Vision: Ready or Not, Our Cheap Oil Economy Is Collapsing and We Need to Embrace High-Speed Rail
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ST: What about electric cars?
AK: Electric cars are not going to do it. Biofuels are not going to do it. They will have a small part to play, but a national rail system powered by electricity, wind and solar is going to be the only thing that will make a massive difference. You could have transportation forever.
This oil crunch is the real deal. The fact that it is not a day-to-day topic in the White House and Congress is actually very alarming. Some of them even look at energy policy as entirely separate from transportation, despite the fact that they're so interlinked. Our transportation habits are exactly why we need 20 millions barrels of oil a day, and that's going to be hard to get, starting now. Saudi Arabia's fields are down, Mexico is way down, Russia has peaked, Venezuela has peaked. The fact that we're desperate to dredge tar sands and drill for oil 5,000 feet beneath the ocean floor shows you how much trouble we're in already.
ST: Well, you're talking about fully transforming an American ideal of mobility and consumption. Car culture is deeply ingrained in the American psyche and wallet. Ari Fleischer once called it the 'American way of life.'
AK: My background is urban design, so I'm deeply involved in this. The American dream of living in a suburban house and driving 30 miles to your job? That's how I grew up in Florida, and that's still currently the American way of life now. But in the '20s, the American way of life looked just like Paris. Everyone was living in big cities, riding street trains, no one had cars. So America was built the right way. We already had that lifestyle and America loved it. But companies in the oil and auto industry, working hand-in-hand with the government, converted the country away from that system.
America wasn't born with the system we had now, it was only later that Americans decided they were different than the rest of the world and had to drive 50 miles a day. That was not born into our DNA. Our country was originally built like London and most of Europe, and it worked quite well. So the American dream as we know it is somewhat of a myth; we've erased American history, so to speak, prior to 1945. From 1945 forward, we built a different America based on sprawl. But the days of plentiful cheap oil are over, so whether we want to change or not, we will be forced to. And America is going to have a tough time adjusting.
ST: We're not doing a good job of it so far, given our overseas escapades, which are wasting both much-need money and oil.
AK: We're spending a trillion dollars to run a military operation whose mission I think most people would agree was locking down some of the last oil reserves on Earth, to make sure we have a shot at it. It's quite obvious that over half of the U.S. military overseas is guarding oil pipelines, refineries and shipping lanes, all to guarantee a flow of fuel to American SUVs. How much longer can we sustain that?
It's draining our wealth, we're killing people right and left. We've got two contradictory, unsustainable systems: Sprawl and war. So it's not a matter of whether people want to change or not. They're going to change. The only choice is whether they do it voluntarily, or kicking and screaming. We're the biggest consumer of oil on the planet: We consume around a quarter of the world's oil, although we only have around five percent of the world's population. That's already well-known around the world, and a lot of people are pissed off about it.