Many people accept the likelihood of peak oil and climate change, but haven't quite thought through all its implications. Here are five things that I think are likely results:
- Mode shift: In the past four years, the price of gasoline has already gotten high enough relative to income that driving is unaffordable for a larger segment of the population. This trend will only continue. Biodiesel, electric cars and hydrofracking will only postpone it.
- Depopulation of sprawl: The housing market collapsed in 2007 because people could no longer afford to "drive 'til you qualify." The commercial real estate market collapsed right after because employers didn't want to be dependent on workers driving in from miles around. Most of suburban America is unsustainable at a gasoline price of five dollars a gallon, and an even bigger chunk is unsustainable at ten dollars a gallon. The recession has cut gas prices and commute times, and people have started creeping back into the subdivisions, but any recovery will send them back into more urban areas.
- Survival of cities: We have had concentrated population centers for thousands of years, and we will continue to do so. Even if the total population declines, there will still be trade and industry. Expensive energy will make the 3,000 mile Caesar salad an expensive rarity (if it survives at all), but just as the Romans traded with the Chinese, so will future Americans. These goods may not be transported by plane, diesel ship and truck, but by electric ship and rail (if we're lucky) or sailing ship, canal boat and horse (if we're not). Whatever the conveyance, there will continue to be a need for transfer, storage and distribution centers, and that means cities. They may not be as big as they are now, but we're not all going to be blacksmithing and raising goats.
- Rust belt resurgence: Shortages of energy and water will make it difficult if not impossible to live in areas that depend on air conditioning for survival, like those around Phoenix and Houston. People will move to cooler cities that are nodes in water and rail transportation networks. That means the same "Rust Belt" cities that their parents mocked: Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Springfield.
- Capital shortage: When energy, transportation and asphalt (which is made out of oil) are expensive, it will be hard to build any new infrastructure. We may be able to build some things, but that ability depends in part on how quickly we deplete the supply of fossil fuels and uranium that we have left, and how quickly we build alternatives to harness renewable energy.
- A vicious cycle of transportation inadequacy: The cost of any infrastructure project also depends on how well the transportation system is functioning when you need to transport supplies for the new infrastructure. Let's say you want to rebuild an abandoned rail line, like the old Air Line through Connecticut. If you can get the supplies 90% of the way by rail or boat, that's great. But if you need to spend exorbitant amounts the fuel to carry the supplies by truck across potholed roads, that's going to add to the cost.
Any that I missed?