Book Review: $20 Per Gallon

Cover of "$20 Per Gallon: How the Inevita...

Cover via Amazon

I just finished reading $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better, by Christopher Steiner. It is about all the changes that will happen in our society as the price of gasoline rises, as it inevitably will, since we’ve hit peak oil.

Many of these changes will benefit the environment, but they will be made for their economic benefits, not the environmental ones.

I like the way the book is organized, with each chapter named after a price, not just a number. So the Prologue is $4, Chapter $6 is Society Change and the Dead SUV, Chapter $8 is The Skies Will Empty, and so on.

The book is packed with useful trivia. Did you know that the furnace at a silicon plant in West Virginia burns so hot that plant visitors on a walking tour are told not to wear polyester because of its low melting point?

More seriously,

The breadth of products that come directly from petroleum is massive. Everything from milk jugs to laundry detergent to masking tape to perfume to mascara to hand lotion to sunscreen to the insulation in a sleeping bag to the cushions in your couch to the case of your computer to the eraser on your pencil to the ink in your pen.

New presentation of data in figure 20 of http:...

Image via Wikipedia

He lucidly explains the various changes we will see in our lives as the price of oil, and therefore gasoline, climbs. Airplane travel will still exist, but only for the very rich or in emergencies. Suburbs, particularly the farthest flung from the cities, will disappear, replaced with farms for perishable produce as the oil price climbs. Urban cores will be revitalized as everyone moves into the city, although small towns will also undergo a renaissance as the downtown comes back and the commuters come home as telecommuters.

Detroit is already doing something like this, destroying outlying suburbs in favor of agriculture and helping the citizens move into the urban core, although Mr. Steiner ignores this.

SUVs will be the first to go, at a price of $6 per gallon, but as the price continues to rise, personal cars, particularly those with gasoline engines, will be almost unknown. Rail travel will return, and high speed rail will link one coast of the United States with the other.

Mr. Steiner makes many good points, but he is a little over-optimistic. While he acknowledges the difficulty and pain of many of these changes (hundreds of thousands laid off as airlines succumb to high oil prices, for example), he fails to point out that many of these changes depend on the price rising slowly.

If oil slowly climbs in price due to the drying up of oil fields, then, yes, we will have much time to adjust and change our lifestyles and our economy. But if the price of oil were to suddenly skyrocket due to war or revolution in the Middle East, then we would be faced with terrible change overnight. In that case, I don’t think that the change would come gradually and happily, as ordinary adjustments in people’s lives. I think the changes would be wrenching and difficult, and perhaps even more drastic. Mr. Steiner seems to think our lives will be pretty recognizable at higher gasoline prices, although we’ll live in smaller spaces with less stuff, and ride trains again. I think that if the change comes fast enough, we won’t even recognize our lives afterward.

Besides the optimism, I had a few other quarrels with the book. First, Mr. Steiner never mentions the developing world. One could argue that the book is focused on the United States, so there is no need to mention the developing world, but I would disagree. He mentions a planned city in South Korea, discusses gasoline prices and taxes in Europe, the impact of sushi on tuna fisheries, and the impact of high oil prices and fewer airplanes in the sky on sushi, so I’m not sure why he doesn’t mention the developing world.

I think this is a huge oversight on his part. While Americans moving to cities will find the necessary infrastructure already in place, people who move to the city from the countryside in a developing country find that the only place they can find to live is a slum with no city services, such as running water. This doesn’t stop them making the move, but how does this affect their quality of life and the quality of their city and country?

Also, how will high gasoline prices affect illegal immigration to this country? When the south of Mexico is no longer a couple days away from the border by truck (because the gasoline is far too expensive), will we see the number of migrants drop? Will the number of people willing to work on the farms at low wages decrease, even as the nature of farming changes? Mr. Steiner doesn’t say.

Second, while he discusses how farming will move closer to the cities to minimize the cost of transportation, he never mentions how rising gasoline prices will affect all the machines a modern farm uses. Will we see a greater demand for farmworkers? Will we return to animal power on our farms? Or will animal producers, and the farmers who choose to return to animal power, sell manure to the other farmers for methane production? Fascinating questions, all left unaddressed by Mr. Steiner.

Finally, his section in the final chapter on where our energy will come from in the future was far too superficial. He spends perhaps 20 pages on this, jumping from energy source to energy source, and never really discussing the issues in depth. I took an entire course on the future of energy ten years ago in college, and it was far more illuminating. I was surprised at this section’s vagueness, considering how the rest of the book seems to be exhaustively researched. If you know nothing at all about this topic, go ahead and read this section, but if you are already informed, just skim or even skip it.

This is a very good book on the future of our society in the face of rising oil prices, but it does skip some important topics and gloss over others. I do recommend it, but be prepared to know it won’t give you nearly all the answers, or even most of them.

Three out of five stars.

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