Peak Oil News: Will We All Walk to Wal-mart When Gas is Too Expensive?

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Will We All Walk to Wal-mart When Gas is Too Expensive?


Those of you who know me know I believe that oil is not a limitless resource. I don't think this puts me in a minority. It's the constantly talking about it that makes me the minority freak I am. One of today's most provocative oil-scarcity prognosticators and teachers in this futuristic way of thinking is the author and activist James Howard Kunstler, who recently gave a speech which pretty much says it all. Herein is a short history of the American way of life -- basically a sprawlburbia currently being sold to you by Republicans as "freedom" and the "way we do things here in America."

But, as Kunstler makes clear, using the central fact of peak oil production, the typical driving suburbanite's life will change a lot in the next 20 years or so. What is most interesting about this speech, however, is its underlying testament to the viability of smaller nations (perhaps de facto new nations carved from our existing nation) in our future. Whereas today the Pacific Northwest and California are giving Washington D.C. legislative raspberries by means of new, stringent environmental ideology (growth management and emmissions laws), the post-peak-oil production world of tomorrow will see all regions of the U.S. concerned with local government and production. Why? Sprawlburbia is totally dependent on cheap oil.

Kunstler makes a case for this futurescape's resemblance to a 19th century American town, with local food grown in outlying areas and backyards, and the general collapse of the Walmart/big box/suburban economy.

Is there the slightest hint of optimism and wishful thinking to Kunstler's oft-repeated post-sprawl future? I don't see big boxes dying with the end of cheap oil. I see the government ensuring the continuance of the big box economy with transportation subsidies, much as the Feds today prop up and bail out the giant, unsuccessful airline industry. Whereas the Walmart economy currently threatens mom n' pop capitalism, the end of cheap oil and the merging of mega-corporate big boxes could drive the last nail into small capitalism's coffin. After all, many, many people live within hiking (by 19th century standards) distance to a Walmart today. I live a half mile from a Walmart SuperCenter site (the neighborhood fights it now, but we're gonna lose); my momma lives 5 miles from a SuperCenter being built right now in New Orleans; my sister lives 3 miles from a Super Target.

Small, rural towns in the Midwest (the classic ravaged Main Streets WalMart leaves in its wake) are even riper for the big-box monopoly future. They, after all, will have been shopping for most of their things at Walmarts for the past generation, while their 19th century main street infrastructures were left to nesting pigeons and their guano, a local florist, antique shops, the dance studio (ie daycare for after school), the historical society, and a stripped down bar, each things Walmart hadn't figured out a way of selling yet.

Who can honestly not imagine a WalMart SuperCenter within 3 miles of 90% of the population containing (in place of its tire and automotive area), a Starbucks inside the McDonalds, a Curves fitness center, a "care on demand" emergency health clinic, an E-Bayer station, a state-sponsored bank, a Bennigan's (or Flingers or Tchotchky's)and a building supply area? The garden and landscaping areas of the ancient 21st century Walmarts will have long since been replaced by in-house Walmart bookstores featuring only titles the folks in Bentonville, Arkansas deem readable. Reading will experience a resurgence because so many people will endure 2-hour commutes on company-built commuter trains. Borders Books, long since driven out of the big-box economy because of its insistence on carrying liberal and progressive titles, will have been reduced to its original store in Ann Arbor, which will remain one of the few old style college towns in the country.

I also foresee the future Walmart monopoly being dry. Liquor stores will be rare and very expensive. Plenty of folks will desire to go back to the good old days of residential taverns, but their hands will be tied by ever-more homogenizing zoning restrictions in the suburbs. Rather than encouraging small-scale entrepreneurialism after the collapse of suburbia, national and local government will simply work toward making sure all needs are included under Walmart's roof. This consolidation of retail/entertainment/culture trade will just make the whole deal easier to regulate and tax.

Someday a gallon of gas will cost a hundred dollars. Who among us cannot imagine darkened retail corridors, abandoned strip malls, defunct gas stations, looted E-Z marts, shot out CVS', weedy Pier 1 parking lots, burned down business hotels -- all the while watching bigger and bigger Walmart SuperCenters pop up, with bigger and bigger yellow smiley faces on billboards newly erected on suburban streets?

