Club Politique by Che Tibby

Peak Oil

With all this talk about 'peak oil' the subject has caught my attention. Well, actually, that's a lie, I've always been curious about what it's going to take to get millions of people off their wheels and onto public transport.

Thing is, what we've always been told about oil and it's use is that it's being consumed at a high rate because it's cheap. And oil is cheap because there is high supply. Sooner or later, the argument goes, oil will become expensive, and then we move onto something else.

It's baffling therefore that when oil becomes expensive, instead of thinking about alternatives, everyone just bitches and spends the money anyway.

Which just reinforces my perception that economics isn't a science, it's just a lot of opinions (much like politics...).

I should add of course that I'm aware that part of what contribute to high fuel costs is forms of taxation, but that's kind of beside the point. Taxation is just a component of the cost, and isn't the primary driver of either supply or demand.

I should also add that at various times I have worked in the transport industry, and know that fuel is a number one cost. But, again with the supply and demand thing. If costs are too high to transport tomatoes from Whangarei to Dunedin in the frickin winter, then maybe people should get used to eating a winter vegetable, which you'd hope are likely to be grown locally?

What this whole argument seems to boil down to, and which I'm writing up in far too little detail, is the idea that oil as allowed us to turn big distances into little ones. It's also allowed guys like me to own and drive cars like the 3.5L XD Falcon really really fast, but that's another matter.

When you go to a famous 'car city' like LA the first thing you notice is that it's waaaay too spread out. People live an hour commute from where they work or play because they know they can afford the cost of travelling that far. But, with the increase in the cost of oil, that commute is likely to become far too expensive to make on a regular basis.

Now, the logical answer would be to find a cheaper way to get to work, or just live a little closer to where you have/want to be, as people in Wellington seem willing to do. But most people aren't logical. The travel and the distance has largely become part of the lifestyle people are accustomed to, and they're reticent to change. And that's normal.

It's again with the big/little distance thing. Living as much as 50 or 60km from where you work is a comparatively new thing in history. In the past it just didn't happen. People lived and worked locally, with travel reserved for necessity.

This isn't a bad thing of course, it's meant that relatively distant communities mingle on a regular basis, or at least you'd hope so, but it still means that people spend what is now an ever-increasing portion of their income on getting from A to B. And worse, oil has been so cheap that people have been spending more and more of their own resources on things to waste it.

And to the person in the 4L 4x4 bitching about how much it costs to fill that 80litre tank, that means you. Maybe you should have thought more than five minutes ahead before pissing away all that cash to impress the neighbours?

A mate went to a seminar a few years back, and the only thing that seems to have stuck is this argument, "we didn't leave the stone age because we ran out of stones".

'Peak oil' is a furphy. The real problem is that people just prefer to exploit their ability to travel big distances quickly and easily. And like to have things they can't get locally brought to them cheaply. It's a lifestyle thing.

Oil running out isn't going to solve that problem, but people basically being Magpies may well. We left the stone age because better alternatives were offered. Why are you going to find dinner by stabbing it with rock, when a piece of metal does a better job?

In the case of transport, we used to have a system that delivered things big distances cheaply and easily. They were called 'trains', and ran on these things called 'rails'. Amazing stuff really. You can make them 'electric', which is where they are powered by cheap things that aren't oil. Getting to work can be made to go the same way.

Maybe, just maybe, with oil becoming more expensive, and assuming it stays that way, some of these big shiny alternatives just might be presented, and move us away from easy consumption towards something else. Or, at very least force us to reappraise shitty things like mass and public transport, and make them more attractive and amenable. We can but hope.