Post-Carbon Cities and the Future of Growth

By Adam Brock

Like climate change, peak oil is a difficult concept to understand, and its implications are difficult to accept. It’s no wonder, then, that the theory is still pretty much off-limits to policymakers: openly discussing the fact that we might be in for some serious economic woes courtesy of dwindling oil supplies isn’t exactly a vote-winning platform. But, also like climate change, peak oil presents a pressing and potentially catastrophic threat to our future, and the sooner we take it seriously the better.

Daniel Lerch, author of the recently released book “Post Carbon Cities,” might be the best messenger for yet for the peak oil cause. I attended one of Lerch’s presentations at the NYU law school last Wednesday, and while it wasn’t quite up to Inconvenient Truth standards, I found it to be the most digestible explanation of peak oil I’ve encountered yet. Unlike Albert Bates, the engaging but decidedly forest-hued peak oiler that spoke in New York about a month ago, Lerch came across as practical-minded and sympathetic to skeptics. His target audience is planners and municipal policymakers, and he framed the dimensions of the peak oil crisis in language familiar to those groups.

The talk began with a few fundamentals: the demand for oil is accelerating, while the supply seems to have hit a plateau. Sooner or later, supply will outstrip demand, causing oil shortages that will get ever more severe as the remaining reserves become more difficult and expensive to extract. This much, to me, seems pretty hard to refute.

But why do most peak oilers predict that this energy gap will wreak havoc on the economy? Can’t we just scale back our consumption slightly for now and eventually replace the gap with energy efficiency and renewables? That’s certainly the popular consensus among politicians and grass greens. To quote Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, who hosted a peak oil conference in 2005, “I don’t think it’ll affect the consumption of consumer products. It’s not gonna have a dramatic negative impact on our economy – we’re just gonna drive less.”

But according to Lerch, oil shortages are a lot less simple than having to turn down the A/C and line up to refill the gas tank. For one thing, models predict that once production starts slipping, it’ll slip fast – far faster than it’ll take to replace our needs with wind, solar or even nuclear. And as Lerch explained, In the last five decades we’ve become dependent on petroleum in countless ways, and seemingly insignificant disruptions in supply can have far-reaching repercussions. During the summer of 2006, for example, the spike in oil prices doubled the price of asphalt, a low-grade petroleum product. Routine road repairs were suddenly wildly overbudget, and many municipalities were forced to defer maintenance on their roadways.

Another chilling example is urban food supply. Many grocery chains nowadays stock their food on “rolling warehouses”, where food comes straight out of the factory or shipping dock and onto the truck to cut down on overhead. As a result, very little food is in storage near cities, so if an oil shortage like the one we experienced in 1973 were to occur today, many grocery stores could be empty within a matter of days.

One of the key concepts in Lerch’s talk was “energy uncertainty”: the notion that peak oil won’t just make energy prices higher, but also increasingly volatile. This makes it almost impossible to make long-term plans: how is a city supposed to cut a budget for its vehicle fleet if it doesn’t know whether gas will cost $3.50 or $6 a gallon?

Energy uncertainty is, of course, analogous to the “climate uncertainty” that the IPCC’s been talking about with regard to global warming. Put the two together, and you’re left with a frightening conclusion: two of the most complex systems on earth, the biosphere and global economy, are set to become much less stable within the next few decades.

Lerch’s prescription to city governments: start planning now. First off, follow the lead of Portland and Oakland, and create a peak oil task force to determine how petroleum shortages would effect your city. Strategize on how to relocalize energy production and manufacturing, plan infrastructure investments for the long-term, and, most importantly, start adopting a nonlinear, systems-thinking approach.

Peak oil or no, I couldn’t agree more.

Photo credit: flickr/azrainman

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