Friday, August 11, 2006

Tipping point? 

Last time I filled the tank on my (diesel) car, it cost nearly £50. I’d think twice about spending that on a new pair of trainers every other year, yet I routinely pour that amount into my fuel tank every other week.

How long before a tankful tops £100? Then £200?

Rob Paterson in his blog today looks back to a chilling view of the future he penned 10 months ago, which opens like this:

“Imagine it is 2010 - you live in the suburbs of a big city. You teach at York University. Gas prices are about $8.00 a litre (The China factor) and are just going up to $12 as the coup in Saudi Arabia has taken Saudi oil off the market. You wonder how you are going to cope…”

The story develops as Rob paints a detailed picture describing the far-reaching impact on everyday life of this simple change, and it makes for thought-provoking reading.

One thing in particular struck me. Society – in the developed world – depends at all levels of its operation on transportation, and if, for whatever reason, transportation is no longer readily (i.e. economically) available, society will undergo some dramatic changes.

You might debate the timescale in Rob’s story – 2010 is very near – but to do so rather misses a key point.

There’s a critical question in all this which is probably impossible to answer – is there a tipping point? In the stimulus-response relationship, as the stimulus – e.g. fuel cost - changes gradually, does the response also change gradually, or does there come a point at which the response undergoes accelerated change to a new state of semi-equilibrium?

Back in the 1970s, all sorts of doom and gloom was forecast as oil prices shot skywards, yet the world carried on largely as before; although the equilibrium may have shifted a little, the new equilibrium was not so very far from the old. For a while, fuel economy became the most significant factor in new car advertisements, but these days motorists have adapted to higher fuel costs; mpg figures hardly feature in the ads and although I haven’t looked up the statistics my guess is that the ratio of sales high performance cars to fuel efficient cars is probably much as it was 40 years ago. Sure, a lot of development work has gone into improving fuel efficiency, but essentially our car buying and using habits haven’t changed significantly. Those who want speed and power and the opportunity to be ostentatious are prepared to pay for it.

But will that continue? Will we simply carry on adjusting our personal budgets in proportion, or is there a tipping point where the increased cost of transportation results in wholesale changes to the way in which everyone, from individuals to corporations, manages their business?

Rob’s scenario is that there is a tipping point. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. But if there is, it could easily be just around the corner, and things could look very different just a few short years from now. I wonder what other factors have the potential to upset the apple cart of society’s complex web of inter-related systems?

Thanks, Rob, for a deeply thought-provoking piece.

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