Will We All Walk to Wal-mart When Gas is Too Expensive?

By Susan Bourland of Fort Worth, Texas. She describes herself as "a Northwesterner in spirit, currently in exile in Texas" and her blog "deals with the cultural and political clues to a better future for the Northwest".

Those of you who know me know I believe that oil is not a limitless resource. I don't think this puts me in a minority. It's the constantly talking about it that makes me the minority freak I am. One of today's most provocative oil-scarcity prognosticators and teachers in this futuristic way of thinking is the author and activist James Howard Kunstler, who recently gave a speech which pretty much says it all. Herein is a short history of the American way of life -- basically a sprawlburbia currently being sold to you by Republicans as "freedom" and the "way we do things here in America."

But, as Kunstler makes clear, using the central fact of peak oil production, the typical driving suburbanite's life will change a lot in the next 20 years or so. What is most interesting about this speech, however, is its underlying testament to the viability of smaller nations (perhaps de facto new nations carved from our existing nation) in our future. Whereas today the Pacific Northwest and California are giving Washington D.C. legislative raspberries by means of new, stringent environmental ideology (growth management and emmissions laws), the post-peak-oil production world of tomorrow will see all regions of the U.S. concerned with local government and production. Why? Sprawlburbia is totally dependent on cheap oil.

Kunstler makes a case for this futurescape's resemblance to a 19th century American town, with local food grown in outlying areas and backyards, and the general collapse of the Walmart/big box/suburban economy.

Is there the slightest hint of optimism and wishful thinking to Kunstler's oft-repeated post-sprawl future? I don't see big boxes dying with the end of cheap oil. I see the government ensuring the continuance of the big box economy with transportation subsidies, much as the Feds today prop up and bail out the giant, unsuccessful airline industry. Whereas the Walmart economy currently threatens mom n' pop capitalism, the end of cheap oil and the merging of mega-corporate big boxes could drive the last nail into small capitalism's coffin. After all, many, many people live within hiking (by 19th century standards) distance to a Walmart today. I live a half mile from a Walmart SuperCenter site (the neighborhood fights it now, but we're gonna lose); my momma lives 5 miles from a SuperCenter being built right now in New Orleans; my sister lives 3 miles from a Super Target.

Small, rural towns in the Midwest (the classic ravaged Main Streets WalMart leaves in its wake) are even riper for the big-box monopoly future. They, after all, will have been shopping for most of their things at Walmarts for the past generation, while their 19th century main street infrastructures were left to nesting pigeons and their guano, a local florist, antique shops, the dance studio (ie daycare for after school), the historical society, and a stripped down bar, each things Walmart hadn't figured out a way of selling yet.

Who can honestly not imagine a WalMart SuperCenter within 3 miles of 90% of the population containing (in place of its tire and automotive area), a Starbucks inside the McDonalds, a Curves fitness center, a "care on demand" emergency health clinic, an E-Bayer station, a state-sponsored bank, a Bennigan's (or Flingers or Tchotchky's)and a building supply area? The garden and landscaping areas of the ancient 21st century Walmarts will have long since been replaced by in-house Walmart bookstores featuring only titles the folks in Bentonville, Arkansas deem readable. Reading will experience a resurgence because so many people will endure 2-hour commutes on company-built commuter trains. Borders Books, long since driven out of the big-box economy because of its insistence on carrying liberal and progressive titles, will have been reduced to its original store in Ann Arbor, which will remain one of the few old style college towns in the country.

I also foresee the future Walmart monopoly being dry. Liquor stores will be rare and very expensive. Plenty of folks will desire to go back to the good old days of residential taverns, but their hands will be tied by ever-more homogenizing zoning restrictions in the suburbs. Rather than encouraging small-scale entrepreneurialism after the collapse of suburbia, national and local government will simply work toward making sure all needs are included under Walmart's roof. This consolidation of retail/entertainment/culture trade will just make the whole deal easier to regulate and tax.

