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The Top 10 Changes in a Future of High Gas Prices
- America will become skinnier and healthier in a future of high gas prices – and fewer of us will die on highways. There are proven correlations between the low price of gasoline and America’s obesity rate. When the price of gas rises to $6, more than 20,000 lives will be saved from obesity-related diseases. A similar effect takes place on our roads where more than 15,000 lives will be spared thanks to gas prices of $6 per gallon.
- Have airline miles on United and American? Get rid of them. These carriers, along with Delta and most other familiar names, will disappear in a world of higher gasoline prices.
- Get a plug, a big plug, in your garage. Garages will, in the not-too-distant future, be dominated by cars drawing their main propulsion from electrons that come through our power lines rather than petroleum that comes from the Middle East.
- Do you live along the furthest edges of the suburbs? Is your commute measured in hours? Is your hometown without a train station? Then it may be time to move. The future will not be kind to places built exclusively around the automobile. Towns of the future will be eminently more walkable, sustainable and, for most people, more comfortable than our big-box centered towns now.
- Looking for stock picks? Go with companies laying detailed plans for a future of using less petroleum; these companies will be the ones that prosper in the long term. UPS, for example, is experimenting with fully electric trucks in Manhattan and London, as well as exploring trucks that run on pressurized hydraulic fluid rather than gasoline.
- Subway tunnels will burrow their ways underneath most large cities in America, piercing virgin ground in some cases and expanding existing networks in others. High gas prices will lead to a renaissance of America’s mass transit systems and return us to the gilded era of subways, street cars and trolleys. Central cities left for dead, or at least comatose, such as Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, will revive and prosper as the urban model—one supported by proper infrastructure—becomes indispensable.
- Much of your food will come from within a few hundred miles of your house rather than within a few continents. As the price of gasoline rises, it will shorten the paths of our food from its creation to our mouths. No longer will Norwegian Salmon go from where they’re caught in the North Sea to China for processing and packing and then back to Scandinavian supermarkets to consumers who have no idea their “local” fish have global traveling credentials.
- Wal-Mart’s global empire will crumble. With 6,000 suppliers, 80% of whom are in China, and more than 7,000 trucks moving this stuff from distribution centers to stores throughout the U.S., the company’s network it built on gasoline. Wal-Mart’s model of leveraging low-cost labor to produce ultra-cheap goods in far-flung places has been built with the assumption of cheap gasoline, an assumption that will prove fatal.
- A high-speed train network will course through America’s forests, its deserts and its croplands, connecting cities like Chicago to New York and Seattle to Los Angeles. Our high-speed train network will usurp a tattered airline industry and put the U.S. back in the vanguard of train transport, where it resided until the 1930s.
- Potpourri: The shrinking of the Las Vegas strip; the disappearance of plastic bags; the death of Disney World; the grand resurgence of American manufacturing; the greening of America’s roofs and universal road tolling.
A Conversation with Christopher Steiner, author of $20 Per Gallon
- Gas prices are going up again this summer, but are you really suggesting prices might rise to $20 a gallon?
There's no need to panic but there is reason for all of us to think ahead with concern. I'm not predicting that gas prices are heading toward $20 anytime soon, but most economists say price rises are inevitable and we need to start visualizing now where this trend will lead us and what kind of world lies ahead in our future if we remain as dependent on gas as we are now. $2 gas isn't sustainable for the long term. Oil is a finite resource that the whole world demands-a world with more and more gasoline consumers every day. When we read in the papers about the latest fluctuations in gas prices, we need to realize that these aren't just cold numbers for industry insiders to analyze.
These rising numbers will affect everything about the way we live from the food we eat to the places we choose to live and send our kids to school.
- What do you hope readers will gain from reading your book?
I hope readers will learn that weaning ourselves from gasoline isn't a scary thing, it's an exciting thing. We're talking about cleaner environments, more walkable lives, better public transportation and more vibrant cities.
