for global warming; that is, climate changes proceeding at about their present rate. If those changes turn drastic, as other scenarios suggest, all bets are off.

In a column titled "$4 a Gallon" (The Austin Chronicle, April 29) I wrote, "Gas prices can only go up. Oil production is at or near peak capacity ... that means $4 a gallon by next spring [2006], and rising ... probably $10 by 2010." Three days before Hurricane Katrina hit, The New York Times (Aug. 26, p.1) reported $3 a gallon in some parts of the country. That article noted: "In two years, the national oil bill has jumped by $210 billion, or 54%." Since Katrina, $3 has become the national norm in many parts of the country. If Rita had behaved as advertised, it would be closer to $4. Katrina increased the rate of America's decline by at least a year, and Rita has confirmed out vulnerability. Heating oil was expected to rise 17% this winter before Katrina (NY Times, Sept. 8, p.C5). Expect $4 this spring, probably $5 next summer, $6 next hurricane season. Long before then, it will be obvious to all that nothing can remain the same.

People grasping at straws often argue, "Gas has been $6 a gallon in Europe for years, what's the problem?" With Europe's national health insurance, Europeans (and their businesses) aren't burdened with our incredible health costs, which are due to rise 10% next year (The Week, Sept. 23, p.8), while Medicare premiums will rise 13% (NY Times, Sept. 17, p.8). The average American family health policy is now $11,000 yearly (USA Today, Sept. 15, p.1B); next year's 10% hikes raise that figure to $12,100. If we weren't shelling out so much money to insurance companies, we could absorb $6 a gallon too. (Even some conservatives are realizing that national health insurance would lift an enormous burden from large and small businesses as well as consumers.) More importantly, most Europeans don't need a car and most Americans do, because Europe is structured around cities while America is structured around suburbs. Minus the sparsely populated stretches of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, Europe is roughly half the size of the U.S., so its transport costs are half. Finally and crucially, Europe has the finest rail system in the world. We've let ours go to the dogs, though railroads are the cheapest way to carry people and cargo (more on this in future columns). Also, Europeans recognize the importance of global warming and peak oil. As Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, recently said, "Europe today is the major force for environmental innovation. European governments have encouraged their companies to invest [in] and produce clean power technologies." (NY Times, Sept. 21, p.25) Europe has big problems too, but has positioned itself intelligently for the 21st century. America still clings to the 20th, and we're about to pay for that.

With its excellent rail system, Europe is far less dependent (internally) upon air travel. That is tonight's subject. More than pump prices, and perhaps more than heating-oil prices, the first drastic change for middle-class and more-or-less affluent Americans will be their inability to fly.

In the last year, the price of jet fuel has risen 50% (NY Times, Sept. 15, p.C1). The airlines have desperately tried to absorb this price hike, keeping fares low and hoping for the best. But those days will be over by Easter, if not Thanksgiving. USA Today, Sept. 15, p.1B: "The airline's jet-fuel bill this year will be about $3.3 billion [a pre-Rita figure], up from $2.2 billion last year and $1.6 billion in 2003." That article notes that four of our seven largest airlines are now in Chapter 11: "51% of the USA's top 12 airlines is now operating under bankruptcy protection." The article quotes James May, CEO of the Air Transport Association: "No business model of any airline can survive with sustained jet-fuel prices of $90 to $100 a barrel." Yet those are exactly the prices predicted by many experts in the relatively near future; a major natural or manmade disruption could bring them about in a day. There is no relief in sight. This situation cannot be sustained. The average driver may be able to absorb fuel costs for a few years more, but not the average flier. Within a year – or two, or three? – affordable passenger flight will be history.

What will that mean in real life?

Airfares will skyrocket. Schedules will be pared to the bone. If you're not rich, and if your lifestyle includes hopping planes when you choose – you're grounded. As airlines fail and the surviving carriers cut back, flights will be fewer, especially to smaller cities. Some areas will lose service altogether unless the government mandates that every city of under half a million people must get, say, two flights a week. Conventions and conferences of every description will be beyond the means of any but the wealthy. The average person won't be able to jet to the wedding, sick bed, or funeral of a loved one. Even if you can scrounge the money for a ticket, there may not be a flight. Music and film festivals that can't be sustained locally will be a thing of the past (unless and until rail service is restored). Families will think twice about letting their kids apply to colleges hundreds or thousands of miles from home. Family members who live scattered all over the country will see one another rarely, if at all (again, unless and until rail service is restored). None but the rich will vacation in far-off places – and "far off" will come to mean any place beyond two tanks of gas. The gaudy entertainments that depend on flight in places like Orlando and Las Vegas will dry up and blow away. The real estate value of summer homes or winter playgrounds will fluctuate wildly; those accessible mainly by air will plunge. Flight's ancillary industries – hotels, restaurants – will hit bottom, displacing and impoverishing many hard-working people. Tourism as we know it, an industry merely decades old, will not survive. Nor will such minor luxuries as next-day delivery. Mega-airports and mega-hotels will become ghostly caverns, monuments to a failure of foresight.

What good could possibly come of this? Well, for starters, if it happens soon enough it may save many millions of lives. The Economist, Aug. 6, p.10: "[E]xperts now believe a global outbreak of pandemic flu is long overdue, and the next one could be as bad as the one in 1918 [before passenger flight], which killed somewhere between 25 and 50 million people." The Times, Sept. 22, p.12: "Just as governments around the world are stockpiling millions of doses of flu vaccine and antiviral drugs in anticipation of a potential influenza epidemic, two new surprising research papers ... have found that such treatments are far less effective than previously thought." The experts' greatest fear has been that air travel will spread the disease uncontainably before its symptoms are obvious, raising the casualty rate into the hundreds of millions. Without convenient air travel, that's unlikely.

Another benefit: 9/11 turned the U.S. into a no-fly zone for three days. There were many reports that air quality throughout the country (after just three days!) was measurably much better. Drastic curtailment of flight would not only make our environment healthier, but would probably do more to slow global warming than the full enforcement of the Kyoto Treaty, and do it quicker.

I'll explore other benefits in future columns, but briefly now: Amid this massive disruption, we will be forced to pay attention to where we are. You can't go elsewhere for culture; you must cultivate it where you are. You can't go elsewhere for beauty; you must create beauty where you live. Family life will be literally closer: a Georgia gal won't take a job in Seattle if it means she may not see her mother again for many years. With long-distance travel a rarity, communities will become more conscious of being communities. I'm no optimist, but perhaps, perhaps, many will realize that we're all in this together, and that our well-being and our neighbors' are entwined. Above all, the frantic pace of American life will slow down. Way down. That'll drive some people crazy, but others – perhaps, perhaps – will discover a truth put best, once again, by Caroline Casey: "Beauty is abundantly available to the unhurried mind." end story


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