The Coming Oil-Free Utopia

Bibliologue / by Elizabeth Cline /

In $20 a Gallon, Christopher Steiner argues that rising oil prices will not unravel society, but rather change it for the better.

Out July 15 | Buy

The price of oil has stabilized since last summer’s SUV-stalling spike, but our supply of oil—a finite resource being guzzled at dizzying rates—will inevitably decline in the coming decades. In $20 Per Gallon, Forbes senior writer Christopher Steiner moves the conversation forward, investigating the unexpected ways our lives will change with every dollar increase: Big-box retailers, living in big houses in the exurbs, ubiquitous plastic products, and flying from New York to London on a whim will all go the way of the VHS tape. But far from the doomsday scenarios that litter this field, Steiner’s book predicts that rising oil prices will actually better our lives and the environment—stimulating innovation; reviving our cities; reshaping agriculture and manufacturing; improving energy efficiency; encouraging more walking, less consumption, and more recycling. SEEDMAGAZINE.COM’s Elizabeth Cline speaks to Steiner about the coming oil-scarce Utopia.

Seed: Gas prices always fluctuate and forecasts often miss the mark. Why should readers listen to you when you say the price per gallon is going to eventually hit $20?
Christopher Steiner: I’m not here proclaiming when gas prices will be high, just that they will go up over the course of time. This book looks decades into the future. I think demographically and economically and geologically, it’s very safe to assume that the oil prices of today will be considered low 20 years from now. My book is the next step in the conversation: Okay, so oil will decline, it’ll be more expensive, and there will be more people who want it, so what is going to happen and how will our lives change.

Seed: One of the core ideas in the book is that there will be a mass migration to cities as gas gets more expensive. Won’t we all just switch to electric cars before deserting the exurbs and suburbs?
CS: You have more than 200 million cars on the road in America right now. We don’t have the capacity to replace that entire fleet with battery-powered cars, and we can’t do it at a price affordable to most people. It is going to take decades for that to happen. And in the interim people aren’t just going to ride horses around the exurbs to work. They’re going to move into cities.

Seed: How can we make sure our cities are prepared for an oil-scarce world?
CS: All of the great cities in America were created for the most part before oil had this kind of hold on our lives. And that’s what we have to get back to and that’s what we’ll be forced to get back to. If you look at the grids of Chicago, the grids of New York or Philadelphia or San Francisco, those cities weren’t created for oil, yet those are places people want to live right now. So the notion that you need oil for quality of life is kind of antiquated.

Seed: Your book names the planned city New Sangdo in South Korea as an example of the kind of high-density urban planning we’ll be seeing more of.
CS: Yes. This city has been planned to a T and it goes back to the way we used to plan cities. It definitely copies New York City in that it has a center park as a focal point of the city and then everything builds up around that park. It has high-density buildings, many of them 50-story towers, around this park. The idea is that you have all of this urban density and all of this pressure but the park beautifully releases that pressure.

Seed: Our food system is built on fossil fuels. What types of technology will step in to uphold our food webs in a post-oil world?
CS: We fertilize our food with natural gas, which is just another form of petroleum. So at some point we will run out of natural gas and food will be more expensive, but we’re finding ways to mitigate that. There is the idea of creating fertilizer from water with electrolysis, a process that has been known for 100 years, but frankly breaking up natural gasses is cheaper right now. I think you’re also going to see breakthroughs in locally grown food and on the home gardening front, like greenhouses heated with solar panels that keep the soil just warm enough to grow produce year-round from your backyard.

Seed: Garbage trucks get 2.8 miles to the gallon. Could we see the costs of waste disposal passed down to consumers in the future?
CS: One way to control our energy use is to just charge people for garbage pickup and then charge by the pound of garbage hauled. A lot of people would be angry, but you’d also get more people conserving, recycling would go through the roof, and people would pick the products that had the least amount of packaging as possible.

Seed: Plastics are made from petroleum. What will become of them?
CS: Plastics aren’t going to go away. There’s just going to be an emphasis on doing as much as possible with as little as possible. Plastics for a computer case or a laundry basket, for example, do that job better than anything else. It’s the disposable plastics, the ones that we throw away automatically, that will start to be stripped out of our lives.

Seed: What about biodegradable plastics?
CS: Bioplastics have already crept into our lives, and their presence will only keep increasing from here. Right now there are plastics on the market that are made out of organic materials like cornhusks where the corn stock is fed to bacteria and the bacteria produces plastic. There are a number of big companies doing this, including Tayte & Lyle and ADM—which has a new plant just get getting finished in Clinton, Iowa, that’s going to make plastics from corn full-time.

Seed: What excites you most about our oil-challenged future?
CS: If I live long enough, I’m most excited about high-speed trains spreading across America. Right now we have the technology and the trains exist. We should be able to get our trains from Chicago to New York in seven hours, downtown to downtown. The prospect is very exciting. It’s going to take the demise of our airline industry before anything like that will happen in this country. But certainly that day will come.

Front page image by Jim Crossley.

Originally published July 8, 2009

Tags decision making energy innovation scarcity

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