High oil prices are good for U.S. culture
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TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Kai Ryssdal: Oil prices rose today. Crude inched closer to $65 a barrel. That price bumps around quite a bit as the economic news changes. But oil and gas are still far cheaper than they were last summer. Thing is, though, that they’ll eventually get back to where they were in 2008. And even higher. In his new book “$20 a Gallon,” Forbes writer Chris Steiner imagines what life will be like when that happens. Things won’t be all bad, he says. Once we get used to it.
CHRIS STEINER: We’ve hit a plateau as far as how much the world produces you know in the low $80 million barrel per day range. The problem is that there’s about two billion people who are going to join the ranks of Americans in living the kind of lifestyles we live in the next 30 years.
Ryssdal: Those two billion extra people who are going to be living our lifestyle, you’re talking basically China and India, yes?
STEINER: They’re a big part of it. Yeah, China and India are a big part of it. China by itself is going to add another America worth of energy consumption by the year 2040.
Ryssdal: All right, so let’s explore this thought experiment that you call it in your book. We’ll go through the chapters. I will point out that you cleverly named these chapters after gasoline prices. So you’ve got chapter $4 gallon, chapter $6 gallon. What is going to be the tipping point?
STEINER: Well, there’s a lot of tipping points. And I think the point is there’s different tipping points at every price. I kinda think $6 per gallon is going to be a lightswitch for the American people. I think most people walk away from SUVs forever. I think people will think twice about flying places. Most people are going to understand that life won’t be the same, and we have to change the way we do things.
Ryssdal: I want to skip right to chapter $12 a gallon.
STEINER: That’s where we kinda forecast that people will finally come to the grips with the fact that the freestanding house with a quarter acre of land, or half an acre of land, 50 miles outside the city, isn’t a sustainable way to live. And they’re going to get into places that are more walkable and denser.
Ryssdal: All right, so let’s play that out a little bit. If we all move into inner cities, you point out that some of those big box retail stores that are sort of set apart from society that you have to drive to in large measure, we’re going to be left with carcasses of Wal-Marts, and Targets, and Best Buys out there.
STEINER: Yeah, they call those ghost boxes. When Wal-Mart leaves a store they call it ghost box. There’s actually 300 ghost boxes around the country right now, but by the time gas gets to $14 the Wal-Mart model won’t be very tenable. They’re going to shut down.
Ryssdal: Are you saying Wal-Mart is going to go out of business because we’re driving there anymore, or is it all the rest of it that goes with Wal-Mart. The shipping and the scale and all of that?
STEINER: Wal-Mart is a company with 6,000 suppliers, 80 percent of whom are in China. And so they ship the stuff over on cargo ships very cheaply. It gets to the ports, and then Wal-Mart has 7,000 trucks they use to disseminate it to 4,000 different stores in America. It’s a network built on gasoline. And the only reason it works is cheap oil. Now Wal-Mart could morph. They’re a smart company, they could turn into something else, but in the current form we know Wal-Mart, it won’t survive.
Ryssdal: But if at $12 a gallon we’re driving by factors of 10 less than we are driving today. I have images of weeds sprouting up on the I-405 here in Los Angeles, and the 10 that goes across the country crumbling into the soil here. I mean, is that what you’re envisioning here?
STEINER: I think some roads will close down. And I think a lot of the roads are going to go to tolls. We certainly don’t need the giant infrastructure of roads we have in places like Chicago and Los Angeles right now. There’s a highway every two miles. The nice thing is that it gives us thoroughfares that we can use for trains and other modes of transportation that would be impossible to put in because people live in these places without those roads being there. So they’ll actually come in quite in handy.
Ryssdal: So it’s really a good thing.
STEINER: Well, it depends on how you look at it. I mean, if you have a giant house and you have three SUVs this isn’t a good thing. But I think everybody will be surprised as they usually are at how well most of us adapt.
Ryssdal: Christopher Steiner’s book on the looming gas apocalypse and how it actually might be good for us is called, “$20 a Gallon.” Chris, thanks a lot.
STEINER: Thank you, Kai.
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