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Practical responses to peak oil

By Peter McMahon - posted Thursday, 28 June 2007


For those who came in late, it is increasingly clear that global oil reserves are reaching the point where half has been used up, called “peak oil”. After this point supply will no longer meet demand, and prices will rise increasingly steeply until oil becomes inaccessible.

We don’t really know how this will play out in the complex modern world because we have never faced anything like this before. The markets may give a real indication of the change by steadily rising prices, there may be a ratchet effect with an overall rise but regular short decreases in price (as already seems to be happening), or there may be sudden rises and falls until the price becomes meaninglessly high.

Or the more powerful states might step in to ensure supplies and obviate markets altogether. Some observers claim that Iraq was the first of the “energy wars” as the great powers fight over what is left and try to exploit the situation to maintain or increase their power.

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Anyway, it looks like we are in the last days of cheap oil, and after that, given how much we rely on the stuff for transport, everything will change. Whether this change is actually a benevolent one, a tolerable one, an unpleasant one, or a catastrophic one really depends on how quickly the public and our governments wake up to it and take action. We need to both conserve what is left and develop alternatives, fast.

Most of our oil use and much of greenhouse gas emissions come from road transport. Commercial road usage certainly needs review, but the easiest and most effective changes would occur in general motoring.

To this end, there are two simple things governments should do immediately: the first is to cut speed limits; the second is to get unnecessary, big, four-wheel-drive cars (4WDs) off the roads.

Most car engines run most efficiently around 80 kph, so all speed above this efficiency peak wastes petrol. As a start, governments should cut back all speeds above 80 kph, which would mostly effect freeways and country driving.

Motorists would have to factor in a little longer time in their driving, but in addition to saving fuel, lives would be saved, accident costs diminished and stress levels lowered.

Four-wheel-drives should never have become so prevalent on the roads, aside for legitimate rural and industrial usage. They use too much fuel, pollute more, are dangerous to other road users and dangerous to those who use them (mostly because of the high centre of gravity). They are hard to drive and take up too much space (affecting visibility) on the roads and in car parks.

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Mostly they reflect the Americanisation of Australian culture and the rise of the “me and mine” mentality that saw a personal fortress approach to life. The huge 4WD is the road version of the McMansion, huge and insular, and offering the finger to any idea of sociality or common interests.

Governments should immediately announce a substantial increase (say, double) in the cost of licenses for 4WDs - aside from those who can prove genuine need - and ongoing increases into the future. Along with rising oil costs, this should see them go from our roads in quick time, and none too soon.

Aside from the obvious material advantages, these measures would serve an important psycho-social function. Almost everyone drives, so anything that affects this activity has inordinate impact. Driving is the second greatest cost in our lives after housing, it is the most dangerous thing we do regularly, and it is an activity we spend a good deal of time doing.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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