What is your neighborhood, town, city, state and nation doing to help prepare for the coming collapse of the car culture?


At 5:05 AM, February 10, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This article basically says that Earth is FLAT. It is ludicrous. The assumption is that to purchase goods people have to leave their home and physically transport themselves to Walmart to purchase something.

For the last two years I (1) telecommuted to work, (2) order goods over the Internet, and (3) took courses over the Internet.

To be more specific to your post, ordering goods for delivery pools the cost of transporting them over a larger number of consumers. I can totally see UPS, USPS and FedEx ordering fuel-cell or flex-fuel trucks.

At 8:45 AM, February 21, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oleg Dulin, your comment is ludicrous. How did you purchase your modem to connect to the internet? Would you have to physically transport yourself to purchase such an item? Oh wait... You called and ordered it. Did you physically transport yourself to purchase said phone?

The vast majority of consumers are not the shut-in you have described yourself to be.

At 2:02 PM, February 21, 2005, Blogger Mikoyan said...

If we lose cheap oil, life as we know it will collapse. Oil is a big part of farming and one of the reasons why we can support a global population that is over 6 billion people. It is also a big factor in power generation and other things. The person who tele-commutes still uses oil in generating the electricity he uses. (More than likely).

Also, human beings are very adaptable, that's one of the reasons why we are where we are. Given a problem, people will figure out a solution.

At 5:14 PM, February 21, 2005, Blogger MK said...

Mikoyan, Yes we are extremely adaptable, but we don't always do it in time. History reveals many examples of societies that had sudden and unrecoverable collapses. In most of these cases the collapse was preceded signs we see clearly in hindsight that were not seen or were ignored by the people involved.

At 6:29 AM, February 22, 2005, Blogger Mikoyan said...

Well, we have a number of alternative energy sources out there. Wind power is one of them, but wait some folks don't want their pristine ocean view upset by the towers required. Solar power, but that's only good in areas that get lots of sun until we get more efficient solar collectors. Nuclear, but after the concerted effort against it, it's not economically feasible. There are also other methods of extracting oil in places where it is not currently profitable.

I don't think we are as screwed as the author of this site would like to make us think we are. We already have ways around the oil problem. I think the loss of cheap oil will have a bigger impact on the third world than it will on the first world.

At 10:37 AM, February 22, 2005, Blogger MK said...

Mikoyan, you are funny! You make several valid points about how the oil alternatives are not working, and then you say “I don't think we are as screwed as the author of this site would like to make us think we are.” Which way is it?

1 – You are absolutely correct that for a variety of reasons petroleum alternatives are not being developed and implemented, at least not at the rate needed to replace cheap oil. We are still chasing the oil rabbit down its hole, all the way around the world, and the bunny is running faster and faster.

2 – I don't think we will be “screwed.” Screwed is a cynical way to look at living in a sustainable economy. The adjustment to high priced oil and less waste of all resources will be difficult, but ultimately beneficial to all life on the planet. A planet in sustainable balance for every plant and creature on it will be a beautiful place to live. I hope to see that future world, and not planet wide version of Easter Island.

This site can convey a dismal outlook on a petroleum based economy. Sorry. That is the nature of the material out there. I try to post articles as I find them regardless of the author’s point of view. There simply is not much to post that is bright and cheery. If you want something more optimistic, send me the link, or write it up, and I will post it.

At 12:31 PM, February 22, 2005, Blogger Mikoyan said...

A big reason why the alternatives are not being produced is because it is not cost effective at this point. As long as oil is flowing relatively freely, it is still one of the best returns on investment available. Is is costly to develop the infrastructure for wind or solar based power. It is also costly to explore some of the alternative fuels out there, although there is some headway in that regard. But I think that if the incentives are there, we will figure out a way to mitigate the circumstances.

I don't feel as confident that 2nd or third world countries can adapt though.


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