Earlier this week, Joe Romm said he doesn’t see peak oil radically changing U.S. culture, since hybrids and plug-in hybrids will reduce the fuel necessary to get around. Matt Yglesias, reacting to a recent Michael Klare piece, "Beyond the Age of Petroleum," agrees with Joe, saying, "even current gasoline prices are actually quite low as a share of household income by historical standards so even if plug-in technology doesn’t materialize (which is hard to believe) we’re not on the precipice of such never-before-seen apocalypse."
Atrios weighs in here and here (as do his commenters, with a cumulative 861 [!] comments), saying, "rising oil/gas prices, over time, might impact peoples’ behavior in terms of what kind of car they use and how much they use it. … But … it’s just hard to see how any realistic scenario leads to the kind of of economic and social Armageddon that some authors predict."
The presumption shared by Joe, Matt, and Duncan — and even by John, in arguing against Matt — is that cars are the central issue here. Can drivers handle a hike in gas prices? Well, if that’s the question, then sure, they can — gas prices have risen sharply in the last couple years and the economy hasn’t so much as twitched. Gas prices will keep going up, but hybrids will increase in market share, plug-ins will come online, and all will be well, right?
Now, I’m no peak oil doomer (by the way, when you’re talking with peak oil types, be sure to use the word "doomer" frequently — they love it!), but it seems to me this is a slightly pinched perspective on the oil problem. Transportation represents 69% of our oil use; light vehicles are 61% of that; thus, what all these folks are discussing, personal vehicles, are about 40% of overall U.S. oil consumption.
That 40% is worrisome, but the other 60% is what keeps the peak oilers up at night. Rapid and continuing escalation in the price of oil will affect virtually every corner of the economy. It will make raw materials more expensive to extract; construction more expensive; infrastructure improvement more expensive; shipping freight more expensive; industrial agriculture more expensive; food itself more expensive; on and on. Oil is not confined to the personal transportation sector — it’s the foundation of industrial economies.
Of course, there are a panoply of efficiency opportunities for every use of oil, not just personal vehicles. I don’t expect "economic and social Armageddon" — or more to the point, I don’t like to make predictions, since I, like everyone else, have about as much chance of being right as a dart thrown at a dartboard filled with predictions.
But simply waving your hands toward more fuel efficient cars hardly makes the oil supply problem go away.