Harper’s Index

Sharon December 24th, 2004

Harper’s Index for this month has two interesting statistics in it. Take a look:

“Percentage Change since 2002 in the average U.S. price of gasline: +35.2

Change since then in the amount of gasoline Americans consume per capita: 0″

Interesting conjunction, those statistics. Part of the issue, of course, is that prices simply haven’t gotten high enough to make people conserve. Only about 14% of the American population reports having to choose between gas and something else that matters as yet. More will this winter, as heating oil prices rise.

But most people have enough leeway in their budgets that they haven’t changed their habits all that much. But I would argue that that lack of change isn’t because they don’t want to - its because they don’t know how, or worse, they *can’t*.

While there are certainly places we could easily consume, one of the things most people don’t seem to notice is just how hard it will be to alter our usage patterns on any large scale. People *have* to drive to their jobs, and as gas prices rise, and employers find their margins of profit dropping because they have to heat their buildings, transport their goods, etc… their ability to move or be flexible will drop as well. I anticipate during the early stages of peak oil, that a lot of people will pick up and move closer to their jobs.

But that’s not a long term solution, and we won’t be moving. Because as the cost of oil and gas rises even higher, and salaries are cut (again, as those profit margins drop), those jobs will fold altogether. No employer in the world can operate without lights, heat, transportation. When those things get costly, and the average worker can no longer afford their product anyhow (since they have all they can do to pay for food, which is also rising radically in price), the jobs will be gone.

The simple reality of peak oil is that we have built up our infrastructure around oil to such a degree that we are no longer able to back away from the cliff we have made. Oh, wise leadership and serious attention to this issue could make it better - but not good. We won’t stop burning oil until we either stop affording it or the last drops are pulled up - we can’t. We no longer have the means to live without it. Only those who find a way as individuals or communities to step off the treadmill will be able to escape the end result - when they have to choose between heat and food, spending most of your salary on transportation to a job or not having one at all.

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