- What are some of the surprising ways you think rising gas prices will change our everyday lives?
I don't think people realize how close our airline industry is to an all-out collapse. The book details a massive airline extinction at $8 per gallon, and in fact, serious change could take place even before then. It's certainly not something that should be celebrated, but the collapse of that industry will open the door to new ones, such as widespread high-speed trains in America, a phenomenon that won't take serious root until plane tickets become luxuries rather than conveniences.
Beyond the airlines, I think people might be surprised to realize that their future might not include Wal-Mart, since they depend on trucking and suburban communities. And forget about sushi or kiwis since they will be too costly to transport. But the bright side of this is that we'll have better locally-owned stores and locally-grown organic fruit, vegetables and meat.
- Is this pure speculation and fantasy or what kind of research did you do?
I consulted experts in such areas as diverse as urban planning, economics and organic farming. That said, it can be hard to forecast exactly at what gas price each change will happen. There are many unforeseen factors that can accelerate or forestall a certain change, such as government involvement in building high-speed train networks.
If the government funds trains aggressively, change will be effected quicker. But I do feel that all of the changes represented in the book will happen eventually, whether they take place at gas prices of $10 per gallon or $12 per gallon.
- So how scared should we be of the changes to come?
There is little to be scared of. The rising price of gas will unlock countless doors to innovation, opportunity and change. Does Wal-Mart going out of business scare you? It doesn't scare me.
- Why does your book's subtitle say rising gas prices will change our lives "for the better"? How so?
We've grown used to engorging ourselves with cheap oil and it's led to all kinds of problems. As the price of gas goes up, we'll live closer to work and school, eat healthier foods and even be skinnier and safer.
In my research I even found studies that connect cheap oil to America's obesity rate and to the daunting numbers of people that die on our roadways. As the price of gas goes up to, say, $6, we'll save more than $30 billion on obesity-related diseases, 10,000 fewer people will die in car crashes and thousands of people will be spared heart attack deaths related to air pollution. Those kinds of effects will only be magnified as the price of gas rises further. And that's just a sampling of the benefits.
- In what ways will rising gas prices improve our economy and job market?
America has lost much of its manufacturing mojo during the last 20 years. A green revolution, fueled by a search for alternative energies and technologies, could change that. Not only will we need to produce things such as solar panels, electric cars, and new city infrastructure, but the power of globalization will be blunted by higher gasoline prices. The advantages of, say, making a computer in China decrease as the cost of fuel increases and the cost of transporting things all over the earth rises-that will lead to manufacturing jobs returning here, to home soil.
- In what ways will the rising cost of gasoline boost innovation?
The innovation game is one that many people anticipate as oil's grip on the world ebbs. New technologies will be needed in all arenas that oil touches, including cars, trains, our homes, the plastic we use and the roads we drive on-and those are just a few examples. The opportunities for inventors in a world with less oil will be prolific.
- What kind of places did you visit for your research and why was it necessary to visit them?
It's hard to tell a good story from just talking to people over the phone, so I went out into the world to find what I was looking for firsthand. I rode on a new electric UPS truck prototype to deliver packages in Manhattan for a day; I spent some time on a fishing boat hauling in Asian carp; I descended into one of New York's new train tunnels currently under construction; I rode our nation's fastest train to meet the Amtrak CEO in Washington; and stopped by one of the many abandoned Wal-Marts known as "ghost-boxes". It was places like these in the here and now that I witnessed the seeds of the future that lies around the corner.
- So now that we know this, what should we do in the here and now?
Preparing for the future isn't about buying the latest gadgets or the car with the best mileage. Buying solar panels for a house at the far edge of the suburbs, for instance, won't alter how the future affects you. Instead, move to a walkable neighborhood where groceries, your kids' schools, your office or a train are all within several blocks-that's a change you'll profit from and a place where the future will be kinder. Where you live largely determines how you live.