Climate Change, Peak Oil and American Competitiveness

A good friend and colleague forwarded me a video of Jeff Rubin at the 2009 Business of Climate Change Conference. I watched it - passively once and more attentively a second time - and while I found Rubin's approach to be a little preachy, he perhaps had good reason to be. While his talk fell under the umbrella of "climate change" and "peak oil", what he is really talking about is the future of the American economy.

We've stayed away from the issue of climate change here at Strong Towns. Not because we don't have strong feelings about it. We do. We've stayed away because it is an issue with as much of a political dimension - perhaps more - than a scientific dimension. That and, despite the tremendous efforts of some, the American people don't care about climate change. If you doubt that, you can read the results of this survey from the Pew Research Center.

Our approach at Strong Towns is truly non-partisan. While I suspect that many who advocate changes in policy in response to climate change concerns would endorse much of what we advocate, so would many who argue for market initiatives and more efficient government. There is a lot of common ground to build on here. We are not interested in the partisan arguments. We are very interested in real solutions.

There is a line in Rubin's discussion I want to focus on. He says, "In a new economy, distance will cost money." It is almost obvious when said, but it runs counter to everything we have done from a land use standpoint. Our national approach to growth for decades has been to spread things out. We have never really questioned that. 

Years ago a colleague of mine from Holland - he was also an American citizen, but his Dutch background gave him a unique perspective - commented that we were not going to be very competitive if gasoline went to $4 per gallon. We are just too spread out. This wasn't a criticism of our lifestyle, just an assessment of a threat to our way of life. We simply can't make it with expensive energy. It will add too much cost to each transaction. Holland, with a much more efficient development pattern, is in a position to cope much better with higher energy prices.

When President Bush said in 2006 that we are addicted to oil, I believe this is what he was talking about. Our marketplace is set up with the assumption that oil will always be cheap. We continue to double-down on our dispersed development pattern, subsidizing (and thus encouraging) development that is very inefficient. Is it wise to put, to use the common saying, all our eggs in one basket? Can we reasonably count on oil always being cheap?

That is a fairly good Strong Towns setup to this video, which I found compelling and would recommend to everyone. I'm not necessarily convinced that a barrel of oil will be $225 in two years, but even if it is not, the logic in this conversation is worth considering.


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