Gas Is Too Cheap

Gas prices are too low. Far, far too low. Within decades we will regret ever charging as little as four dollars a gallon for gas.

Divide global oil reserves by global oil consumption and we’ve got 33 years left.

Oil is a limited resource, and we’re going to run out of it. That’s not some liberal projection; that’s math. That’s reality. We should be preserving the oil we have for essential things, like farming, and restructuring our communities to reflect the coming post-petroleum era.

At the very least we, as a society, need to stop subsidizing fuel prices before our runaway consumption leads to an inevitable disaster.

The Blame Game

Disagree? You’re not alone. Gas prices being too high is the topic de jour in the media right now in America, and everyone is looking for someone to blame.

Some say the problem is jerks in the Middle East, demanding basic human rights and dignity without stopping to think what impact this might have on gas prices. Others say the problem is entirely based on Wall Street, as speculators drive the price higher and higher just to earn more greedy money.

Others, seemingly out of habit, blame Obama. The President can, after all, magically control gas prices; he is only increasing them now out a deep-seated hatred for America.

Regardless of the reason for the price increase, however, I think it’s a good thing prices are rising. Don’t get me wrong: I do have sympathy for working class families hit hard by increasing prices, and the economic recovery is being hindered by the rise. Still, these problems are superficial compared to the ones we’ll face if we let gas prices stay this low for much longer.

Until what we pay for gas accurately reflects the long-term consequences of using gas, we’ve got problems on our hands.

Not What You Think

Before you start ranting in the comments, denying climate change is an issue and stating the wars in Iraq and Libya have nothing to do with oil, know one thing: my argument requires neither that you believe climate science is valid nor that our foreign policy has consequences. It is, and it does, but realizing gas it too cheap requires accepting neither premise.

No, realizing gas is too cheap requires only some basic math.

Don’t believe me? Follow along. I’ve made a few calculations using WolframAlpha, an online tool that can calculate just about anything. Feel free to check the links below to check my work.

Simple Calculations

America consumes 18.6 million barrels of oil a day. That means that, on average, an American consumes 0.06 barrels of oil a day. It takes 16.66 days, or just over half a month, for the average American to use up a barrel of oil.

No problem, right? After all, a 2002 estimate claims world oil reserves total around 1.326 trillion barrels, so there’s a lot of oil to go around yet. Divide world oil reserves by US oil consumption and you’ll find that we’ve got 145 years and 9 months left before we run out of oil.

There’s one obvious problem with that calculation, of course: more countries than America use oil. China consumes 8.2 million barrels of oil a day, for example, and Europe uses 15.39 million barrels a day.

(That’s right: America uses more oil than all of Europe combined, despite Europe containing 286.5 million additional people. USA! USA! USA!)

Anyway: if you add up the oil consumption in China, Europe and America you get 42.28 million barrels of oil a day. How long can the world’s oil reserves hold out against that combined consumption? 64 years and 5 months.

That’s just America, Europe and China combined. Never mind India (2.98 million barrels a day), Latin America (8.089 million barrels a day) or the rest of the world. Take every country out of the picture besides America, Europe and China and we don’t even have 65 years left.

I can reasonably expect to live that long.

Divide global oil reserves by global oil consumption and we’ve got 33 years left.

Most people on earth can expect to live that long.

But wait: there’s more.

All of these figures assume that current oil consumption will remain static in the coming decades. It won’t.

In most countries on Earth oil consumption has been trending upwards for years, even accounting for the decline caused by the recent depression. China and India will see particularly big rises as their economy awakens.

It’s also worth noting that much of the global oil reserves will never actually be extracted for a variety of reasons. Some would take more energy to extract than they would provide, and some are too environmentally risky.

No Easy Answer

So what solution do I offer? I mostly just want people to realize that our current era, of cheap energy, could well be an unusual bubble in global history.

We should probably stop subsidizing sprawl, shifting infrastructure funding away from expressways and toward sidewalks and bike trails. We should certainly re-think any subsidies of the vehicle industries.

More importantly, though, we need to take the need for alternative energy a lot more seriously, because non-renewable energy sources run out by definition. Increasing the tax on gas to help research these alternative could be a step in the right direction, but that might not be politically possible. Our society it built on the assumption of cheap gas, and people won’t give that assumption up until it’s too late.

Why should they? Gas it too cheap for anyone to take the idea of oil running out seriously.

Few things happen without some sort of economic motivation, and at four dollars a gallon people are just barely starting to change their lifestyles. Be it purchasing efficient cars or driving less, or even using a bike instead of driving, change is happening. Any action government takes to reverse this would be a mistake.

“The Party” exposes China’s mysterious leadership

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Americans love conspiracy theories. Even if you know man stepped on the moon and Bush didn’t cause 9/11, there’s something sickly fascinating about speculating that government has something to hide. At the very least, it makes for great fiction.

Conspiracy theories, so far as I know, aren’t popular in China. That’s a shame, because the people of China are living in the midst of a pretty spectacular conspiracy; one that’s anything but theoretical.

That’s certainly the impression I got after reading Richard McGregor’s “The Party,” a fascinating look at the inner circles of China’s elite. It depicts The Communist Party as bureaucratic, hierarchical and largely effective – though frequently hampered by its obsession with staying in power.

If you struggle to understand just what Beijing is thinking sometimes, this is the book you need to read. The motivations of the Chinese regime is laid out clearly, as are Western misconceptions about it.

Western scholars have long speculated about what lessons are to be learned from the fall of the Soviet empire; in China, the question is anything but academic. Such a fate must be avoided at all costs, and the Party staying in power can ensure this.

This lesson, along with the experience of the 1989 Tienanmen protests, define China’s government to this day. Capitalism, of a certain kind, was found to help the party stay in power by growing the economy and preventing collapse. It’s also made China the world’s second-biggest economy.

The Party isn’t the sort of conspiracy you find in the American imagination; it’s too imperfect for that. There is a surprising number of things over which The Party has no power. Regional politicians routinely ignore dictates from Beijing, for example. Taiwan remains very much independent.

Still, there’s not much about modern life in China not supervised by the Communist Party. The Internet is famously monitored, many families are permitted no more than one child, only approved religions can meet publicly, and corporate leaders can be fired by The Party at will.

Despite all this, however, an overwhelming majority of people feel the country is headed in the right direction, something that can scarcely be said about America. Whatever you think about The Party, you have to admire it at a certain level.

McGregor’s book doesn’t focus on this sort of admiration, however, focusing instead on the consequences of single party rule. A particularly morbid example involved tainted milk being covered up in 2008 to prevent negative press during the Olympics. Children died because of this, so The Party let the company take the fall in early 2009, when the Western media had gone home.

And, of course, speaking against The Party can get you locked up in a hurry. Just ask the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Overall, this book gives me the impression that life is better in declining American than in rising China. It also puts the petty arguments in America, in which Obama/Bush are routinely compared to authoritarians, into context. A highly recommended read.