Why can’t we change our oil-sucking land-use preferences?
The other day I expressed disappointment at Kevin Drum’s fifth peak oil post — the one where he lays out his recommendations for oil policy. In my inimitably oblique and unfocused way, I was simply trying to say that I wish he’d been more imaginative.
If nothing else, peak oil is going to be a major inflection point in our collective history. It’s a sharp turn in the road, and we can’t see clearly around the bend. The stakes are huge, and call for a commensurate greatness of mind and expansiveness of thought.
What Drum did is basically gather the conventional wisdom in one place, without considering at all the myriad ways that the CW might be constricted and warped by the vested interests of society’s current power brokers. Nor did he deign to consider things that might seem, in the current sociopolitical scene, impossible, or at least out on the fringe.
One example: U.S. suburbia, as Kunstler never tires of telling us, is built on cheap oil. It takes lots of oil to transport goods around the world to a Wal-Mart, and lots of oil for suburbanites to drive back and forth to it bazillions of times. The dominant land-use paradigm in this country is oil-sucking. If oil’s running out, it’s got to change, right?
Drum doesn’t bother to mention the many innovative thinkers out there pondering how we can make cities greener and more attractive (the very subject of World Environment Day). He doesn’t consider how we might refashion our remaining farm land and open spaces in more ecologically friendly fashion. He doesn’t consider how we might encourage people to buy locally grown food and locally made goods.
It’s late, so I’ll just make two brief points:
- Despite the widespread acceptance of the "that’s just what most people want" chestnut, it is absurd to think that U.S. land-use and residential patterns are the result of a pure market exercise. There are deep and knotty cultural issues involved, of course, but there’s also the small matter of public infrastructure and investment over the past century, which suffice to say was not driven by egalitarian or green concerns. Modern-day American exurbians are living in a way that’s making them obese, diabetic, asthmatic, and disconnected from communal support, not to mention dead from heart disease and auto accidents. It’s an awfully odd preference to be so widely shared. Maybe there are other forces at work?
- To the extent that most people do want it, why is that a deal-breaker? It’s somewhat telling, is it not, that Drum thinks we can get drills into the Arctic Refuge and off the coasts, raise taxes, raise CAFE standards, and lavish public money on new technology, but the one immoveable object in the equation is the preference of the American homeowner. That’s inviolate. But why? If our collective preferences are driving us to ruin, it’s up to us to change those preferences, not accept them as fait accompli.
With that I’ll succumb to exhaustion and go to bed. But let me ask you. What did Drum leave out of his list?