By Dom Nozzi, AICP
Recently, I pointed out to a friend that it will be quite beneficial to our society when gas prices (hopefully incrementally) increase to a much higher level. He responded by asking how people will be able to afford such things as the cost of health insurance and medications? And other essential household costs?
I responded by reminding him that as the writer James Howard Kunstler would say, we are an evil (unsustainable) people who “deserve” to be punished.
Americans have opted to unsustainably live it up by taking actions (such as imperialistic militarism) in which our gasoline has been artificially a LOT lower, for almost 100 years, than they should be from an economic and environmental point of view.
At some point, Americans need to pay the piper for the 100 years of subsidized, artificially low gas prices. In other words, we cannot forever violate economic or environmental principles. Nor can we violate the laws of physics. One hundred years of very cheap gas means that Americans have been conditioned to establish unsustainable lifestyles. Lifestyles that naively assumed cheap gas would last forever. And that, of course, is impossible. By assuming gas would always be cheap, many of us are stuck with lifestyles that cannot survive the inevitable rise in gas prices.
The only thing we can do now to ease the pain is hope that gas prices will rise relatively slowly and incrementally. If it happens slowly, many of us can more feasibly adjust our lifestyles so that we are not as dependent on cheap gas.
News flash: It is not possible for us to forever engage in happy, cheap gas motoring by living in such a way as to make it a requirement that all or nearly all of our trips are by motor vehicle. Such a lifestyle can never be sustainable economically or environmentally.
Unless we somehow violate the laws of physics and find an endless source of no-pollution, cheap energy for our cars, we MUST start moving away from a car-dependent lifestyle.
As an aside, even if we do find this “perfect” energy, we still would have to contend with unaffordable sprawl, loss of sociability, loss of community, 45,000 people dying on highways every year, noise pollution, loss of critical wildlife habitat, and unaffordable household costs associated with needing 4-5 cars per household, among other things.
Are there other ways to cope with the inevitable end of cheap gas? Should we strive to find an endless supply of cheap fuel? Subsidize people who live in remote locations by giving them “gas welfare payments”?
Maybe we should think about changing lifestyles that depend on cheap fuel instead. I don’t see a way around it. We either pay now (by changing our lifestyles more slowly), or pay later (which would be a LOT more costly and painful).
How can people afford to pay for essential household needs if gas prices are significantly higher?
Consider an analogy.
Someone who has lived for their entire lives in a community where natural gas and electricity prices have been very low. Their house, largely because of those low prices, is very leaky. It has poor insulation and very bad energy efficiency design. The household uses an enormous amount of natural gas and electricity because it is so cheap. They then learn that natural gas and electric prices are inevitably going to skyrocket in cost due to resource scarcity and new environmental air pollution regulations. They worry that they will not be able to afford health insurance if their home utility costs go way up.
What do we tell them?
To fight against the environmental regulations to keep natural gas and electric cheap? To keep their fingers crossed that technology saves us by giving us “nuclear power too cheap to meter”?
I would tell them that I hope their utility costs go up relatively slowly so that they will have a better chance to adjust their lifestyle and establish enhanced home energy conservation. They can therefore less painfully adjust to a doubling or tripling of the per unit cost of home energy.
I would NOT tell them to pray for a miracle so that natural gas and electric are forever cheap. A miracle in which they can continue to use huge amounts of natural gas and electric.
Another aside: As many others have noted, when (not if) gas prices become much higher, folks who have a lifestyle that depends on cheap gas will be forced to start making trade-offs. They’ll have to start cutting expenses in their lifestyles so that they can afford to pay for more expensive gas until they are able to adjust their lifestyles to be more sustainable. They will have to eat less at restaurants. Grow more of their own food. Buy clothes less often. End their cable TV subscription. Keep the thermostat lower in the winter by wearing warmer clothes in the house. Find a second or third job to get more income. Get rid of their expensive cell phone service. Sell a car or two so that the household has one or none (way too many low-income American households own several cars today). Stop eating meat. Walk, bicycle and use transit more. Put their pets up for adoption. Find a tenant to rent a room at their house. Sell their home and rent a place in or near the town center. And so on…
Changing lifestyles is the key. Not “DRILL, BABY, DRILL!!!”
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.