People and Oil

The high price of oil makes one thing clear: in the future, it will not only be about developing alternative energy sources and new fuels for motor vehicles and aircraft. We must also address the bigger picture of understanding mobility in different terms. A commentary by Alexandra Borchardt

The truth up front: The high price of oil might be a blessing. No, not for those who today stand at the gas pump and calculate what will be left over to live on after they fill up and heat their homes. Also not for those entrepreneurs who, based on the high cost of the raw material, calculate how much they can add to customers’ bills before they quit buying. Expensive oil can be a blessing because it forces people to do what they’ve already mastered: innovation.

For more than a century, abundant oil was the driving force behind greatest inventions. The burning of oil made possible industrialization, rapid mobility and the management of large areas of land. Products such as plastic would have been impossible scientists and engineers had not found ways to get the raw material and then process it. But the superabundance of oil made them lazy. They didn’t have to concentrate on developing new energy sources. Like seagulls caught in an oil spill, their feathers fouled by the sticky stuff, they were no longer up to flying high.

Changing directions won’t be easy

Futurists had predicted something different. Into the 1970s, encyclopedias envisioned tomorrow’s mobility with monorails and electronically guided cars; no sign at all of the automobile as we knew it. But just as George Orwell somewhat missed the target with his predictions of a total surveillance society in his novel “1984,” so, too, were those transportation prophets in error. In principle, automobiles and airplanes, vehicles from the previous century, remain with us today.

Up until now, there has been hardly any incentive to rethink. Sure, there was the fear of global warming aggravated by the burning of fossil fuels, but few factors change things as quickly and efficiently as price. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the land of big limousines and road movies. When gas prices began to rise to heights unheard of in the US, car manufacturers still kept producing gas-guzzlers. The newly imported Smart Car, on the other hand, has a waiting list.

Changing directions won’t be easy. Oil originally made individualization possible, one of the basic principles of western society. The automobile offered people more choices of where to live and work than anything before. It determined the development of our cities. But even more, the automobile is a method of self-expression for many. It expresses status, a view of life and the concept of self-determination. In emerging countries, the personal automobile today is the first step on the ascent to the middle class. The airplane, on the other hand, gave wing to globalization. Only with modern air transport was the mass exchange of goods and people made possible, and therewith the rapid dissemination of knowledge and skills became routine.

In the future, therefore, it goes beyond merely finding alternative energy sources and developing new fuels for cars and airplanes. It means gaining a new understanding of mobility and even of individuality. Thanks to modern information and communications technology, the chances for that are better than ever. This applies above all to the world of employment. Employees of many firms in the United States work from their own homes or while riding commuter trains. That eliminates the frustration of traffic jams or time spent at the filling station; the companies need not heat and cool as many offices so there’s a double savings model. Data networks make it possible to eliminate business trips. Instead of trans-oceanic flights there are video conferences and E-mail. These are cheaper and less strenuous.

Companies use these alternatives. Reports from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) show a decline in the number of business class travelers. Many businesses have drastically reduced the number of business trips and don’t plan to return to them in the future because they can do it via new communications technologies. Whether you like it or not, the Internet also offers new varieties of self-fulfillment. Perhaps the ubiquitous chats, the thoughts expressed in electronic diaries and poetry albums such as at MySpace, will become what used to be the exploratory trips with one’s first motorbike or car.

Above all, politics must guarantee intelligent urban development. If people are supposed to drive less, they need a living environment in which they are well looked after and which they feel no need to abandon. What’s imperative: peripheral centers have to be strengthened with stores, schools, parks, public transportation networks, cultural and sport facilities. Nothing requiring a car for access should be encouraged.

Rising fuel costs have perhaps come just in time. Innovations are needed before millions of people in emerging countries climb into their own cars. Oil has turned people into what they are today. It’s time for alternatives.

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