Maybe the parts of a metro can break down into tighter-knit blocks. In a world of high fuel prices, Merriam could theoretically band together with the cities of Shawnee, Mission, and Overland Park to make a smaller, more walkable version of the metro experience. Yet it likely wouldn't be as well-off as those places are today, when they can easily trade throughout the larger metro area and far beyond, when a local job doesn't have to be closely tied to local demand, when the cost of food and goods isn't also being driven up by the high cost of the fuel needed to make and transport them.
If you think about all of the parts of our lives that rely on cheap oil, it's easy to see how authors such as James Howard Kunstler can believe that peak oil will lead, unstoppably, to the collapse of modern, industrial civilization—where metros will descend into poverty and anarchy, and only independent small towns will be able to survive in a future that shares a lot of similarities with the nineteenth century. You don't even have to go that far, however, to be concerned about the impact of peak oil.
In a 2005 report (pdf) written for the Department of Energy, researcher Robert Hirsch wrote that total economic meltdown wasn't an inevitable consequence of peak oil. Yet he also pointed out that most economic recessions in the United States after 1969 were preceded by a spike in oil prices, and that every jump in oil prices was followed by a recession. There's a key quotation from the paper that really drives home the kind of risks we're talking about: "Economically, the decade following peaking may resemble the 1970s, only worse, with dramatic increases in inflation, long-term recession, high unemployment, and declining living standards." The 1970s, only worse. That's the pleasant outlook. Even that won't be possible, Hirsch says, if we don't start changing the way we make and use energy now.
Remember, oil is most likely to peak sometime before 2030. We don't know exactly when. It could be tomorrow, could be 2029. Yet if we want to really mitigate the impact of peak oil and keep the economy as stable as possible, Hirsch thinks we need at least twenty years of dedicated effort to sufficiently reduce oil consumption and create alternative fuels. As the prep time shortens, the consequences get larger. With only a decade of preparation before peak oil, we're likely to be stuck with ten years of chronic fuel shortage. If we don't start trying to mitigate the effects of peak oil until it actually happens, Hirsch thinks we'll be looking at more than twenty years of hardship.
We have two problems: our metro lifestyles require energy, but we also want to avoid the negative impacts climate change and peak oil will have on metro communities. The timeline for action: the sooner, the better. So, the question becomes "Now what do we do?"
From Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us © 2012 by Maggie Koerth-Baker. Excerpt reprinted with permission.