peak-oil


After months of wondering why Americans are always complaining about petrol prices, I finally figured out why.

This might seem obvious to some, but the solution everyone seems to come up with seems pretty stupid to me. To start with, let’s compare fuel prices in a few countries (unleaded fuel, at the bowser):

  • US fuel price: around $4/gallon (1)
  • Australia: about $1.65/L
  • UK: about £1.18/L (2)
  • France: about €1.40/L (3)

Just to compare, let’s change that to US$/Litre (1 US gallon  = 3.7 litres, Exchange rates from http://www.xe.com/ucc/):

  • US: $1.08/L
  • Aus: $1.57/L
  • UK: $2.32/L
  • Fr: $2.19/L

Of course, these calculations could be off a fair bit, but with a difference like that, the error couldn’t be very sginificant.

From that, you can see why I was confused: Americans have some of the cheapest fuel in the industrialised world. It certainly isn’t anything to scream about. In fact, with peak oil almost certainly hitting around now (The actual centre of the peak being somewhere between a couple of years ago, to perhaps a few years ahead), it more like something to just get used to. It certainly isn’t going to get cheaper for any significant period of time.

But then I realised that there was another factor: Wages. If americans are earning less than us here in Aus, then the fuel is obviously costing them relatively more. So let’s see average weekly wages for the four countries:

  • US: $600.80 (4)
  • Aus: $1008.10 (5)
  • UK: About £460 (from average yearly estimate wage of $24000)
  • Fr: ???

And compared to fuel costs:

country fuel cost
(100L)
weekly wage 100L as % of
weekly wage
USA $108 $600.80 18%
Australia $165 $1008.10 16%
United Kingdom £118 £460 25%

Which is obviously the reason why americans currently care more about fuel than australians. This is obviously going to be compounded by wage inequality – the average wage is a pretty stupid measure of income, because the richest few people make the average wage higher than the vast majority will ever earn. Looking at a median wage is a far better way to do it, and if that was done, and considering that america seems to have worst income inequality than most industrialised nations, that percentage, compared to australia would be much higher than it is above, both absolutely, and relative to the other countries.

But what about the UK? Why aren’t they going nuts about fuel prices? Even if their income inequality is far less that the US, they probably still have a higher fuel price compared to wages. The answer is obvious: they spend less money on fuel because they buy less fuel. There are two reasons for this: the UK is a more compact country than the US – people don’t need to drive as far when they do drive. But more importantly, both for its impact, and for its potential for change, is public transport. Most of the US, by all accounts, has a terrible, or even non-existant public transport service. New York has the metro, and San Francisco has it’s trams, but most other cities are designed almost exclusively for cars – in some it’s hard to even walk any where. When you’re forced to drive a car to get to work, school, or anywhere else, you’re going to feel the fuel crunch pretty hard.

Americans do have a fuel problem, but calling for lower prices isn’t going to help in the long run. Peak oil means that fuel prices are on a roughly exponentially increasing path – even if we knock 20 cents off now, it’ll only be a matter of months, a couple of years at the most, before it’s back where it was again. If you want a solution to fuel prices, then call for a decent minimum wage (the american minimum wage is far less than the australian minimum wage, and was even when the australian dollar was at US$0.55 a few years ago. Now it’s well under half). If you want to do something permanent about making transport cheaper, then call for real public transport systems, especially electricity driven public trasnport, like trains, trams, and street cars. That’s going to be just about your only livable way out of this mess.

Sources:

  1. http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/oog/info/gdu/gasdiesel.asp
  2. http://www.petrolprices.com/
  3. http://www.prix-carburants.gouv.fr
  4. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm
  5. http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2005/08/18/1123958181797.html

I just read “A Short History of Progress”, by Ronald Wright(1). Pretty gloomy, if you need any impetus to become either an activist, or completely depressed, this is it. Wright maps the rise an fall of numerous civilisations, and points out that our current technological and social trajectories are pretty similar really. The only real difference between us and the romans, outside of size of the supporting ecosystem, is that we’ve got evidence of collapse happening before. Well worth reading, especially if you know one of those people who irrationally believe that technology will save us. Now all I need is something to pick me back up.

Where’s Wallace Hartley when you need him? Oh, that reminds me – Chumbawamba have a new album out.

1. Wright, R. (2005). A Short History of Progress (p. 224). Da Capo Press. ISBN: 0786715472

I just finished reading Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael for the second time (I previously downloaded the audio-book, which was amazing, but I think the book is slightly better). If you haven’t read it, read it. I’d say it’d be life-changing for anyone wants to do something about the state of the environment but don’t know where to start. For the ones how have already started, it’s perhaps even more recommended. That said, the rest of this post won’t make sense unless you already have read the book.

Ishmael answers a lot of questions for me – primarily the one that goes “if this isn’t the right way, then what is?”. But of course the answer isn’t final, it isn’t an end point, it’s just an opening. It’s another method of looking at things, and realising how much could change. Which basically means that it brings up more questions than it answers. (more…)

Horse Drawn Electric Hybrid

You heard it here first, folks!

Layperson’s guide to the favoured transport of the future:

  1. Horse. Equus Caballus. This will eventually replace the petroleum internal combustion engine as the power source of a large percentage land based transport. Smaller versions of this vehicle may be powered by pedal, and one or more Homo Sapiens.
  2. Bloke on top. There’s no reason that this couldn’t be a woman.
  3. Big Battery. Made with what ever means are the least polluting and toxic. Hydrogen fuel cell? maybe…
  4. Combined electromagnetic braking device and electric motor. Braking charges battery, saves on wear and tear on manual brakes and horses. Electric motor makes life easier for horses, especially on starting.
  5. Blokes on back. Could be replaced with food, or other goods. Or a solar panel, to take even more work off the horse(s)

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