The BBC and other sources are reporting this morning that car sales in China surpassed the US for the first time in 2009. But it’s not simply the fact that they did so, but how they did so: China’s car sales surged a staggering 53% over the previous year, to 13.6 million vehicles. And common sense tells us that there’s no end in sight. Here’s why: As discussed last year in the 2-1/2 Billion People post, the American middle-class suburban lifestyle is now no longer the world’s biggest ecological problem. Now, the biggest problem is the export of the enticing image of that lifestyle to 2-1/2 billion people in China and India who have previously lived very low-impact agrarian lifestyles. And now, they want the things they see us having.
Nearly two years ago, USA Today reported on the export of American suburbia to China. And today’s reports are only the tip of the iceberg. Think about it for a minute: There’s basically one car per person in the US, counting the people who don’t drive, because many of us have more than one car. It’s that way because it’s what you need to live in suburbia. It’s not possible to live the American middle-class suburban lifestyle without a car, because you have to drive everywhere in suburbia. So if China and India adopt our lifestyle then it’s reasonable to assume that they’ll need a lot of cars, too.
How many? Let’s take a really conservative approach for a moment and assume that they’re a lot smarter than us, and figure out how to achieve our lifestyle with 60% fewer cars. In other words, 4 cars per 10 people rather than our 10 cars for 10 people. Even then, they’ll need a billion cars that don’t even exist today for those 2-1/2 billion people. How long will that take? If sales keep increasing at the rate they did from 2008 to 2009, then the billion new cars will be on the road by 2018.
This is a problem for so many mammoth reasons that it’s hard to know where to start, so let’s start with the simplest and least debatable one: the demand side of the Law of Supply & Demand. If you take the US’s roughly 300 million cars and add the billion cars to it, you’re quadrupling the number of cars competing for gas. The Law of Supply & Demand says that as demand goes up, prices go up, assuming that supply is stable. How much? That’s hard to say, but this much is certain: if the demand quadruples with a steady supply, the price doesn’t just quadruple; it has the potential of going much higher because it turns into a bidding war when it’s the economic survival question of: “How am I going to be able to get to work?”
The other side of the Supply & Demand equation isn’t looking so good, either. Peak Oil is an idea that was first proposed in 1956 by M. King Hubbert, a Shell geoscientist. In a nutshell, Peal Oil is the point in time when the world reaches its maximum oil production and begins to decline. Peak Oil in the United States occurred in 1970. Today, the US produces roughly half the oil that it did then. Peak Oil has been hotly-debated in recent times, but now, the reality is beginning to set in: the most optimistic estimates are that worldwide Peak Oil will occur around 2020. Many believe that Peak Oil is occurring right now.
What happens when you combine a quadrupling of demand with a dwindling supply? Things could get downright scary, as Jim Kunstler described in The Long Emergency. Jim’s a friend of mine, and I respect him highly. His books from several years ago read like history now, because he successfully predicted so many things, from details of the Meltdown to smaller stuff like the Somali pirates. But I’m an optimist, and I believe that we can come out OK... if we get our house in order now.
What will it take to do that? Immediately stop building additional suburbia... well, OK, the Meltdown took care of that. But as population grows, we’ll eventually have to build at a larger scale again, and we need to make sure that the places we build and re-build are those that don’t require a car for basic economic survival: places that are accessible by a range of transportation choices, especially including the self-propelled choices of walking and biking. And we need to build and re-build places that are serviceable, where people can get the basic services of life within walking distance, and where making a living where you’re living is a choice for a lot more of us than it is today. In short, we need to be building and re-building Original Green places again.
Monday, January 11, 2010 - 10:48 AM
Steve - great blog and nice site!
I am a firm believer that market forces shape everything we do far more than ideas. For example, the average consumer will not choose to live in an ecologically sound manner, but will do so if it saves a bit of money.
I just finished reading the $20/gallon gas book by Christopher Steiner and really enjoyed the analysis of market forces and how our world might respond as a result.
It would be fantastic to have the coming oil crisis be the impetus for us to start living green, smart, traditionally, walkably (I just made that word up), and better.