Someday a gallon of gas will cost a hundred dollars. Who among us cannot imagine darkened retail corridors, abandoned strip malls, defunct gas stations, looted E-Z marts, shot out CVS', weedy Pier 1 parking lots, burned down business hotels -- all the while watching bigger and bigger Walmart SuperCenters pop up, with bigger and bigger yellow smiley faces on billboards newly erected on suburban streets?

What is your neighborhood, town, city, state and nation doing to help prepare for the coming collapse of the car culture?

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Folks with cable TV in the metro area can tune in to TVset this evening at 8 PM on channel 11. In the second segment [8:30-9] I will talk with Charlie Stephens about peal oil, the ultimate collapse of the global economy, and the advantages of building an energy efficient local economy before we turn into a bunch of Road Warriors.

    The first segment should be interesting as well, a discussion with Tom Atlee of the Co-Intelligence Institute on his book "The Tao of Democracy."

  • jim karlock (unverified)

    Susan Bourland: But, as Kunstler makes clear, using the central fact of peak oil production, the typical driving suburbanite's life will change a lot in the next 20 years or so.

    Comment: The concern about running out of oil is so serious that the U.S government created an agency, the USGS, to deal with the coming problem. Over 100 years ago. This chicken little garbage has been going on, in one form or another, since oil became important. Other “sky is falling fallacies” include: “The population bomb” (world population is out of control. The fact is that every new UN estimate of peak population gets smaller as birth rates drop around the world). “Limits to Growth” which predicted that we will run out of basic commodities by 1980 (or so). Most are now cheaper and more plentiful. Then there is the “coming Ice Age” scare of the 60s or 70s which morphed into global warming then into climate change and politicians making political points out of weather’s natural variability.

    The reality is that if oil gets more expensive, it will be replaced by other, cheaper things. We only use oil because it is the best cost/benefit compromise for many uses. Options include electric cars, hybrid cars, smaller cars, oil from coal, oil from shale and a whole world of options yet to be discovered. Unless meddlers get in the way with bad, politically motivated solutions, people will choose the cheapest and best option.

    We already are in position to quickly cut our gasolene use in half by just switching to smaller cars like they do in Europe. Of course that will get more people killed in accidents so most will wait, and only do it if gasolene gets too expensive. Today gasolene is as cheap as water (check the cost of that bottle of water you carry around)

    Susan Bourland: Kunstler makes a case for this futurescape's resemblance to a 19th century American town

    Comment: There seems to be a lot of people scared of modern times and wishing to bring back the past. People choose to live in the burbs because they are cheaper/better or otherwise attractive to those people. People have been leaving the crowded, polluted crime ridden cities and their bad schools for decades.

    Do you also wish to turn back modern technology? Maybe you should swear off computers and medications.

    Susan Bourland: , with local food grown in outlying areas and backyards, and the general collapse of the Walmart/big box/suburban economy.

    Comment: The only way to grow food in your back yard is if you have a back yard and that is called sprawl, Which is it? Do you want each person to have enough land to grow food or no sprawl. (You only get to choose one.)

    Susan Bourland: I see the government ensuring the continuance of the big box economy with transportation subsidies, much as the Feds today prop up and bail out the giant, unsuccessful airline industry.

    Comment: You forgot to mention the massive subsidies to mass transit. TriMet gets under 20% of its money from users. The rest is public subsidy ie: welfare.

    Susan Bourland: Someday a gallon of gas will cost a hundred dollars.

    Comment: Probably after the Feds further screw up the value of the dollar, like that great progressive Johnson did to pay for his dirty little war.

    Susan Bourland: What is your neighborhood, town, city, state and nation doing to help prepare for the coming collapse of the car culture?

    Comment: We don’t waste our time with such drivel.


  • Mitchell Santine Gould (unverified)

    I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one reading Kunstler's rudely-entitled blog with a sense of horrified fascination... or fascinated horror.

    I think this essay is thoughtful and generally well-written, but next time, Susan Bourland will have to choose between sarcasm and prophecy. Kunstler can walk that fine line and get away with it just fine, but few of us have his sophistication, or his insight.

    Kunstler's warnings are dark; darker even than they were portrayed here. But what is worse: they are damnably plausible.

