The Clock Is Ticking
by Michael Ayers

I have often heard friends use the phrase "ex-smokers are the most militant anti-smokers". Well, having never participated in that particular habit, I can't attest to that personally. But, I am a living example of the related theory that "ex-drivers are the most vocal anti-drivers". I have been car-free since 1993, and my distaste for those machines grows with each passing day (or should I say, with each passing car). I travel everywhere by bike, or by train, in spite of the fact that I live in an increasingly bike-unfriendly area (the San Francisco Bay area). Because of that, I have recently found myself in a rather unusual circumstance. I should be unhappy and worried about the future, but strangely, I am not. Instead, I am oddly excited, and eagerly anticipating the future (Warning: You may not like the reason why). More on that in a moment, but first some reasons why I think I should be unhappy.

I should be unhappy because of the recent federal "Highway Bill" that allocates about $173 billion for new highway construction and repairs and only $41.3 billion in mass transit and bike projects. Part of me thinks that this outrageous expenditure for highways is a complete waste of money, and we should just let our existing highways crumble and disappear. (Please don't think that I in any way disregard the hard work and dedication that mass transit and bike activists put forth to get the $41 billion, they did a far better job than I ever would have). But wouldn't we all rather see $173 billion for bikes and transit and almost nothing for highways?

I should be unhappy because in the summer of 1998 Americans are expected to drive 1.4 trillion miles (the equivalent of 7500 round trips between the Earth and the Sun). This represents an increase of 3.9% over the same period in 1997. When will Americans wake-up?

I should be unhappy because the only chance American negotiators had during the Kyoto Climate Conference to develop a treaty that had even a remote chance of political acceptance in the U.S. was to include a dubious scheme of "emissions credits". So, instead of reducing our own emissions, we can continue on our present course and let "less developed" nations deal with the problem for us. Of course, the U.S. government's long-term plan for dealing with emissions and energy usage focuses on developing a car that gets 80 mpg. Will people just drive four times as far?

And I should also be unhappy because China, the most populous nation on Earth, is in the process of disassembling the most efficient transportation system in the world (their one billion, or so, bicycles), and replacing it with a U.S.-style automobile nightmare. I suppose that no Garden of Eden lasts forever.

These things should all make me unhappy, but they don't. Please, build all the highways you want. Build some more suburban housing developments and golf courses out in the desert. Expand the parking lot at the local Wal-Mart. Give the citizens of Bolivia, Romania and Mongolia the BMWs and SUVs that they have always dreamed of. Do all of these things. You've got less than 20 years to enjoy them.

Like a freight train with no brakes, the American system of transportation based on the automobile is heading for a crash of epic proportions. That is why I am happy. And the sooner this happens, the happier I will be. The root cause of this collapse will likely be the imminent end of the Cheap Oil era, with a dose of Global Climate Change thrown in for good measure. We have been living with a "boy who cried wolf" mentality with regards to oil for about two decades now. The general public vaugely remembers the "oil shocks" of the 1970's (which were caused by political events) and the inflation that followed. But oil has been very cheap for many years now ("Oh good! They fixed that oil shortage thing!"). And oil companies regularly trumpet the party line that with present consumption rates, there is least 50 years of oil left. ("Yes, they really did fix that oil shortage thing!") However this sense of security is based on a false premise. The next oil crisis will not arrive when all the oil is gone. It will arrive after we have consumed half of the oil that ever existed. When half of the oil is gone, demand begins to exceed production, and the price of oil rises. And, since oil is one of the primary raw materials for modern society, the price of virtually every product and service will rise as well. The next oil shortage will not be political, it will be real, and it will be permanent. But, since we have failed to make any significant changes in our energy usage (see above), many people will have little choice other than continued consumption. The resulting upward spiral of economic difficulties may not be pretty.

The critical question is then, when will we have used half of the oil? Colin Campbell and Jean Lahererre of Petroconsultants, Inc (Geneva) have presented a thorough study of this question. Petroconsultants is an independent energy analysis group made up of former oil industry employees and geologists. Their conclusion? Depending on political circumstances, and varriables such as weather, the production of oil will peak between 2000 and 2010. There are other reports that suggest a slightly later date, perhaps 2020, but I prefer to err on the side of caution and accept the earliest date. In any case, the year 2020 will be here before you know it. (Other recent reports on this situation are in The Observer, and by C.B. Hatfield of the University of Toledo).

I could go on and on about why I feel that alternative fuels, hybrid vehicles, electric cars, or renewable energy sources will not solve the problem (or at least not in time). But that is a topic for another time. In my mind, the most important question is: "What do we do after the crisis?"

We could follow the example of Cuba. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the supply of oil to Cuba was significantly disrupted. However, Cuban society did not to slip into chaos or anarchy. Instead, a bold program was initiated to rebuild their transportation system based on (you guessed it!) the bicycle. The Cubans purchased one million bicycles from China (well, China won't need them for much longer anyway), and constructed their own bicycle manufacturing plants. A number of innovative cycling amenities were introduced as well. But, as we all know, Cuba and United States are very different places. I have never been to Cuba, but I have a hard time imagining that there are any large suburban housing developments surrounded on all sides by freeways, with no non-motorized access to the essential services of daily life. Would we be able to follow Cuba's lead even if we wanted to?

Or, will we slide (I mean, drive) head first into a depression that will make the 1930's seem like a picnic. I have to say, that I think this will very likely be the case. Timing is the critical issue. We all know about the growing movements towards bicycle transportation, sustainable communities, and voluntary simplicity. Will these lifestyle changes take hold in a significant way, and in time to do some good? Unfortunately the vast majority of Americans are still dedicating their lives to driving, buying on credit, and the pursuit of material things. Too many people are risking their entire future on the continued economic growth needed to bring a satisfactory return from their investment portfolios. And any situation that disrupts our transportation system, and therefore the economy in general, will impose the harshest effects on this large segment of our nation. Recently, I've spent a considerable amount of effort searching the Web for any economist's predictions of the effects of a rise in the price of oil. Curiously, there is essentially nothing being said about this eventuality. The only information I found to be even remotely relevant comes from a pro-growth think-tank (with which I disagree on almost all philosophical points), that predicts dire economic circumstances if energy costs are raised in compliance with Greenhouse Gas emissions reduction targets.

So why am I happy? It's hard to say exactly. If a collapse comes, there will certainly be hard times for us all. However, we'll have no one to blame but ourselves (I certainly did my share of driving when I was young and stupid). But I also think that the hardest of times bring out the best in humanity. It's possible that a sudden shock could be just what is needed to convince the majority of Americans to re-examine their lives and spend at least a little time thinking about the future. And I have a strange feeling that I just might prefer living in the post-automobile age, even if that means I'll never be able to pick up a Big Mac at the drive-through window again (Who am I kidding? Have you ever tried to use a "drive-through" window on foot, or on a bike? I'm sorry sir, we can't serve you that way!). In any case, I think that is very important for us as cyclists, and concerned citizens, to keep working towards what we know to be right. That is, to continue trying to reshape our communities today, and to continue to lead by example in the best way that we know how (by riding a bike!) So that if hard times do come, there will at least be a blueprint available for how to rebuild our world in a more sustainable manner.

Michael Ayers
Martinez, CA