Published on: May 1, 2008Also available on iTunes…
Hi, I'm Kevin Coupe and this is MorningNewsBeat Radio, brought to you by Webstop, experts in the art of retail website design.
Right now, there is a lot of debate and concern about the rising price of food and energy, with people wondering where it is going to end and even, in particularly dark moments, if it is going to end. The increased cost of living, especially here in the United States, where we have gotten used to relatively cheap food and fuel, has of course become a political football in this election year. It would be my perception that practically everybody who either holds or is seeking public office is trying to figure out how to triangulate his or her position to generate the most votes, not how to address the challenges in strategic and sophisticated ways.
But what if the problems ahead are even tougher than we think? There was a fascinating interview in Business Week the other day with an author named James Howard Kunstler, who suggests that our biggest problem isn’t the rising cost of energy, but the simple fact that oil is a finite resource…eventually, it is going to run out. The era of cheap fuel is behind us, he says, which will create fundamental changes in how communities evolve. Kunstler believes that the US will be forced to move away from the concept of suburban sprawl, which has defined much of the nation's growth over the past decades – it will mean the decline of strip malls, big box stores and eventually, the car-centered society around which most of us have centered our lives.
According to Kunstler, "Virtually anything organized on a grand scale is liable to fall into trouble—government, finance, corporate enterprise, agribusiness, schools. Our gigantic metroplex cities will prove to be inconsistent with the energy diet of our future. I think our smaller cities and towns will be reactivated. We are going to be a far less affluent society."
Now, there is a bit of Chicken Little about these predictions. Business Week correctly notes that Kunstler was one of those predicting a technological Armageddon at the turn of the century, saying that Y2K had the potential to destroy many of society's foundations. He was wrong once, and he's certainly capable of being wrong again, especially because when you hear and read his words, Kunstler does seem like a glass-half-empty kind of guy who would be pretty depressing to have at a party.
That said, there is something about his essential premise that does seem to make sense. Last time I checked, oil is a finite resource. I was at a conference this week where a senior executive at a major restaurant company got a round of applause when he suggested that people concerned about the environment were basically alarmists and obstructionists who are getting in the way of drilling for all the oil we could ever want. I'm not quite so ready to rape and pillage the environment as he seemed to be, but let's concede his point for a moment. He's certainly right that we need to wean ourselves off foreign oil, but I'm still waiting for a kind of Manhattan Project that will put the pursuit of alternative and environmentally preferable energy sources front and center as a global goal. That has to be the strategy…everything else is just a tactic, and a short-term one at that. (Short term might mean 10 years, or might mean 100. But in the life of the planet, 100 years happens in the blink of an eye. We have to think bigger than that.)
As I was putting together this commentary, I got an email from a MorningNewsBeat user who addressed the broad issues we face in exactly the right way:
He wrote that if in fact we are going through a transformation of our economy, rather than just a temporary recession, "things will be uncomfortable - but America will be a better place. We will lose some things and will gain some things - but we won't become less, just different."
I couldn’t agree more. But to get there, we have to face the real issues, not just the ones that create headlines and votes. And for once, we have to get in front of them…and not just hope that we survive them so that they become someone else's problems.
For MorningNewsBeat Radio, I'm Kevin Coupe.
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