Peak Oil News: The Peak-Oil Crisis: A Role for the Post Office

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Peak-Oil Crisis: A Role for the Post Office

Falls Church News-Press

As gasoline becomes less available to the average motorist, either because it costs too much or sitting in gas lines takes too many hours, the first sacrifice will be discretionary use of the car. If your livelihood depends on people coming by car so you can provide discretionary goods or services to them, your business will hurt. There will, however, be no serious harm to society as a whole if you don’t make it to the movies on Saturday night. In fact, life will be more pleasant for those still driving, as traffic will be markedly reduced.

However, as depletion continues, the unavailability of gasoline will start to threaten the two things most can’t do without: commuting to work and getting the stream of life-sustaining “stuff” (food, clothes, medicine) to our homes.

In the not too distant future, there will come a time when any retail establishment depending on a parking lot for its customers will be in trouble. There simply won’t be enough gas available for all our current vehicles. Universal ownership of electric vehicles will still be many years away. Americans are currently running around in some 210 million cars and light trucks, so the line to buy replacements, if we can still afford to make and buy them, will be decades long.

Over the last 75 years, the US has developed a retail distribution system that involves getting into a car and driving down to the store, mall, shipping center, supermarket, dealer, etc. for anything from a pack of cigarettes to a new car. While some objects are too big for delivery by car and FedEx and UPS are starting to deliver more and more things purchased over the Internet, it is still a miniscule share of the daily flow of stuff to our homes.

It will be possible to extend our current distribution system for a few months (or years) after oil depletion sets in through better planning of trips, shopping pools, and increased use of UPS and FedEx. However, by the time the amount of gasoline available for sale to retail customers is down to some 25 or 50 percent of current levels, we had better come up with a new way of buying stuff and getting it home, especially foods and medicines, or we’ll really be in trouble.

The current delivery companies can take up a little of the slack but they will have a lot to cope with. As oil goes up and up, companies such as FedEx are going to have to rethink their core business of flying stuff to Memphis at night for redistribution.

The most fuel-efficient way to get merchandise to our homes is to have a fleet of trucks – preferably electric-powered – deliver whatever we and our neighbors need with one trip. Does this model sound familiar? It happens on my street every afternoon when the little red, white, and blue US Postal Service electric van toddles up my street and brings us all the mail and some packages I want.

A moment’s reflection will bring one to the notion that the Postal Service is the one institution that already has infrastructure in place to deliver things to every home in the country. It has buildings and deliverers nearly everywhere, plus the organization, the management, and electric delivery vans. It has the management experience of massively expanding its operations during the Christmas rush.

Could it replace a significant portion of the last fuel-intensive miles of our current retail distribution system? Given the incredible electronic communications and computation systems we have acquired in recent years, and the ability of the post office to expand to a five shift 24/7 delivery operation, I don’t see why not.

It will take some time to organize the relationships between the Post Office and the current retail system, but this should not be impossible. We already have the FedEx/UPS model in place and small internet/food delivery services such as Giant’s Peapod service in the Washington area seem to be making a go of it.

The Postal Service has recently fallen on hard times with the rise of email and the competition that has skimmed the cream of the delivery business. With a little imagination, the peak oil crisis could give the service a new lease on life and old Ben Franklin could perform yet one more service for his country.


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