Hurricane Rita was a close call for Texas, its coastal residents and refineries. It recalls another close call back in 1979, the near-meltdown of Three Mile Island, a Pennsylvania nuclear power plant. If our luck holds, Rita will have the same impact on the oil industry as Three Mile Island had on the nuclear power industry. No nuclear power plant has been build since in North America, save for Ontario's Darlington, a consequence of the industry's financial meltdown.
Big Oil's grip on the economy and society allows for no such sudden reversal, but the wrench is in the works.
John Godfrey, Canada's first federal minister of state in charge of cities, is one of the first senior pols to grasp the need for a change of plan. Watching the traffic jam caused by Houston's evacuation and the leap in gas prices and gas station incivility sparked by fears that the hurricane would destroy major refineries, Godfrey grasped what he called a "teachable moment," the "aha" that comes from being knocked to your senses.
The assumption that drove government and private sector planning for the last 60 years is running out of gas. Fuel and land are no longer cheap and plentiful, Godfrey said in Ottawa after reviewing a report on sustainable cities being prepared by former BC NDP premier Mike Harcourt.
"We're not going to turn this around in a day," Godfrey admitted, but we have to recognize the link between saving energy by using public transit and reducing hurricanes caused by global warming. "We've got to connect all those dots for people," he said.
Connecting all the dots will be quite a shock to the system. Fuel scarcity has now become a planning imperative, in a way that environmental responsibility - proactive measures to prevent pollution or global warming, for example - never was. Governments recognize the need to do the right thing by the environment and would certainly act if money were available and there weren't other priorities blah blah blah. So the spiel has gone over the past 15 years or so.
All of a sudden, that spiel is irrelevant, and there are two new dots - more like splotches - on the planning radar. One is that fuel prices, unlike the environment, don't wait until politicians balance their budgets or get their priorities right. Price hikes happen, to paraphrase a favourite saying of the oil industry. Deal with it.
The second splotch relates to a quirk of reality, an old law stating that nature bats last. The price of not responding to global warming back when fossil fuel prices were low is that governments must now deal with high fuel prices while absorbing the multi-billion-dollar damage from more intense and feverish climatic outbursts. Deal with it, while acknowledging that enviros turned out to be wiser economic forecasters than the men on Bay Street and Wall Street.
The fact is that urban, transit, social, health, housing, waste management and food planners must now prepare to do an about-face in response to the fact that cities can't survive the direction of fossil fuel prices.
Housing costs subsidized by a long but relatively low-cost commute to the outer fringes of the city: forget it. Wave goodbye to cheap food based on imports from Central America and Latin America (labour in Florida and California got too expensive, and the cost of shipping food extra distance from the South was barely noticeable). Cheap clothing from Asia: give up yesterday's fashion. Cheap oil has substituted for sound social policy as much as it has distorted energy and enviro planning. As a result, many of the necessities as well as many of the nice little extras of life are now in jeopardy - from affordable home heating to affordable holidays.
So are the elements of security for which governments are held accountable. There's not more than three days' fresh food in typical North American cities, for example, so the rich become as food-insecure as the poor the moment U.S. truckers keep on trucking somewhere else.
Cheap oil allowed cities to grow without the need to keep manufacturing hinterlands close by. Then cheap oil allowed every major industry and retailer to base finances, warehouse space and logistics on just-in-time delivery.
"But just-in-time for everything else must rely on predictable just-in-time gas and oil," says Wally Seccombe, chair of Everdale Environmental Learning Centre, a farm to the northwest of Toronto that specializes in the intersection between food and home energy systems. "The whole economy runs on just-in-time, and now oil does, too," he says. "A hurricane or near-hurricane throws the entire system into crisis. That whole system is now becoming as obsolete as the SUV.
"We have to start planning for the 21st century," Seccombe says. "It's not just a matter of moral imperatives or of slowing down the juggernaut. It's a survival imperative to reverse today's model."
Fortunately, there are no technical problems in the way of a reversal - if governments provide effective support and the right tax and price signals (making free parking taxable, interest-free loans for home insulation, etc). That's a big if, but it's the only if.
And the further a city is from an oil patch or refinery jobs, the more profitable the transition to hometown conservation and renewable energy is, because every dollar saved on importing fossil fuels is a dollar saved for local purchases. And every billion dollars spent to boost alternatives creates about 30,000 local jobs, not a bad tax base to help fund the transition.
The first cities to manage the turnaround will live to tell the tale. The others will end up like the Rust Belt cities of the U.S. heartland.
We can thank Rita's dots for pointing the way in time.