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The Age of Transportation

As I sit here and write, in the United States, in the year 2005, I know I'm living in a golden age, the age of transportation. For a few brief decades, it's been possible for most people here to have their own individual vehicles, and to drive them wherever they want, whenever they want. It's been fun, but I expect I'll live to see the end of it.

I know I'm a little late with my prognostication … the proof is, I have some notes that call gasoline expensive at $2 a gallon. Now it's, what, a year later, gas has just backed down from $3, and everyone is keenly aware that there's supposed to be a peak in oil production some day. Still, better late than never; and anyway I hope I have a few new things to say.

Caveat: I am not an economist or geologist or anything else that would make me an expert on any of this, I'm just applying my own common sense and intuition.

There are three different scenarios that I think about … let's call them optimistic, realistic, and pessimistic. The optimistic one I'm only including for completeness; I can imagine it as a possibility, but I don't think it will happen. Mostly I go back and forth between realistic and pessimistic.

In the optimistic scenario, as soon as the supply of oil becomes unable to keep up with demand, and the price starts to rise, the unstoppable engine of capitalism and boundless human ingenuity will produce something else that's just as good. Sure, $2 a gallon may seem expensive, but it's not, really … if you adjust for inflation, the price hasn't changed in years. The unstoppable engine hasn't even begun to come into play yet! What it will produce, who knows … genetically modified plants full of hydrocarbons, portable cold fusion (Mr. Fusion, say), or maybe just improved electric cars.

However … if we're going to use genetically modified plants, or bio-diesel, the plants have to grow somewhere; and if we're going to use electric cars, the energy has to come from somewhere; we're not going to be able to produce from nothing a replacement for something as large as the oil infrastructure. And what about that “unstoppable engine”? If it's so great, why hasn't it already produced something cheaper? No, the sad truth is, the only thing that's holding the cost of transportation at its current level is oil, oil in the ground, and when that's gone, the cost is going to go up … maybe by a lot.

That line of thinking leads to the realistic scenario. The cost of transportation will go up, and the world will become different than it was. People will walk, bicycle, and ride buses and trains more than they do now; not owning a car will become common. Zoning laws will change; in every suburb houses will be torn down and replaced by local stores, forming the nucleus of a new little city. The variety of available goods will become less overwhelming, other places and countries will become more exotic, and flying will once again be a rare adventure for most people. People will try to keep in touch with their relatives in other cities by phone and email and video, but it will be difficult without actual physical contact; in the future people won't scatter themselves so widely.

And when we tell our grandchildren about the golden age, they'll rightly scoff. “People lived in houses where they couldn't walk to anything? Everyone had a car, and knew how to drive? Was the sun always out? Was it downhill both ways? Ha ha ha.” They won't even be able to imagine that people once drove 50 miles to work every day and thought nothing of it, that there were so many cars that there was traffic congestion and smog.

However … capitalism is an evolutionary mechanism, and like all such it only works if external conditions change slowly relative to the cycle of variation and selection. Think of biological organisms and climate change … if the change is slow, they adapt; if it's fast, they die. Will the change in the cost of transportation be fast? Sure looks to me like it will. We have an exponentially growing demand for a finite supply, a massive infrastructure built on existing technology, and little incentive to bring new technologies on line before they're needed … in what way could the situation be worse? So, the change will be fast, and some superorganisms will die. But which ones? Well, essentially all of them, because everything in our society depends on cheap transportation.

That's the abstract view of the pessimistic scenario, now let me try to make it concrete for you. So, imagine a year in the not too distant future …

In January, the price of gasoline hits $5 per gallon. It's not a big deal, though. A few people are forced to ride the bus or carpool, but for most people the expense is an annoyance, not a real hardship. And, the price has gone up and down before … except this time it doesn't seem to be going back down.

In February, the price hits $10 … not because the oil is suddenly all gone, but merely because the demand is there and the supply is having trouble keeping up. People complain, and denounce the oil companies, and start to think, well, if this goes on, maybe I should move closer to work, or get a job closer to home, or telecommute. Electric cars sell out. Still, life goes on essentially as before.

In March, the price hits $20 a gallon. A car that gets 20 miles to the gallon now costs $1 a mile; a commuter with a 50-mile one-way commute would need to pay $100 per day to drive to work. So, nobody does that any more. UPS and FedEx (and all the airlines) add huge surcharges and take huge losses; Amazon and eBay basically shut down while people wait for prices to return to normal. The government starts to think about maybe doing something one of these days, like funding some research and development efforts.

In April, the distribution problems start. There are lines at the gas stations, as in the '70s; the price, when you can get it, is maybe $50. The situation becomes unbearable, so the government steps in; the price is set back to $20 and ration cards are issued. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief … but then people start to see the cost of transportation being reflected in the prices of ordinary shipped goods.

In May, as prices continue to go up, people realize that food is a shipped good. Some can't afford enough food; others buy and hoard. The shelves start to look a little thin, which prompts more hoarding, and before you know it, there's no food to be had. There are riots. The government declares martial law and tries to nationalize the entire food distribution system, but it can't handle it … damage from the initial riots leads to local shortages; local shortages lead to more riots; and finally the whole thing just collapses into starvation and anarchy.

Then, over the next ten years or so, order reemerges. Billions of people die, but eventually the global population finds a new equilibrium, one that isn't based on cheap transportation. Global communication is reestablished, by radio and by internet; a patchwork of global transportation isn't far behind. Oil still exists, and is used to power cargo ships and trains, but on the streets, horses, bicycles, and electric cars coexist. Technology takes a small step backward, but then advances again, at a slower pace than before. In the end, the world looks about the same as in the realistic scenario, but with fewer (and tougher) people.

So, that's the end of story time for today. The details could use some work, but the broad strokes seem plausible to me.

Just for fun, here are some notes about one particular detail. I was wondering whether the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would make any difference, so I went and did five minutes of research on it. Turns out the size and the extraction rate are much smaller than I imagined … it can supply about a quarter of current U.S. usage for about four months. That might be enough to add a year between April and May, but I don't think it's enough to change the final result. If we had, oh, maybe twenty years worth, that would work … we could say “OK, when we tap this, it's time to start building the post-oil infrastructure”; but I don't think four months is enough.

Also, speaking of apocalyptic scenarios, No Blade of Grass is quite good.

On the other hand … as I said earlier, I'm not always pessimistic. Maybe there will be time to adapt, after all. Either way, though—realistic or pessimistic—I'm pretty sure I'll see the end of the golden age. Now, on the one hand, that's not the worst thing in the world. I like walking, so I'll be right at home in the future; it won't break my heart to be unable to drive around. On the other hand, I do like driving, enough to write all about it; and how can the end of a golden age not be a sad time?

Actually, it won't just be sad, it'll be tragic. And, it's not even a tragedy of the commons, because there's no renewable resource involved; it's more like a tragedy of the cookies. You have a box of tasty cookies, and then you eat the last one, and they're gone. The end.

On that note, here's something apropos from an article over at Asymmetrical Information.

… in the immortal words of the late economist Herb Stein, "If something can't go on forever, it will stop."


  See Also

  Cost of Driving, The
  On Biking

@ December (2005)