  • steve schopp (unverified)

    Kyoto better ban wind

    http://www.oregonlive.com/science/oregonian/index.ssf?/base/news/1107262609231671.xml Winds of arctic oscillation blamed for melting sea ice Extreme changes in the arctic oscillation in the early 1990s -- not warmer temperatures -- are largely responsible for the decline of Arctic Ocean sea ice, say researchers at the University of Washington.

    The oscillation is a seesaw pattern in which atmospheric pressure fluctuates at the polar and middle latitudes. The patterns affect surface winds and temperatures.

    Ignatius Rigor, a mathematician at UW's Applied Physics Laboratory, and John M. Wallace, a professor of atmospheric sciences, said the oscillation was in an extreme high phase in the early 1990s and is now in a moderate phase.

    They said the extreme high caused surface winds to circulate in ways that blew most of the thicker, older ice from the Arctic Ocean into the Atlantic. The already thin ice circulated back to the Alaska coast more quickly, decreasing the time it had to thicken before another melt season started. Rigor said the ice remains too thin in places to last through the summer.

    They reported the findings last month at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

  • Michael (unverified)

    Some years ago while I was living elsewhere there was a news article about the discovery of natural gas in the Gulf of Mexico in what is known as I recall as the Tuscaloosa Deep. Although it was deeper than we could drill at that time it was estimated to have about 1000 years worth of gas stored below. In Alberta, Canada in what is known as the Athabasca Tar Sands there is estimated to be a 200 billion barrels of oil and there is the recent announcement of the reserves off of Soa Toma (sp) near the African coast that are of major size. While I think that major changes are coming and they may not all be bad, some will and some won't, this doomsday mentality is just scaring people.
    I have no problem with producing our food closer to home and I like the idea of the smaller closer knit community, but not everyone does, nor does it necessarily mean better values, quality, or a better life either in the past,or in the future. There are just too many factors at work in the economy to make such pronouncements. I have hope in the human race to make it if we can just keep the megalomaniacal politicians, of all stripes in check. M.H.

  • Brandon Rhodes (unverified)

    Wal-Mart in a post-peak world? Doubtful. WM sells cheap plastic crap (plastic being a petro-product) that was shipped thousands of miles to their consumers. Oil used to produce the goods, package them, sell them, for consumers to get to the WM's.

    If oil gets to over $100 within five years, as many reputable folks seem to believe, what happens to this oil-based system? What happens when the convenience of WMs is negated by expensive energy? Answer, they crumble! Local goods will finally win out against big-boxes. The market advantages that the debt-based big-box capitalists have over "small capitalism" folk will be leveled, if not entirely destroyed, by peak oil. Power will be restord to local merchants. Mom-n-Pop can expect a serious influx of business in the coming years.

    In regard to those who are insistent that technology will save us, please don't be so eager to put all your eggs in one basket. Living life-as-usual as this tsunami comes at us, all the while thinking our leaders will figure something out, is to deny history. Consider that resource depletion is what brings down empires and civlizations: check out Jared Diamond's book "Collapse" for well-researched studies that prove this.

    To succinctly respond to alternatives: there is NOTHING that can replace the stability, availibility, infrastructure, and cheapness that oil enjoys.

    Hydrogen economy? Hydrogen is a medium for energy, not an energy source; we'll need energy for it, but where?

    Electric cars - where will we get the electricity? Energy execs are telling us that new energy infrastructure is not being built because it's cost-prohibitive.

    And coal?? What a great way to clean up the air and curb global warming that you've come up with.

    As for myself, the changes in lifestyle that we'll need to make for a post-peak society sound pretty good to me: biking more, consuming less, growing our own food, supporting local economies. Peak oil may be just the enema this country needs.

    For more info, check out: www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net www.peakoil.com www.energybulletin.net

  • Red (unverified)

    Sorry if this is a downer for anybody, but peak oil will happen. The question is when? The very respected US Geological Survey estimates the year 2037.

    I still hope to be alive in 2037 so I hope alternatives to oil are found. I have 2 degrees in geology. I am a Republican and I don't believe in global warming, but take it from a conservative-peak oil is real.

