Thursday, September 11, 2008

Civilizational decline

This is a popular subject among many socio-political commentators. Some wonder if the US (and by extension, Canada) is headed for a fall, and will be overcome by a rising China/India/Russia, both economically and militarily. Others, particularly people like Mark Steyn, wonder if Europe is destined to lose its cultural identity in the face of foreign immigration (particularly Muslims; google "Eurabia" and see what comes up), and regress into some dark age.

But other than the standard foreign policy/economic challenges that everyone's always so concerned about, one major one looms over everything else. We don't like to think about it, but it's staring us in the face.

Does anyone even realize, I mean really realize, that in ten years, we could be facing $300/barrel oil? Does anyone have the slightest idea of what that means for our North American way of life? If you compare Europe and North America's differing trajectories over the past half century, one thing stands out: our urban centres are made for cars, not people. Most people live way out in suburbia, and have at least an hour's commute into work every morning. But European cities have more concentrated populations. They have excellent public transportation systems, from buses to trains to subways. There is also a vast high speed rail network linking all major European hubs that almost makes air travel obsolete.

Why? Why have Europeans done this and not us in North America? A good place to start is gas taxes. While John McCain and Stephen Harper ramble on about reducing gas taxes, European countries have had vastly higher taxes on gas for decades. The prices that we moan and groan about are nothing compared to what they've dealt with for decades. And because they have, they've had to plan their cities around people, not cars.

We've had a free lunch. Our entire society is based around the idea that oil is cheap, that gas is cheap. But it turns out that nothing lasts forever. If we aren't at Peak Oil now, we will be soon. Prices will keep going up.

Our political discourse on this issue revolves around making gas cheaper . Around sustaining our unsustainable lifestyles. This is the wrong approach. Read Jared Diamond's Collapse for a good explanation of why.

People need to realize that was the past. We have to think about the future, about replacing coal with wind and solar, replacing oil with natural gas, replacing SUVs with hybrids and electric cars, etc. The exciting thing about all this is that none of this spells economic disaster. In fact, a green economy can create millions of new jobs, and generate billions of dollars in new revenue. It's not a downsizing of our economy, but a transformation. That's the way it needs to be framed.

That's not to say that it's going to be easy. We need the political will to do it, and preferably a huge investment not dissimilar to the Manhatten Project in getting us off of fossil fuels altogether. This shouldn't just be a national effort, but a broadly international one.

Oh, and the cool thing about all this is that if we do it soon, we might also avoid the cataclysms of climate change. Nice bonus.

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