Why "peak oil" does not equal the death of the suburbsWay back in March, I laid out my arguments debunking James Howard Kunstler's "Long Emergency" theory that peak oil would mean the end of the suburbs (not to mention modern civilization). Now Randal O'Toole at The Thoreau Institute has laid out a complimentary set of debunking arguments that are truly devastating to Kunstler's case.
While I disagree with Randal using the "New Urbanist" label for this group, the logic is basically sound. "Anti-Suburban Radicals" would be a more accurate term, because they are truly the extreme fringe beyond more moderate and realistic New Urbanists and Smart Growthers. His executive summary:
Randal goes into deep statistical depth on each of these arguments here.
As promoted by New Urbanists such as James Howard Kunstler, the peak-oil theory holds that we are running out of oil and that apocalyptically high energy prices will totally disrupt the American way of life. Based on this theory, the New Urbanists advocate more government regulation of land use and lifestyles and diversion of more highway revenues to rail transit.
The peak-oil argument, however, critically depends on four strong assumptions:
- We are running out of oil
- There are no substitutes for oil
- Higher prices will lead people to drive less
- Less driving will force people to return to the cities
If any one of these assumptions is wrong, Kunstler's argument falls apart. This paper shows that all four assumptions are questionable.
- While extraction costs may moderately increase fuel prices, the world has sufficient known reserves to last for many decades.
- Substitutes include solar, nuclear, and coal, but the first "substitute" will be the use of more fuel-efficient cars.
- Americans will respond to sustained higher fuel costs more by cutting back on other transport costs, such as by keeping their cars a little longer or buying less luxurious cars, than by driving less (staying around the 9% of household expenses average).
- To the extent that people do drive less, they could actually accelerate the suburbanization and exurbanization trends that the New Urbanists oppose. (telecommuting, job dispersion, and preference for big box stores to minimize trips)
Government policies based on a presumption of peak oil are likely to do far more harm than good to our cities and our economy.
Kunstler will actually be speaking at Rice the evening of Thurs Nov 3rd. I'd love to see him in a debate with Mr. O'Toole, but, given that's not likely to happen, I'm hoping myself or others will be able to raise these arguments with him that evening during Q&A.