  • Tenskwatawa (unverified)

    I have further comments after I edit them, but for now a quiz of questions in which each of us can check the grasp of facts used to test 'believability' in other circulating information.

    1 - How much oil is left, in the oil industry's general consensus? 2 - How fast are we using it; a.) globally?, and b.) in U.S.?

    3 - When the answers to 1 and 2 are so plainly important, why are they not widely taught in schools and mass media?

    [Prevailing consensus is one trillion barrels left, being used at one hundred million barrels per day. (Which is a billion barrels in ten days, times a thousand means the trillion barrels get used in ten thousand days -- about thirty years. U.S. consumption is roughly twenty-five million barrels a day, or a quarter of the total global amount.) Oh, give all these numbers plus or minus ten percent for wiggle-room of human error or uncertainty of the model used, which covers the variety of answers there are floating around but the only explanation for the difficulty of finding any answers is deliberate secrecy.}

    A good supply of information on the oil subject, especially the peak oil framing, is at FromTheWilderness.com

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    Way to drive that Hummer right off the cliff!

    Check out the graph of petroleum production here:


    The implications are apparent. As demand continues to increase [driven mostly by India and China] and production peaks in 2008 [some forecasters suggest 2005 is closer to peak], oil and gas prices will skyrocket [inelastic supply]. If you think we will have a replacement online by then, well, just close your eyes and keep driving.

    Damn, if only Carter had beat Reagan and kept those solar collectors on the White House. Maybe our energy policy would not have returned to the Dark Ages and we would not be totally screwed today. Oh well, live and learn, if you're lucky.

    It's really not as matter of what Susan or anyone else prefers, it is a matter of what will be possible in the era of expensive petroleum. When your ride is rusting wherever it runs dry, you will be thankful for public transportation.

  • jim karlock (unverified)

    TOM: As demand continues to increase [driven mostly by India and China] and production peaks in 2008 [some forecasters suggest 2005 is closer to peak], oil and gas prices will skyrocket [inelastic supply]. If you think we will have a replacement online by then, well, just close your eyes and keep driving.

    COMMENT: 1. Of course various people have been predicting that oil will run out in 10-20 years for over 100 years.

    1. I don’t think India & China will be bidding the price to skyrocket levels because they can’t afford it - we can. (Never get into a bidding war with some one who has more money than you.)

    2. You hypothesize an inelastic supply, but what about demand? If price goes up, people will place more weight on fuel economy when they get their next SUV or car. In just a few years, our fuel economy will dramatically increase, but it won’t happen as long as gas is as cheap as water (bottled, high class), like it is now. If there is a sudden, big, price increase, then there will be a rush on small cars. Some may switch to mass transit, but that will be a further drain on our economy due to transit’s high real cost and poor fuel economy, both hidden from the user by massive taxpayer subsidies (ie:welfare).

    TOM: When your ride is rusting wherever it runs dry, you will be thankful for public transportation.

    COMMENT: Public transport will NOT be any help. It already is less energy efficient than an ordinary car (not SUV or Hummer). Transit in Portland is already ungodly expensive (take bus fare and multiply by five or six to get the actual cost). MAX costs about the same as taxi fare. TriMet users see low prices because of public welfare paid by taxes on employers and gas tax money from gasolene tax. The best thing will be to switch to smaller cars like the Europeans use now - they are far more energy efficient than publically subsidized (welfare) transit like TriMet. They also take you door to door in about 1/2 the time of TriMet. And they don’t belch black smoke like busses, or put mercury, uranium, plutonium etc into the air like the coal fired power plants that run MAX do. (Yeah TriMet claims to use green power, but it comes in on the same transmission lines as black (non-green) power and electrons cannot tell the difference - they are using electrons from coal plants mixed with the green electrons they claim to be using.)

    It would save both energy and money to just shut down TriMet and buy a new car for every transit dependent person (cheap Korean car, every five years) and provide taxi fare for those who are unable to drive and unable to pay. (Before you scream at me, check the actual costs, fuel usage and passenger miles delivered by bus and MAX like I did). Might even reduce congestion on city streets due to the absence of busses mucking up traffic flow, especially since they are now placing bus stops such that busses cannot pull out of traffic when they stop.

