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The world may be flat, but is it “about to get a whole lot smaller”?

Mike Armstrong’s column in the Inquirer on Tuesday (http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/phillyinc/71920182.html), about the silver lining to the polluted clouds represented by Valero Energy and Sunoco shutting down two area refineries, reminded me that I’ve been meaning to tout a book by an economist named Jeff Rubin that came out earlier this year.

“Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization,” which hit bookstores this past May, tells the compelling story of “how the rising price and diminishing availability of oil are going to radically change our lives,” in the words of the book’s publisher (Random House). But the marketing holds true here. It’s a different take on globalization, outlining in a dense but readable fashion the profound effects that a depleted oil supply will have on our built environment, employment and overall way of life.

It’s an interpretation that is perhaps familiar to the participants of last year’s Penn Institute for Urban Research exhibit and conference called “Re-Imagining Cities – Urban Design After the Age of Oil.” That gathering was put together to address “the need to re-imagine and rethink how cities are designed and organized in a future without the plentiful and abundant oil upon which prosperous urban economies have been built.” (See below for PlanPhilly links to stories on the conference.)

“While we routinely pat ourselves on the back for reducing the amount of oil we burn to produce a dollar of GDP, our economies nevertheless continue to ever more efficiently consume more and more oil, making them even more vulnerable to oil prices,” Rubin writes in the book.

“The fact that we can support a larger economy today for a given level of oil consumption than we could have thirty or forty years ago should be of limited solace to us. The same efficiency paradox that has prevented the average car owner from cutting his fuel bill or the average homeowner from reducing her power bill plays the same role in the economy as a whole.”

As oil-per-unit of GDP has dropped 50 percent since the first “OPEC oil shock” in the 1970s, total oil consumption has increased 20 percent, he says. In other words, the shocks and the warnings and all the talk of global warming and gas prices has meant at least one positive thing: technological innovation. But oil-centered innovation also means we’ve become “even more leveraged to the stuff.”

Hence, with the increasing scarcity of fossil fuels, we’re all going to have to live more locally and in a much more sustainable fashion. Maybe President Carter’s advice to don a sweater in the house during winter time might finally be heeded.

This is a book by an economist that addresses in plain language an extremely complex subject, breaking it down into arguments backed by a pretty sound track record of predictions. It’s also not a part of the recent spate of “pop economist” books. I was wild about “Freakonomics” when it came out in 2005. But so far, reviews of the recently published follow-up, “Superfreakonomics,” have been less than enthusiastic. (Notably, New Yorker environmental writer Elizabeth Kolbert, who incidentally was a guest at the Penn “After Oil” conference last November, ravaged it as “horseshit.”)

So what else has this got to do with planning and Philly? Rubin devotes no small amount of ink linking the reduction in oil to urban issues.

“We will be living in denser communities, driving smaller cars, living more frugally and locally,” Rubin writes.

Later, he relates his office location in downtown Toronto to fishing lodges in the far-off Yukon wilderness, where livelihoods are threatened on a number of fronts, such as the melting ice cap and a diminishing supply of oil to transport people to the lodges (and elsewhere in the extreme north, fish to markets around the world). “The world we live in is every bit as precarious as the outposts of the far north, because it is every bit as dependent on energy. Though our skyscrapers and bustling streets, our busy airports and shopping malls seem invulnerably permanent, they are anything but.”

And here’s a good kicker for you, typical of some of Rubin’s relaxed conclusions and nicely turned hypotheticals:

“… Living in a clean, efficient, densely populated city is not exactly the end of the world,” he wrote, in a chapter called “Redefining Recovery.”

“Where would you rather spend your vacation: Paris or Houston?”

– Posted by Thomas J. Walsh. Contact him at thomaswalsh1@gmail.com.

Previous coverage:
Nov. 7, 2008:  “Re-imagining cities after age of oil” http://www.planphilly.com/node/4218

Nov. 7, 2008:  “Life after oil? It’s not just about us”
http://www.planphilly.com/node/4227

Also:
Mar. 17, 2009:  “Ed Bacon’s call for a post-oil economy” http://www.planphilly.com/node/8479

Feb. 2009: “Industrial waterfronts: Look on the bright side, ‘peakniks’ say”
http://www.planphilly.com/node/7173

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