$20 Per Gallon: All Roads Lead to Main Street

A Gallon of Gas Today: $3. A Gallon of Gas in the Future: $20. Sustainable living centered around Main Street: Priceless.

Christopher Steiner
New York Times best-selling author Christopher Steiner makes a compelling and readable case for betting on Main Street in light of our inevitable oil supply crisis.

As tireless proponents of Main Street – those traditional centers of neighborhood commerce and community—I'm sure all of us feel pretty good looking in the mirror each morning. Ours is honest work, driven by a belief that our older and historic commercial fabric can best be served and made to endure by building a volunteer-led infrastructure that brings business owners, civic leaders and government together to reinvigorate Main Street as a place to live, work, and play. Christopher Steiner’s 2009 work, $20 Per Gallon, and his opening plenary speech at the 2010 National Main Streets Conference made it clear that the advocacy and energy we put into saving Main Street is more than just a nostalgic feel-good pursuit, but an absolutely vital endeavor that will, in fact, save America itself—or more specifically, save us from our unsustainable appetite for oil and its byproducts. 

Let’s start with the automobile, and in particular, its gas tank, which is where half of our imported oil ends up.  We Americans have a love affair with our cars. This is no secret, and the ways in which the automobile has commanded the development of our suburbs and exurbs is well-documented.  Nor is it a mystery how Main Streets have suffered  from our reliance on the automobile. As more and more of us abandoned historic, close-in neighborhoods in favor of sprawling new homes and garages, commercial developers followed suit, delivering a suburban landscape of strip malls and indoor shopping malls, dotted with big-box retailers, mammoth surface parking lots and a maze of divided highways and traffic lights. As we’ve distanced our homes from where we work, go to school, shop, and worship, the car has been there to bridge the gap. And what has made that work? Cheap oil.

Retail Mall Parking
The commercial and residential landscape of our typical suburbs demans the car, which demands an endless supply of cheap oil.

The other half of our imported crude goes into “stuff” we consume. Steiner effectively describes how cheap oil has also enabled our consumption of foreign-made goods, things like couches, DVD players, mops, bed sheets—products made of synthetic materials derived from, again, oil. These things can be made cheaply in China, for example, where labor and material inputs are vastly less expensive than in the U.S. , and then shipped here via massive container ships. Wal-Mart, for example, has 6,000 suppliers, 80 percent of which are located in China. There’s no way its business model—one based on a global supply chain and distribution of its goods—works without cheap oil. There’s no way it offers such low prices without a supply of cheap oil.

The reality is, our economy, our lifestyle, where we choose to live and work and play, all rest squarely on the assumption of free-flowing, low-cost oil. And there is compelling evidence to suggest that our days of cheap oil are numbered (in fact, with crude still gushing from the Deepwater Horizon into the Gulf of Mexico right now, I believe those days are already over).  The reason is simple Economics 101. Sources from all over the world confirm that our global supply is on the wane and yet our global demand will most definitely rise, as the middle-class population in nations like Russia, China, and India expand.  Steiner makes it clear that this price jump won’t happen abruptly—the price will climb over decades—but that change is inevitable. And certain hallmarks of our American lifestyle will fall by the wayside as the price of a gallon of gas marches upward.

Wal-mart Sign
Wal-Mart's business model dependsd on the availability of cheap oil. Convincing evidence suggests that model is totally unsustainable in a world of diminished oil reserves and rising demand.

What will that change look like? Chris Steiner posits the inevitable rise in the price of gasoline will change our lives for the better.

Our SUVs will be permanently parked in the driveway.  Wal-Mart will be forced to embrace locally sourced and locally manufactured goods—or face extinction. Smaller, more local food stores will phase out the bloated model of the supermarket that has steadily enlarged, along with American homes and Americans’ waistlines over the last 50 years.  Our food systems will shift away from monoculture grown with mass quantities of fertilizer and pesticides—which are derived from petrochemicals.  Most relevant to the Main Street context: Americans will change how they live—by changing where they live. Our energy-intensive lifestyle in the suburbs and exurbs, where large homes on large lots are the norm, will no longer be affordable, thanks to prohibitive transportation costs and natural gas and home heating oil prices. Instead, communities that offer access to public transportation and walkable amenities such as schools, shops, and restaurants will be essential. Densification will be grouped around existing transit lines, including elementary schools; small, marketplace shops and high-rises; closely spaced single-family homes; and townhomes that accommodate dozens of families on each block.

All
Where you can leave the car behind and walk! As prices for gasoline rise, Main Streets will again become our primary hub for commerce and community.

Which…brings us back home to Main Street. The return to Main Street as the center of our commerce and community will no longer be a social choice phenomenon, but an economic imperative, driven by a stark realization that our wallets (not to mention our planet) simply cannot sustain its dependence on oil.  Looking out at the audience of 2010 Main Streets Conference attendees, Steiner left us with the idea that our role as Main Street revitalization advocates will assume utmost importance to our nation’s future. We will have a far easier time adjusting to scarcer energy resources if we can depend on the buildings and infrastructure of the past. Just as cheap oil drove the automobile society that ruined many a Main Street community, cheap oil (and its demise) will ultimately lead us back to Main Street.