Book review: Why your world is about to get a whole lot smaller … and more beautiful

by Raymond Parker on December 6, 2010

in Advocacy, Climate, Cycling, Environment, Politics, Video

“… the era of cheap oil is coming to an end.” ~Sir richard Branson

A New Era

Author Jeff Rubin has some good news for bicycle advocates: there’s soon going to be a lot more cyclists on the road; not because of anything bike boosters have done, but because high gas prices will soon drive 40-50 million motorists to “take the exit lane” in North America.

In his book Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller, Rubin contends that while the massive changes caused by looming oil shocks will undoubtedly pose challenges, this car-less world will not only be more sustainable, but in many ways “more livable and enjoyable.”

The former chief economist with CIBC World Markets has “great faith in the power of prices” to modify behaviour like no government policy or lobby group can.

The end of cheap oil will not only quieten freeways and depopulate suburbs; as shipping costs erase the savings of globalization, industries and agriculture lost to the chase after cheap labour will come home. There will be “a lot fewer drive-thrus, a lot more bicycles….”

Contrary to Francis Fukuyama’s famous hubris, history is not on its deathbed after all; globalization is. Though its demise may have been heralded 11 years-ago in the streets of Seattle, its free ride ended with global peak oil, in 2005.

Rubin does not deny that prices are likely to drop again, just as they did after the 2008 peak of $147 per barrel (when U.S. auto sales dropped 37%), but such volatility makes business planning impossible.

As we’ve seen, prices stay higher even after shocks subside. When oil prices do moderate, it’s precisely because the economy is left in recession caused by high oil prices. Such roller-coaster rides lead to economic nausea. We are now consuming three times the amount of oil we’re finding. Within a decade, we’ll be in the thick of triple-digit oil. While this will make Alberta’s tar sands profitable, we won’t be able to afford to burn the stuff mined at such a price, notwithstanding the uncounted environmental costs.

Rubin’s optimism springs not from a belief that governments will lead the way–he points to the multi-trillion dollar bailout of obsolete car manufacturers and related financial institutions as a lost opportunity to invest in the future. “It’s public transit infrastructure, not more cars and beltways, that America (and the rest of the world) will soon need.”

Rubin also rejects the idea that General Motors’ investment (of your pensions) in electric automobile development will save car culture. “Just try plugging in 250 million lithium-ion batteries and see what happens–the lights go out.”

In the chapter titled “Demand Shift,” Rubin reminds us that pressure on dwindling oil supplies is on the rise not only here, but also in Gulf States (welcome to Ski Dubai, where 3,500 barrels a day are burned to make snow in the desert) and the burgeoning economies of China and India.

On the other hand, as rising shipping costs drive up prices on Chinese manufactured goods, China’s markets will contract. The tiger will roam closer to home as well.

Apparently, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Toronto’s newly-elected mayor Rob Ford neglected to read this book (or any similar studies). Harper has his apparatchiks in Cancun, Mexico, this week, again obstructing international initiatives to address global warming. Last week, Ford declared an “end to the war on cars,” and a “full stop” to spending on light rail transit.

As prices continue to rise in response to dwindling oil supplies (Rubin predicts $200 per barrel by 2012) smart societies will invest in 21st century development. Think empty big box stores converted into bicycle factories, permaculture farming (in abandoned suburbs), and Canadian Autoworkers assembling streetcars.

Politicians and jurisdictions resistant to low-carbon economies and global thinking will join the Hummer on the scrap-heap of history.

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Hubbert’s Curve: from Nuclear Energy & The Fossil Fuels (pdf) by M. King Hubbert, March 1956
After the Fall

In 1974, 28-years after M. King Hubbert made public his controversial bell curve, and two-years after the actual peak of American oil production, I retreated with a small group of  wayfarers to “the Meadow.” We took with us into the mountains stacks of The Whole Earth Catalog, Mother Earth News and books like Diet for a Small Planet and E.F Schumacher’s economic treatise, Small is Beautiful. Some of us shared a sense that the ecological and economic status quo was unsustainable and it was time to, as singer Joni Mitchel had put it, “get ourselves back to the garden.”

We were not entirely self-sufficient, but we did get close enough to the local “bush economy” to experience first-hand what scientists, poets and prognosticators of the day were trying to get across about limits to growth.

While I believe the author understates the upheaval likely to accompany the transition, I share his enthusiasm for post-Carmageddon societies.