    Thanks, JK

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    1 - People have known that oil supply is not unlimited for a long time. Does that make it untrue? Even if there are some large unknown reserves somewhere [petroleum geologists are doubtful about this], they could not be developed in time to avert the peal oil crises that is only a few years away. The invasion of Iraq was, to a great extent, an attempt to seize the only underproducing reserves left. The strategy has seemed to backfire.

    2 - Who will get the oil will be who can use it profitably. The low cost of manufacturing in the developing world will make them more able to absorb the price increase. Having more wealth does not make us more able to use expensive energy effectively. Once our economy is hobbled, our wealth will not last long.

    3 - There is insufficient time to become energy efficient enough to avert disaster, at least in the national and global economy as it is. Jimmy Carter realized when action needed to be taken. Ronald Reagan didn't care.

    The inefficiencies of public transit are not in energy utilization, at least not according to the analysts I have heard. The more expensive energy becomes, the greater advantage mass transit will have. Eventually, we will not be able to afford even the asphalt [or concrete] roads for cars to travel. Both are highly energy intensive.

    I am not predicting the end of humanity, necessarily, but I am predicting the end of the global economy and the end of the economic path begun with the industrial revolution. Too bad Oregon will likely accelerate the paving over of farmland in the shortrun. We will need all we have locally when Chilean fruit might as well be from Mars.

    Spend some time on the peak oil site. These folks are not kooks.

  • steve schopp (unverified)

    """""""" Too bad Oregon will likely accelerate the paving over of farmland in the shortrun.""""""""

    An Eco-Northwest study showed that over the next fifty years Oregon will convert a paltry 2% of the valley to urban uses if our land use laws retain current pre-M37 form. If we moved well beyond M37 and got rid of all of our land use laws that loss would increase to 3%. Much of the land is NOT farm, forest, or wetland yet is being preserved while our urban areas are being deliberatly overcrowded without regard for the many adverse effects of doing so. We're supposed to somehow appreciate this lowering of our livability because of a feeling that somewhere else useable land is not being used. Now isn't that swell? Worsening matters is the hostile and reckless diverting of basic serices and infrastructure revenue (through Urnban renewal schemes) to devlopments which promote the overcrowding without any regard for what the money would be doing other wise. Developments like the failed Round in Beaverton which began as a warm and fuzzy sounding "Multi-Use Transit Oriented Development". Currently into it's second failure multiple floors of planned condos are being converted to routine office space with a seven story parking garage (will be the tallest building in Beaverton). City planners and Mayor Drake continue to laud the Round as a success.
    Here is a tremendous and costly failure by an irresponsible Mayor and bureaucrats followed by one dishonest CYA , misrepresentation after another with help from the press. Beaverton is the prime example of TriMet, Metro, the City, Oregonian and local papers all misleading the public while covering the damage they do by declaring progress. In Portland the mother of all deceptions is emerging in South Waterfront. Many hundreds of millions of tax dollars are about to be diverted into The Round-like development only much worse. Right now as folks are opposing a change making the 325 ft. buildings wider and closer together, the entire area is already zoned for unlimited building widths, spacing and crowding for heights up to 250 feet. Imagine a three block thick wall of 250 feet tall (with 325 ft. towers) buildings running along the river from Riverplace to the Spaghetti House. Riverplace where a 150ft. cap is being maintained to preserve current high rise views should and could be the model for South Waterfront is folks would demand that cap. The enormous tax subsidies with diverting basic services revenue, sliver of river greenway and no planning for the many adverse effects such as traffic South Waterfront has all the ingredients to duplicate The Round failure a hundred times over. In this case the site is prime river front city center property with owners who previously spent considerable sums on plans to develop the area with compatible scale and without public funding. The City of Portland killed those plans and have now turned the development into the worse possible scenario. High public cost, worst possible effect on the city and highest benefit for the developers. All delivered with the same deception used at the Round.
    "The property will never be developed without this plan" Wrong and outright lie. "This level of density benefits the city." Wrong and outright delusional. "6000 Biotech jobs and $1 billion in biotech research will come" Wrong and completely fabricated. "This development will promote transit use and car-less lifestyles" Wrong and pure fantasy. Any created transit use has down sides and costs far beyond touted gains. South Waterfront is a recipe for a costly, dysfunctional and congested rat race with monolith monstrosities blocking views, the river, and Ross Island while delivering long term debt, irreversible tax subsidy dependency and a plan-less boondoggle advanced along a path riddled with red flags and fatal flaws.
    And I haven't even mentioned the Tram to nowhere.

