'$20 Per Gallon' by Christopher Steiner
Christopher Steiner looks ahead and projects, $2 at a time, how rising gasoline prices will transform civilization.
By Matthew DeBord
During the summer of 2008, Americans found out just how much was too much to pay for gas. On July 11, a barrel of oil hit $147.27, which translated into $4.11 for a gallon of regular gas at the pump -- the highest price ever reached in the U.S. And that was just the average. In some places, the price got close to $5 a gallon. It was the Summer of Pain.
Many people who'd never heard of "peak oil," or who'd been trading in one SUV for another, or who'd scoffed at the idea that Americans would ever drive less, suddenly learned that when the price of a finite commodity spikes, even cherished habits change. And it's not just about driving: Our entire American way of life, in fact much of the global economy, has been built over decades on cheap oil: Seafood and plastic toys from China can flow freely around the world. The price of bread and milk stays low. Airlines can engage in price wars.
But when the price of oil rises dramatically, inflation can kick in, scarcity can become the order of the day, freeways empty, General Motors and Chrysler slide into bankruptcy, and the American way of life grinds to a halt. Of course, after the price of oil crested in 2008, it quickly collapsed, leading some observers to speculate that the Summer of Pain was a blip on the radar.
But for the first six months of this year, the price was steadily rising. Though it has stabilized and even fallen in recent weeks, it may begin a slow, undulant march until gas literally costs too much for anyone.
This is the altered state of petroleum consciousness that Christopher Steiner, a trained engineer and writer for Forbes, envisions. And it's happening quickly, he points out. "As the middle class continues to explode in China, India, and scores of other spots circling the earth, hundreds of millions of additional cars will hit the roads," he writes. Many of those cars will be like the $2,200 Tata Nano, a "people's car" created for Indian consumers who've been riding bicycles and motor scooters for generations. "People want what Americans have had for decades: easy cars and an easy life. These people will get what they want, but in the process they will catalyze a global economic reformation on a scale never seen. . . . " Even the tattered remnants of the Detroit Big Three want a piece of this market: As General Motors left bankruptcy at home, it was selling more cars than ever in China.
Steiner has adopted a nicely readable structure for the book. Starting at $4 a gallon, each chapter tracks what will happen when gas hits a particular price, escalating by $2 until he gets to $20. He visits an airplane graveyard in order to explain how $8-a-gallon gas will crush the airline industry. At $14, he checks out an abandoned Wal-Mart "ghost box" and imagines a grim end to the car-dominated exurb. "Stores will return to the downtowns of yore as small towns' populations . . . return to the small-town infrastructures that their grandparents and great-grandparents built."
By $18 a gallon, high-speed railroads serve our travel needs, and by $20 a gallon, we just can't do oil anymore. And like a lot of people who've studied our post-oil energy options, he comes down on the side of nuclear. Eventually, he's replaced transatlantic flights with leisurely ocean passages akin to the grand liners of yesteryear. Except these new Queen Marys will run on nuclear reactors. Personal cars will be a thing of the past. Citizens of the future will wonder why we ever thought we needed them.
By now, you may have noticed a great bifurcation here, typical of newbies to the study of spiking oil prices. We Americans will find our existence irrevocably altered to the point where we are forced to inhabit a downmarket green fantasy, harvesting power from wind and ocean currents, breaking our addiction to automobiles and generally living with less. Meanwhile, the developing world will have become the new first world, with a middle class with disposable income that Americans lack filling China, India and other rapidly growing countries with roads, cars and petroleum products. At least until all the oil runs out and they, too, must convert to lives of noble deprivation.
Some of Steiner's speculations will happen. In particular, rising global energy demand could have a disastrous impact on food cultivation, which at the industrial scale needed to feed a populous planet requires fertilizers synthesized from natural gas. Nuclear power will be an obvious alternative-energy choice when gas settles into double-digit per gallon prices.
Personal mobility could be another story, however, and here Steiner gets into tricky territory when he latches onto start-up electric car companies and gee-whiz mobility providers. In fact, good old internal-combustion engines running on gas may be with us for much longer than he thinks. Even $10 per gallon gas would be acceptable if efficient gas and hybrid engines can achieve significantly higher mileage, which is technologically feasible. Widespread electrification of transportation will come, but we could have to wait until the middle of the century, or even longer. The romance of the personal automobile won't fade so fast in the U.S., especially if it increases its hold elsewhere.
There's also a glaring omission in "$20 Per Gallon" that should be addressed. Much of the ground that Steiner covers, with a certain boyish, gearhead utopianism, was traversed in much more apocalyptic fashion by James Howard Kunstler in his 2005 book, "The Long Emergency." Kunstler's arguments, which are actually more ecological than economic, are well known and widely debated. So it seems remarkable that Steiner, who comes to many of the same conclusions, fails to acknowledge a book that's been around for four years and actually anticipated the 2008 gas mini-crisis. "$20 Per Gallon" also reads at times as if it were hurriedly written. Still, Steiner has served up a terrific speculative primer on a future of much pricier energy and all that it may entail.
DeBord writes the Shifting Gears blog for Slate's the Big Money and has written widely on the automobile industry and the future of mobility.