Schumacher rejected GDP as a mark of social worth, but If we don’t “decouple our economy from oil,” Rubin argues, “peak oil may soon become peak GDP.” The greatest challenge, as we move beyond consumer society fueled by cheap oil, may be the loss of identity rooted in GDP. Yet, perhaps we’ll find in the new societies we invent the priceless satisfaction of finding meaningful work.

If Rubin’s projections are accurate, (his thesis is not new) we may soon be consulting practical guides to living lightly, and I may see the kind of quiet roads I once enjoyed in post-war England.

YouTube Preview ImageOil & the End of Globalization: Allan Gregg interviews Jeff Rubin

Jeff RubinSmall is BeautifulMother Earth News | Whole Earth Catalogue | World Energy Outlook | Peak Oil

"Kapitan" December 7, 2010 at 10:24 am

The picture you’re painting of the post-carmageddon world looks idyllic and attractive in many ways, but there are still a few hurdles blocking the path to this car-less bliss.

1) The cost of petrol is a proportionally much smaller slice of the wealthy man’s pie compared to the poor man’s net worth. Therefore it will be the rich who will continue to ride around in their Mercedes SUVs long after the rest of us have been consigned to the lesser status of pedestrian or (hopefully) bicycle travellers, adding to the ever-widening gap between haves and have-nots.

2) As oil supples dwindle every possible means of allowing the car culture to continue will be pursued.
While it’s true that (the vision of every greenie’s wet dream) lots of electrical cars, require power that we don’t currently (pun) have, it raises that unthinkable spectre, biding its time in the wings since TMI and Chernobyl. Society will finally cave to the expediency of nuclear power. We can easily charge our electric cars when there is a nuclear power plant in every town. We can’t wait around for cold fusion to be reinvented.

3) I’m trying to imagine the Utopia when the suburbs are compacted into the cities, but all I can envision is hundreds of millions of people crammed into urban centres, mass unemployment, and the squalor of ghetto-ized poor whilst the rich continue their lives of motorized bliss on rural estates. Come to think of it, that’s already the direction we’ve been going. The difference will be the disappearance of the middle class who will be on the next train into the megalopolis. Oh, btw–what’s to power all this new mass transit if not oil?

4) I won’t mind being carted off to the crematorium behind a four-in-hand team of bicycles, but if harm or illness strike any of my family I will want them transported to the finest medical facility in some “Jetson’s” version of a real ambulance, not riding in the back of some donkey cart or being doubled on a neighbour’s bicycle.

No easy way out of this box our culture has managed to put us in, but we must keep trying.
Despite my apparent nay-saying of your master plan, you know that, deep down, I am the eternal optimist. I believe that the human race will survive into the foreseeable future, along with most other life forms on the planet. Eventually our society and our political and economic systems will have to recognize the limits to growth and change accordingly. It still comes back to whether the existing and emerging superpowers can avoid going to “limited”(?) nuclear war over shrinking resources. The next hundred years will be a difficult time for all. After that things will get tougher. But life will go on. In the meantime I intend to make the best of what we’ve got for as long as it lasts.
Thanks for the thought-provoking article!
Cheers

Raymond Parker December 7, 2010 at 10:39 am

As I said, I think Rubin understates the repercussions. A lot of the response will come down to if we can cooperate or if we do fight over the dregs of the oil age.

Incidentally, crude briefly traded at $90 a barrel today. It settled back to $88, but gas stations have already adjusted prices upward.

Lynn December 12, 2010 at 9:18 am

In the short term, our urbanized society can indeed turn to electric vehicles (envision something like Smart cars, not the gigantic Volt) powered by solar cells (not on the car, but on the home or garage). They are getting cheaper and easier to install by the minute. And more efficient — here in Colorado, with 300+ days of sun a year, solar is exploding; but even in rainy B.C., solar works — ANY light causes the cells to charge. (The countries with the most solar power per capita in Europe are Germany and Denmark, not noted for their sunny aspect.)

And, of course, we must move toward more public transportation, and focus our development around existing transportation hubs. I am currently involved with a project that is building “granny flats” — not neccesarily for “grannies” — behind single-family homes in Denver’s public-transportation-rich center.

Bicycles are a wonderful means of transportation for the young and urban. We live, however, in an aging society, and bikes don’t work so well for the old and/or ailing. (Or rural — but that’s another rant.)

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