Friday, October 31, 2008

A Safety Net Of Alternative Systems - Non-Automotive Transportation

I have to admit that sometimes I am intimidated at the thought of writing this blog. There are others whose background on key topics related to adaptations to Peak Oil is much stronger than mine. I think of Sharon Astyk, who can (and has) written volumes on small scale agriculture, food preservation and home economics; or Jeff Vail, who writes extensively on the effects of resource constraints on the global geopolitical scene and relations between nations. There are also geologists and other scientists and mathematicians who explore the actual geology of oil discoveries and extraction in great technical detail, as well as discussing the social and technological impacts of resource constraints on modern society. Most of these people have been writing about these issues for years. My awakening has been rather recent, by comparison. Yet there is one thing I know about intimately, and that is non-automotive transportation, especially bicycle commuting. Therefore I am happy to throw in my two cents' worth on this subject.

But before I begin, I think it's appropriate to give a few reminders of why alternatives to our present economic and social arrangements are necessary. So I will give a few highlights of news I have read in the last few weeks. First, the International Energy Agency (IEA) September Oil Market Report states that world petroleum production fell by around 1 million barrels per day in August 2008 – before any hurricane-related production problems. The October IEA Oil Market Report states that global petroleum supply decreased again in September, by over 1 million barrels per day. The current IEA estimate of global daily oil production is 85.6 million barrels per day. I think that the IEA estimate is overly optimistic, and that actual global petroleum production is lower. Still, the most recent IEA figures show a drop of over 2 million barrels per day within the very recent past.

Secondly, the latest U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) weekly petroleum inventory statistics show that gasoline stockpiles in the U.S. have started dropping again, and that the growth in crude stocks is slowing dramatically. It would not be surprising if next week's report showed a decrease in American inventories of all categories of petroleum products. If the U.S. starts rapidly and deeply drawing down its crude and refined petroleum stocks again, this may lead to a choice between another spike in prices or the re-appearance of shortages such as those we saw in the wake of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. Prices are low now because of the perception of greatly reduced demand, not because of new supplies of oil. The trouble is that these low prices may be starting to increase demand for petroleum products, putting pressure on American petroleum stocks.

Next is the discovery by scientists at the University of East Anglia that manmade climate change is affecting every continent on earth, including Antarctica. The changes seen in the Antarctic are impossible to explain by any other means. And according to scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the atmospheric concentration of the potent greenhouse gas methane rose sharply in 2007. Here are two more pieces of evidence that our modern lifestyle of high-energy overconsumption is destroying the earth.

Lastly, there is the financial crisis and the efforts by rich elites to pass the cost of this crisis onto the poor. The present financial crisis was caused by a number of factors, the biggest being that the rich seized the lion's share of the fruits of productive economic activity while paying their laborers the lowest possible wage. In order to keep a “consumer” economy going in the industrialized West, the rich offered the poor the opportunity to buy things on credit, since very few working-class people could afford to pay cash for many of the things they needed or that they were taught by advertising to want. Then the loans made to these poor and working-class people were bundled into certificates of “worth” and used as investments to borrow ever-larger sums of money.

The only trouble is that the spike in energy and food prices caused by energy and resource constraints wiped out many poor and working-class people and made the investments of the rich – their certificates of “worth” based on loans – worthless, as poor and working-class people started to default en masse on those loans. Now the rich in several countries, including the U.S., have persuaded the governments of those countries to turn most of their citizens into “collateral” for the worthless paper certificates of the rich, by means of government-backed “bailouts” that will never be paid back. The rich created a system by which they could get something for nothing, forcing the rest of us to bear the cost of operating that system. Now that the system is breaking, they seek to use the poor and the working class to grease the wheels of that system for one last run before its almost certain breakdown.

Yet there are signs that some of the lifestyle choices of the poor and working class are causing that system to fail a bit faster than the rich had expected. It seems that increasing numbers of Americans are becoming frugal, learning to delay gratification, and learning to live more simply. This is a threat to the consumer economy and to the fortunes of a significant number of large corporations, lenders and rich executives, as noted here. And there are bloggers who are making the connection between poor or working class people learning to be self-sufficient and the weakening of the “official” economy. Do you want to be a street-legal revolutionary? Disentangle yourself from relying on the “official” system and build alternatives for yourself. Learn to live more simply; learn to live on less. Let those in particular who call themselves Christians learn to live for something other than acquiring lots of material possessions. And everyone, regardlses of religion, start by killing your TV. Don't let your appetite be swollen by advertising to a size larger than the biceps of some major league baseball slugger.

And now on to alternative transportation. My discussion of this topic will fall into a few broad categories, namely, bicycle transportation, walking and public transit (both bus and rail). In my next post I will discuss how I became a bicycle commuter, as well as tips and tricks I learned (and how much fun it is!). I'll also talk about my bike (of course!) and the kinds of equipment I like to use, as well as traffic laws and survival strategies for cyclists. I will then analyze the cycling culture in the United States and discuss whether that culture is a help or a hindrance to the adoption of cycling as basic transportation in this country. I will finish with a discussion of the hindrances and dangers which our present system presents to cycling as alternative transportation.

Other non-automotive transportation options will also be discussed, as well as the car-free culture and the present worldwide car-free movement. For those who are looking at dollars and cents, I will be sure to tell you how much you can save by going car-free or “car-lite.” And I will provide plenty of references for those who want to read about these things in more depth. This will be a fun subject to talk about. Stay tuned!

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