  • Chloe (unverified)

    Jim Karlock: "We already are in position to quickly cut our gasolene use in half by just switching to smaller cars like they do in Europe. Of course that will get more people killed in accidents so most will wait, and only do it if gasolene gets too expensive."

    Is the car accident death rate really higher in Europe? I thought their death rate from car accidents was actually lower than in the U.S. And aside from that, is there scientific evidence to suggest that more people die in the more fuel efficient vehicles?

  • (Show?)

    As is the case with speed, it's not the weight that kills, its the difference in weights.

    If two vehicles collide, one weighing 6000 lbs and one weighing 3000 lbs, the driver of the latter is more likely to sustain injuries. It's basic physics.

    Regarding traffic speeds, accidents are most likely to occur between vehicles that are travelling at the most divergent speeds (in the same direction). Two vehicles travelling 80 mph are less likely to collide than one vehicle going 40 mph and one travelling 60 mph.


    Recent pilot projects in Denmark have shown that at speeds under 30 kph (18 mph) motor vehicle, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic can interact without curbs or traffic signals. That is the top speed at which automobile drivers actually see and react approriately to other traffic.

  • (Show?)

    While your physics argument about the difference in weights is correct, Pat, there is ample evidence that big cars are actually less safe than small cars because of their lack of maneuverability. See Malcolm Gladwell's piece on this subject, originally published in the New Yorker, here.

  • (Show?)

    A couple of thoughts on the Gladwell piece.

    Vehicles with a higher center of gravity tend to roll over more easily. Heavier vehicles take longer to stop. Both of these truisms again relate to physics.

    I suspect that more people with slower reaction times (i.e. old people) drive large low cars like the Mercury Marquis and the Lincoln Continental, but I haven't done that research.

    Me? I drive a midsized Dodge Dakota with a four cylinder engine and my wife drives a hybrid Civic. The truck is definitely a pig on the road and especially on ice. That's the nature of pickups. The Honda is solid in any weather, and that's the nature of front wheel drive compacts. In head on collisions, both vehicles would be more likely to kill us if we were hit by an SUV of any size.

    I also ride a motorcycle and there is good research out there that SUVs kill more bikers than cars with lower bumpers, grills, and hoods. If I get hit by a compact or a large sedan in a cross traffic situation, the first injury will occur below the waist. If I get hit by an Excursion, the first injury will occur in my central to upper torso.

  • Steve Kepple (unverified)

    Most of the things sold in Wal-Mart are MADE of cheap oil, as is much of the Wal-Mart itself. Also, the whole scale and layout of a Wal-Mart will no longer make sense. After Peak Oil, the raison d'etre of Wal-Mart and its monstrous cousins will vanish.

  • Susan Bourland (unverified)

    Steve, that's a good point, and seems to be a good stopping point for the discussion. But we're all guessers when we talk about a post-cheap oil world and economy. We simply don't know what America will look like after the majority is priced out of gasoline. It could be a shit-storm. Something could save us at the last minute. Walmart may reign supreme until our grandkids die. They could go out of biz in 3 years. I was trying to paint a futurescape for those of us who hate the big-box economy for all the right reasons. I succeeded in bringing out the neo-con loonies in the comments section (mostly).

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    If we wait to see, it will certainly be a shit storm. We need to build local, energy efficient economy now, promoting

    • close in organic farming supplying
    • fresh food through farmers' markets and local retailers.
    • local small-scale manufacturing
    • super high efficiency buildings made of mostly local materials
    • much more

    If we start before petroleum prices triple, we will be winners, both economically, and in quality of life.

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