Monday, October 10, 2005

Why "peak oil" does not equal the death of the suburbs

Way 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:

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:

  1. We are running out of oil
  2. There are no substitutes for oil
  3. Higher prices will lead people to drive less
  4. 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.

  1. While extraction costs may moderately increase fuel prices, the world has sufficient known reserves to last for many decades.
  2. Substitutes include solar, nuclear, and coal, but the first "substitute" will be the use of more fuel-efficient cars.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.

Randal goes into deep statistical depth on each of these arguments here.

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.


At 10:56 PM, October 10, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"truly devastating to Kunstler's case"... "'Anti-Suburban Radicals' would be a more accurate term, because they are truly the extreme fringe"

hyperbole, mixed with a classic technique of discrediting the proponents of an opposing viewpoint rather than the viewpoint itself.

At 1:03 PM, October 11, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately Randal's arguments are based as much on 'if's as Kustlers are. Nearly every statistic he used has a statistic to counter it. Both O'toole and Kunstler are trying to predict the future, and as such are equally unreliable.

I, however, am less willing to trust someone who is funded by oil companies (Randal O'Toole) than someone who is funded by academe (Kunstler). Like most aspects of this debate, this one has few substantial arguments and so should be decided by each individual.

At 1:46 PM, October 11, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a case of one fringe idealogue (Randal O'Toole) arguing with another fringe idealogue (James Howard Kunstler). I really don't put much stock in what either of them have to say.


At 2:59 PM, October 11, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

They are at both extremes, but setting aside the personalities, I find Randal's arguments more logical and backed by statistics. Kunstler's arguments are static, linear, and assume a totally non-adaptive economy.

At 5:12 PM, October 12, 2005, Blogger Michael Patrick said...

On another note, I see from the linked piece how much Mr. O'Toole complains about government regulation's repression of his preferred lifestyle and favoring of "bad" things like New Urbanism and "smart growth" when, as he says, clearly the trend is toward more sub-/exurbanization. Yet Mr. Kunstler has rightly emphasized in his own writing that government regulation itself largely prevents the whole un-O'Toole vision of high housing-unit density, mixed uses, and pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods. In many areas, it's the developers--representing the free-ish market itself--that wish to densify. They see an economy of scale in building more units on less land, and they've done enough homework to know that they will find buyers. But, even when such projects have no significant negative effects other than offending a few vocal residents' subjective personal preferences, government largely won't let them do it. And I'm sure selective-libertarian O'Toole is quite happy about that.

At 9:18 PM, October 12, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Actually, I'm pretty sure Randal is a genuine libertarian that would like to see regs relaxed and let the market determine what it wants to build. His group and New Urbanists actually agree on that point about loosening up zoning.

At 1:40 AM, March 22, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

With Mr.O'Toole, most of his arguments make no economic sense, such as the road in front of your house is not operated on a profit or loss basis and is not an example of a "free market".

As for Mr.Kunstler, one of the things he brought up were railroad suburbs, so he wants people to have options.

Only time will tell with peak oil, but at least Mr. Kunstler isn't trying to screw people over like Mr.O'Toole.

At 9:01 AM, March 22, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The road in front of your house is not optional. Every society connects all dwellings with roads, no matter how much transit and walking they also encourage. Even if the owner never drives, the road is needed to convey freight deliveries, construction equipment (to build it in the first place), utility crews and their equipment, and emergency responders (police, ambulance, fire). So it's fair to essentially include the cost of that basic road network in the cost of the house, via property taxes - rather than tolls, gas, or other use taxes.

At 1:47 PM, July 28, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You wrote: "The peak-oil argument, however, critically depends on four strong assumptions:

1) We are running out of oil"

That is not the peak oil argument at all. Peak oil is that point when production reaches a maximum. The trouble is that following the maximum, production of course declines regardless of demand.

You may have corrected this error in a later post and if so then I apologize for overlooking it.

At 4:55 PM, July 28, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Well, first, that's from the excerpt - not my writing. But second, I think what they're really saying in somewhat oversimplified language is that, when the price rises, all sorts of new reserves become economical and production can continue to increase rather than peak.


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