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Peak Convenience

Robert Rapier's picture
Proteum Energy

Robert Rapier is a chemical engineer who works in the energy industry. Robert has over 20 years of international engineering experience in the chemicals, oil and gas, and renewable energy...

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  • Jul 13, 2008

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In the U.S. (and most of the developed world), people are accustomed to great convenience. We live in climate-controlled homes, wake up each morning, take a hot shower, and then eat a breakfast consisting of foods from halfway around the world. We hop into our cars, adjust the temperature, and head off to work. We fly across the country for a few hundred dollars. We send letters from coast to coast for $0.42. For us, ‘inconvenience’ occurs when a store is closed on Sunday.

‘Those people’ living in far away places who have to put up with intermittent power, no heating or cooling, and who have to walk everywhere they go (or ride packed buses/trains) are only images on television. Yet compared to the U.S., much of the rest of the world deals with inconvenience on a daily basis.

But as oil prices have climbed – and have taken almost everything up with them – people are starting to change their behaviors. According to the American Public Transportation Association, 2007 saw usage of public transportation at a 50-year high. 2008 has seen additional increases in mass transit usage. People are starting to give up the convenience of personal transportation. (For some like me that hate to drive, mass transit isn’t such an inconvenience. If it takes me longer to get to work, I can work on the bus, and I get to let someone else do the driving.)

Some are losing the convenience of air travel:

And you think you’re trying to save gas …

[Dan] Garton [American Airline’s executive vice president of marketing] admits that some current flyers simply will not be able to fly.

“It’s an unfortunate part of this because our country has gotten accustomed to being able to fly somewhere for the weekend,” he said. “Everybody can go see Aunt Millie for her birthday, and some of that may change for some of our customers. Seventy-eight percent of our customers fly once a year. And so some of those people may not be able to fly anymore, because we will raise our prices by hook or by crook.”

Yes, airlines are going to have to raise prices to survive. And the high cost of oil not only takes a bigger cut out of personal transportation budgets, but it drives up the cost of producing food, and the cost of getting the food to the store. For some, growing a garden to help stretch the food budget isn’t necessarily a burden (unless you are 12-years old and would rather play Rock Band on your Xbox than pull weeds in the garden). But it certainly is less convenient than dropping by your local grocery store and finding that your favorite foods are never out of season.

The thought struck me as I got ready for work a couple of days ago that we may have reached ‘peak convenience’ as a result of high oil prices, which I believe are here to stay. Most people are going to find that certain conveniences that we have taken for granted during the age of cheap oil are less attainable (i.e., more expensive) than they once were. I can see a future in which something like the morning shower shifts to later in the day, after the solar water heater has had time to heat up the water. Or we have to drop our electrical usage way down at night because our solar output has dropped off. People are definitely going to have to become accustomed to tracking their electricity usage, to avoid a very big surprise at the end of the month. (On the flip side, I think we will continue to make medical and technological advances, so it isn’t as if I think we are headed back to the Stone Age).

Having grown up without great convenience (by Western standards), I don’t think I will have a difficult time adjusting. However, many I know would never consider public transport. I know people who would circle the Walmart parking lot 10 times before they would walk from a parking spot that isn’t within 50 feet of the front door. The only food they have ever known comes from the supermarket. These people scream the loudest for the government to do something about gas prices. These are also the people who I think will have the most difficult time adjusting to the new reality imposed by high oil prices. Some will sink ever further into debt as they wait in vain for the government to fix the problem.

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Mark Lazen's picture
Mark Lazen on Jul 14, 2008

A lot to chew on in this post, Robert. For instance, I think that our sense of convenience has to seen within the context of expectations. The expectation that I must visit a relative 200 miles away for the weekend would have seemed absurd in 1900, or even 1950. In the present day, we ask what is the most convenient way for me to get there, when in fact it would be far more convenient not to go at all.

I’m also intrigued by the question of whether our technological prowess in medecine and information technology could not have evolved outside of are consumerist, high-growth culture. Would we not have magnetic resonance imaging if we didn’t also have strip mall and McMansions?

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