We have to admit that when we saw the title of Christopher Steiner’s book, we scoffed a bit. Twenty dollars per a gallon of gas seems like an outrageous, unfathomable price, even when you’re a believer in peak oil. But part of the beauty of Steiner’s book is its ability to track the effects of ever-more-scarce oil in believable detail. Whether the author’s predictions of local food, high-speed trains and alternative plastics are correct, they are excellent illustrations of the pervasiveness of petroleum.
Steiner doesn’t drop you straight into a oil-expensive world: he eases you into it by dollar amounts, painting a picture of the world at $6, $8, $10 a gallon. It probably won’t be a straight line of ever-increasing prices, but, Steiner argues, rise they will, and the systems we’ve built on the assumption of cheap fuel will adapt or die as a result.
He brings to light certain examples: tuna caught in Canada which is largely purchased in Japan, for instance. He also claims school buses, SUVs, and many police patrol cars will go the way of dinosaurs. Steiner gets so specific as to predict which airline companies will fail and which alternative energy projects will succeed, based on market research and interviews with industry professionals.
A utopian vision for Songdo City
The author is not painting a utopian vision by any means, but logistically weighing all the options for a less petroleum-dependent future. One of his solutions might make readers squirm: nuclear energy. It’s a power source, he argues, that is one of the most cost-and carbon-effective. Like many proponents of nuclear power, he claims that the “one drawback” to this power source is the production of nuclear waste. He approves the stagnant plan to use Yucca Mountain as a storage site, but lists no others, nor does he address the possibility of treating nuclear waste. Granted, this glowing proposal is one of several solutions explored in the book, including massive improvements in energy efficiency, wind and solar, but opponents to the production of nuclear waste will see this as trading one environmentally destructive source of energy for another.
Some of the behavioral modifications demanded by an expensive future are ones already employed by those of us who are broke or without vehicles: walk, ride your bike, take public transportation. But these options will be easier to take in the future, says Steiner, when the price of gas forces many off the road, demanding improvements in train routes and bike paths.
The book concludes with an illustrative chapter in the life of a New England professional. When Steiner’s world hits $20 a gallon, it doesn’t look drastically different from our own. But the changes that do take place are significant and appealing – they almost make you root for the price to go up.