The ever-changing price of oil is a topic that, according to some, has supplanted the weather as standard conversational fare.
Last year’s record prices of $4 per gallon prompted much commentary, a lot of soul searching and some behavioral change, while the concept of “peak oil”-the idea that companies throughout the planet have extracted more than half of the world’s oil supply has gained increasing currency and acceptance.
Medill classmate and Forbes senior writer Christopher Steiner has taken a serious look forward, not just at what will happen when oil prices top the $4 mark, but when they reach as much as $20 per gallon.
$20 Per Gallon is the impressive product of his research and reporting, and, somewhat surprisingly, the news is not all bad. Steiner argues instead that the a greener, healthier, more local world will ensue as gas prices inevitably tick upward.
The book has garnered considerable media attention and made it to The New York Times bestseller.
The book is divided into chapters that assess the changes that Steiner predicts will occur at $2 interval increases.
Among the highlights: more people will walk and SUVs will largely disappear at $6, while much less flying and fewer airlines will happen at the $8 mark. Suburban communities with massive McMansions will largely disappear at $12, and high-speed rail will emerge in earnest at $18 per gallon.
By the end, Steiner maintains, the wrenching change will lead to a markedly different, but still recognizable society and world. While life for the ultra rich may be mostly the same, few will be untouched.
He lays out his vision of life in the not so distant future in the book’s epilogue. One of $20 Per Gallon’s many strengths is in Steiner’s explanation of how oil and petroleum are inextricably linked to many, many facets of our daily life that go far beyond filling up the tank for our car or taking an airplane to visit family members during the holiday season.
Steiner writes about plastic bags and shampoo, about kitchen floors and shower stalls. This analysis is helpful because it underscores the extent of the task ahead and the comprehensiveness of the changes that may eventually come.
Writing in clear, conversational prose, Steiner takes the reader on a tour that includes the nation’s crumbling bridges, the new Boeing 787 that is 20 percent more efficient than other models and the New York City’s fabled subway system. A civil engineer as well as a journalist by training, Steiner effectively explains some of the technical issues inherent in current or future uses of oil and other energy sources and inserts enough varied characters to keep the work moving along.
Reasonable people may differ, and time will ultimately tell, on whether the many specific predictions Steiner makes turn out to be true-he asserts that Continental will be the last major airline standing, for example-and whether the changes he says will happen at the precise price point he identifies in the book.
To assess $20 per gallon on that score, though, would be a limited reading of the work.
At base, Steiner’s work is a contribution to public conversation, and possibly policy, because it is based on a clear-eyed assessment of where we are very likely to be heading. Rather than retreating to the belief that last year’s price spike was an aberration, he used that occasion to project forward and to present to our society the future consequences of where we are headed.
For that, he deserves our thanks, and, as a classmate, our congratulations.