Books: $20 Per Gallon

book $20

The Marketplace Morning report was talking about rising gas prices during my commute yesterday.  Its probably incendiary to say it but my reaction to that news is always  one of cautiously optimism – maybe this will be the beginning of the spike that really forces people (myself included) to re-think how they want to use fossil fuels in their lives.  I’m reminded of a really great book I read on the subject a few years ago.  Its is not about architecture per se and has no sexy archi-imagery but is well worth reading.

So once, again, the book of the moment is $20 Per Gallon by Christopher Steiner.

“The price of oil – and thus, gasoline – affects our lives to a degree few realize.  Its not just the BP or Shell portion of your Visa bill.  It’s the bricks in your walls, the plastic in your refrigerator, the asphalt on your roads­, the shingles on your roof, the synthetic rubber in your ball.  With every penny that gasoline moves up, so, too, does the price of most things we consume.”

Smile: gas prices are going to go up … and it will be good for all of us.

Rising gas prices will change our world in dramatic ways.  Most people acknowledge this and then shudder.  Every person I’ve told about this book since I picked it up has responded with a reflexive flinch – ‘what a depressing read’ they seem to assume.  But actually the tone is in the subtitle: How the inevitable rise in the price of gasoline will change our lives for the better.  Steiner’s view is that this inexorable price hike will do us good.

[First, a moment for the underlying assumption: will gas prices continue to rise?  The answer according to Steiner is an unequivocal yes.  Oil is finite and our demand for it is growing.  You can argue about the date of peak oil till you’re blue in the face, but no one seriously believes that it doesn’t exist anymore.  Likewise, the ever expanding global middle class is clamoring for the right to burn as much fossil fuels as the West did when we were on the ascendancy.  We’ve seen prices fall from the stomach lurching 4 dollar peak a few years ago  but this drop is an artificial result of economic variables which don’t change the underlying math; as the demand goes up and the amount goes down, and prices are going to skyrocket.  And the world will adjust.]

The book is broken up into chapters that consider the tipping point impacts of each incremental price hike.

Chapter $6: we get our heads in the game

At six dollars we will finally start to take this whole thing seriously.  At four dollars per gallon most people were still able to squint their eyes and stick their ATM card into the gas station reader with not too much change in behavior.  Parenthetically, I had an odd perspective on this one because, although I’m 28, I’ve only owned a car for four years and only driven it consistently and filled it up regularly for about two.  Most people I know remember gas under a dollar a gallon.  I took the ratcheting up to four in stride and was far more shocked that gas prices haven’t returned to their 4 dollar high since then.  The first time filled up my tank for 19 dollars I drove away from the station feeling as if I might have inadvertently stolen something.  People noticed when gas hit $4.00 – according to Steiner, public transportation make 300 million trips in 2008 than the previous year1 – but still most people’s habits remained largely intact and when the prices receded we all breathed a collective sigh of relief and went back to business as usual.  When the numbers roll over 5.99 we will have to sit up and take notice in a real way.

This isn’t all bad news.  Rising prices reduce unnecessary trips – which results in reduced fatalities through auto accidents.  “For every 10% gas price increase, there is a resulting decline of 2.3%  in the number of driving deaths nationwide .”2 If gas prices were elevated to just 4 dollars per gallon for a year, 12,000 lives – a full third of annual fatalities – would be saved.  (And the numbers get even better when we take into account that the cars most likely to be given up first are SUVs which are notoriously lethal when compared with other vehicles.)   Further a $1 increase in gas prices would prevent an estimated 11,000  obesity related deaths and save $11 billion in health care costs annually.3 Likewise, a 20% increase in cost would save an estimated 700 lives by reducing air pollution.4 Tolling will reduce urban traffic congestion.   Beat cops on foot will make city streets safer.

And all this for the low, low price of just 6 dollars a gallon.  But hang on to your hats, folks, because the ride doesn’t stop here.

Chapter $12: “They’ll just fall down.”

For me, one of the most interesting sections in the book was Steiner’s opinion of what rising energy costs will do to architecture .  Its no secret that buildings use a lot of energy.  Our urban planning to date has been similarly wasteful.  The majority of cities in America were not planned for density and efficiency.  They have grown semi-organically and spread outwards into a sprawl of suburban development that won’t survive 12 dollar per gallon gas, according to Steiner.  Regarding the wave of McMansions that have been thrown up everywhere recently, the prognosis is not good.

“There is nothing that can save these bloated testaments to the American largesse of the last ten years.   Put simply, these homes will be doomed by two swords, not one.  The first blade to draw their blood will be the one of transportation.  As we drive less and mass transit marches to the fore of American life, the farthest of the far burbs will lose relevance.  Their real estate values will crash.  …

“The second blade that will deflate America’s outer ring suburbs will be, in many ways, the same blade as the first, but it will come in a different form.  Where gasoline prices chopped off easy concrete and aluminum fascia, natural gas and heating oil prices will cripple them from within, straining home budgets that, in many cases, were stretching to own these pads of magnificent square footage in the first place.  Heating a 3000-square-foot house during a cold winter month in the Northeast or Midwest might have cost little more than $300 when energy prices were low in the late 1990s.  Obviously things have changed.

“… When gasoline prices touch $12 per gallon, the cost of keeping that house cozy in February will have reached scorching heights of $2000 to $3000.  This is not a sustainable burden .”5

As for what will happen to the thousands of acres of tract housing that we will be forced to abandon, Bill Pedersen of KPF architecture in New York sums it up; “Well, they’re not very well built, so they’ll probably just take care of themselves … they’ll just fall down.”  Unfortunately,  I think dismantling the suburbs will actually take a lot of work.  The agricultural belts that used to feed city populations were paved over into winding subdivisions as we started bringing in more and more of our food from California and elsewhere.  But there is another change that rising gas prices will effect; local food will transition quickly from luxury to necessity and we are going to want that farm land back.  I wonder how much remediation will be necessary to render all those pesticide drenched lawns safe to become working farm land again.

We might even like it.

Steiner catalogs hundreds of ways American life will have to change as we face ever escalating gas costs but the big picture is far from bleak.  By the time he reaches his eponymous $20 per gallon, he speculates the price of gas with have little relevance in our lives; we will have found other solutions and moved on.  Moved forward into a world where families are closer, commutes shorter, healthy local produce taken for granted and people healthier.  Its not a bad future.  And its not that far away.  I’m actually looking forward to it.

Follow this link for an interview with Christopher Steiner on Talk of the Nation from July 16th, 2009

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