The provocative title of this seminar, Cities Without Oil, forced us to consider how dependent we are on this fuel and to contemplate what would happen to our cities if, as some predict, we will be running out of oil sooner rather than later. One panellist, George Smith, went as far as to suggest that there would be no cities without oil. If we think in terms of our current cities and the far-flung agricultural hinterland and transport links on which they depend, that is possibly true – but there were cities before ‘The Age of Oil’ and there will be undoubtedly some form of cities once the oil supply dries up. We posed the question of what form these post-oil cities might take and what sort of time scale we are talking about?
Demand curves up, supply curves down
David Kilsby rephrased the predicament – it is not that we will be without oil altogether, but that the demand curve is starting to take off at a time when the supply curve is starting to dive. Long before we ever run out of oil we will be experiencing serious difficulties, and almost inevitable price rises making today’s prices seem cheap. As to the timing, he doubted whether anyone really can be certain, but we can’t afford to wait around wondering.
While a couple of Dave’s graphs demonstrated a level of consensus about the future supply of oil, the nature of exploration and extraction processes makes this intrinsically speculative and open to varying interpretation, depending on whether you are a pessimist or an optimist. There is, on the other hand, far more certainty about the growth in demand as both developing and developed countries move to a more energy-profligate lifestyle.
Dave also showed that closer examination of the figures in the Federal Government’s Energy White Paper revealed that rather than having a healthy local supply source, we are currently highly dependent on overseas oil, and that situation is likely to get worse. Indeed the graphs he showed indicated that the world is going to be increasingly dependent on oil from OPEC sources. Hardly a comfortable geopolitical position to be in, and hardly welcome for our balance-of-payments!
He concluded by putting the ‘Age of Oil’ into historical perspective and pointing out that although that era may not be over yet, we are rapidly reaching the close of the ‘Age of Cheap Oil’ and urgently need to consider what happens next. That challenge was taken up by Professor Peter Newman with some familiar well-researched material on automobile dependence and the structure of cities, including the measures one would have to take to overcome that dependence. While the themes might have been familiar to anyone who has read any of Peter’s many books or papers or previously heard him speak, the message seemed to have an added measure of urgency in the context of the looming predicament outlined earlier.
Given the oil situation, such strategies must be in place and acted on within a twenty year timeframe or else, he warned, cities will begin a rapid decline in all economic, social and environmental areas.