Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Western Secession 3 - The World Gets Bigger

In my last secession post, I argued that in 25 years time, the availability of liquid hydrocarbon fuels will have decreased significantly, and it will be clear that the decline is going to continue.  This time, I want to talk about what some of the consequences of that decline are likely to be.  As I've mentioned before, I'm not one of the people who believes it means the end of civilization as we know it.  Perhaps the best summary phrase is one that I used in the title: the world gets bigger.  What I mean by that is that it will take more time, and be more expensive, to move goods and people over specified distances.  In some cases, the time factor may be as important as the expense.  This aspect of the future will have effects on multiple scales.

The largest scale is global.  Where I expect the biggest impacts to occur involve air transportation.  Moving large tonnage by ships is extremely efficient, particularly if the ships don't go too fast.  Air travel, or rapid ocean travel, will become much more expensive.  This will hit the US military's ability to project force on a global basis very hard.  The 2010 Joint Operating Environment document, published by the US Department of Defense, identifies shortages of liquid hydrocarbons as one of the significant risks to the US ability to project force, perhaps by as early as 2020.  That document builds a more indirect case, arguing that oil shortages would depress the US economy to a degree that would require large cuts in defense spending.

Significantly higher air travel costs will reduce personal contact between Americans and the rest of the world -- if the cost to fly to Paris doubles, fewer Americans will take vacations or educational trips to Paris (and fewer Parisians visit America).  Combined with a reduced global military role, America will become less engaged with the rest of the world.  There has always been an isolationist streak in America, a reluctance to become involved in military problems in Europe or Asia.  A Pew Research Center poll that came out earlier this month found that 52% of Americans now believe "the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own."  This is an historic high since Pew began asking the question in 1964.

The second scale is continental.  The United States is a very large country.  Travel between different regions will decline as air travel costs increase.  The alternative to air travel that is often put forward is high-speed rail.  Assuming that a train could average 200 MPH, the time from Los Angeles to New York is about 13.5 hours, plus time for intermediate stops: much longer than the current flight time.  A more fundamental argument against even the availability of high-speed rail is the cost of building out the infrastructure.  California's proposed HSR line from San Diego to San Francisco currently has an estimated price tag of $70 billion; no one believes that it can actually be built for that; the cost of a national HSR system for the US would run into the trillions of dollars.  More pronounced regional identities will begin to emerge as personal contact between the regions declines [1].

The third scale is local.  One of the "local" effects that will exacerbate the problem of reduced availability of gasoline and diesel for many people is the likelihood of allocation measures (rationing is such a nasty word).  Some amount of fuel will be reserved in some fashion for particular users, such as farmers and commercial fishermen.  While the United Kingdom doesn't reserve fuel for farmers, it does have a special category of fuel (red diesel) that can only be used in specific applications and is taxed at much lower rates, making it more affordable.  Rationing by price is still rationing.

The cost of personal transportation is going to increase.  The use of mass transit is going to increase [2], which typically takes a greater investment of time for any particular trip.  I don't believe that personal transportation will go away, but I do believe that 25 years out, the vehicles will be undergoing dramatic changes.  Small vehicles like the MIT electric city car shown here will not be unusual.  I believe that electricity is going to win the battle for personal transportation.  Battery technology is already good enough to give the city car a range that meets 90% of the needs of a urban/suburban drivers, a large efforts will be put into maintaining reliable sources of electricity (a subject for future pieces).  That's a pretty good summary of my position on car purchases in that time frame: drivers will buy cars that meet 90% of their needs, rather than buying cars that meet their extreme cases (eg, 500 miles to Grandma's, hauling the entire little league team to Dairy Queen).

To summarize the "world gets bigger" situation...  Less US engagement with the rest of the world.  Less engagement between multiple regions of the US.  And a greater focus on local and regional problems (and solutions) as people's view of the world changes.

[1] In later posts, I will explore a variety of distinctions that I think already exist between the West and the rest of the country.

[2] One of the western distinctions worth mentioning in this transportation-related post is that every major metropolitan area in my West (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming) is at least studying light rail.  All of them except Las Vegas are at some stage of building a light rail system.

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