Tuesday, June 23, 2009

30 years ago today

The US witnessed its first gasoline riot (h/t Leanan of The Oil Drum) in Levittown. Was that event a harbinger? Reading through the comments of that first article, I get the distinct impression that a fair number of folks live in denial. Last summer was awful as far as prices went, but supplies were, for the most part, readily available. There was no rationing, no long lines, nothing to set off some increasingly short tempers. If the peak oil folks are correct in their assessments, it's only a matter of time before shortages and rationing become more the norm in the US rather than the exception.

Frustration (that is, prevention of someone reaching a goal) can lead to some antisocial behaviors, including aggression and violence. The riot that occurred at the intersection called Five Points was but one possible consequence. Many of us counted our blessings that the rioting there did not spread. The waiting in long lines was a tedious enough experience, as it was, on a good day. Of course, there are other potential behaviors, including drive-offs (i.e., filling up and splitting without paying), hording, and siphoning. We may not have seen riots last year, but we can probably count the examples of some of the other behaviors. Gas stations have largely prevented the drive-offs by going to a prepay system (even in the nearby towns in my vicinity, which are so small that practically everyone knows everyone else, prepay has become the rule rather than the exception in the last couple years). Siphoning might be made at least a bit less convenient by using locking gas caps (which I suspect became popular last year, and will be increasingly popular again in years to come). Hording? Good luck. Heck, I was hording some fuel any time there was a threat of a hurricane taking Gulf Coast refineries out of commission.

Of course it's not just the gasoline and diesel that are a problem when their prices spike, like last summer. We got a taste of what happens when a delivery system premised on cheap fuel supplies begins to break down. Independent truckers got priced out of business, and the larger enterprises couldn't pick up the slack - meaning shortages of other supplies, as well as increases in prices. Staples such as milk were pricing at around $4.50 a gallon at grocery stores last summer in my area (about the price convenience stores charged only a year before). My wife will recall my phoning her on numerous occasions to inquire about alternatives to one product or another that was out of stock. We got used to me coming home partially empty-handed from such shopping adventures, and simply doing without of whatever was out of stock for the remainder of the week until I could afford to drive back into town. At the time I was commenting that it could have been (and could get) considerably worse - had oil prices risen to $200-$250 per barrel as some were predicting at the time, the whole system whereby goods are delivered would have been stopped entirely. The relatively minor inconveniences would have been - and I understate things admittedly - major shortages. Under those conditions, we would be looking at potential rioting that would have made the relatively isolated events in Levittown appear tame in comparison.

Unfortunately, although alternative energy research has continued during the intervening decades, the momentum to fund and promote such research was largely broken during the Reagan era, and a serious push to find viable alternatives to fossil fuels has only recently been revived. Same goes for conservation (at this point, we're looking at some major and long-overdue lifestyle adjustments very soon). We basically lost close to three decades. That's a lot of lost time to make up.

Sidebar: check out Green shoots: An alternative view

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