By Ryan McGreal
Published April 28, 2008
I read Saturday's editorial in the Hamilton Spectator with mounting frustration.
Gasoline prices are now reliably expected to double within four years. That could mean a $150 fill-up for a minivan and approaching $200 for some of the large SUVs. That will change not merely what we drive, but how far and for what reasons. It may change where we work and where we live.
Soaring transportation costs will also have an impact on just about everything we eat. Prices are already rising steadily on cereal-based foods - bread and pasta - and on the meats and dairy that comes from grain-fed animals.
Raise the Hammer has been writing about this since its inception over three years ago, and we're regular johnny-come-latelys compared to the brave scientists and analysts who have been warning about peak oil since the late 1990s.
Everyone seems shocked and dismayed about rising energy prices and the predictable effect that's having on the affordability of everything else - including food, which under modern agriculture is utterly dependent on hydrocarbon inputs - but it won't come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying even cursory attention to the energy situation.
For years the so-called Cassandras of energy depletion were routinely ignored, then ridiculed, and then vilified by the mainstream, all in a depressingly predictable iteration of Gandhi's maxim for social change).
Even when such esteemed economic analysts as CIBC World Markets and Goldman Sachs started warning about peak oil in 2005, hardly anyone paid attention to them. So far, it seems they have actually underestimated the impact on prices.
The city of Hamilton went so far as to hire a consultant to prepare a report on peak oil [PDF]. Aside from some window dressing [PDF], the city mostly ignored its conclusions, neglected even to study its recommendations, and flat-out refused to reconsider its enonomic development plans in the face of growing evidence that oil-dependent industries have poor long-term prospects.
Now the shit is hitting the fan and the mainstream is starting to pay attention, but it's probably already too late [PDF] to avoid a painful dislocation as our economy plays a desperate game of catch-up against steadily declining energy supplies.
The Spectator editorial concludes:
Every analyst agrees there's a "structural shift" happening - that food will be considerably more expensive, well into the future.
If we have made changes so far in how we live, in our footprint on the larger world around us, we have been driven by conscience, knowledge and perhaps some sense of impending trouble. We are about to be driven by economic and social realities. We are about to discover, unless all the experts are wrong, some serious new realities about the cost of living.
This is where my dismay reached its peak (in a manner of speaking). While the Spectator has been willing to publish commentary that challenges status quo thinking about airports and highways (and following up with status quo rebuttals), the paper itself still seems committed to supporting them.
That is, the paper's editorial board - like the city government itself - supports the principle of sustainability as long as doing the right thing doesn't mean changing specific plans to which we have committed.
Here are some "serious new realities about the cost of living" we can no longer afford the luxury to ignore:
Oil prices are going to double in the next four years, and quite possibly even sooner.
Oil prices are likely to quadruple within a decade.
In the face of this reality, planning long-term economic development around air transport is sheer lunacy.
To the extent that airlines will survive the next decade or two, they will do so through ruthless consolidating: a few very large planes owned by a few very large companies flying between major centres, and mostly transcontinental at that.
Hamilton will not have a prosperous future as an air transport hub. It's that simple.
Similarly, Hamilton will not grow its economy by building more highways. The highway we just built is doing effectively nothing to grow our economy, as evidenced by the zero percent tax assessment growth the city has projected for 2008.
All the excuses we were given about the Red Hill are unraveling before our eyes. All it has done, economically, is to open up a billion dollars' worth of residential development on the east Mountain.
It has not spurred new commercial and industrial development - in fact, the city is fighting to preserve its highway accessible employment lands from residential development - and losing.
It has not taken transport trucks off downtown streets - and John Dolbec, CEO of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce rushes to explain of why they won't any time soon.
The bottom line is that highways and airports are no longer viable economic development engines. They will not produce jobs or growth once oil prices double and double again.
The sooner the city wakes up to this, the sooner we can start developing our economy in real growth sectors: rebuilding our rail and shipping infrastructure, producing energy renewably, conserving energy and retrofitting existing buildings, and creating a centre of innovation around these ares.
The Red Hill Valley Parkway was a mistake. The Airport Employment Growth District is a mistake. The Mid Peninsula Highway is a mistake. These business models have run their course. They're past achievers, operating in a bygone economy, one that is being supplanted by the "structural shift" about which the Spectator editors so gloomily write.
The question is whether the entrenched people in power are willing to admit reality and change course.