[NOTE: This post is part of an ongoing series (which started here) through the next few months whose purpose is to provide tangible examples of what our future might be like in a world where we will no longer have available to us the quality and quantity of fossil fuel energy sources as we have long been accustomed to possessing and using. Some examples will describe significant impacts beyond the most obvious one: less but more expensive gas to power our vehicles.
Other posts will describe routine aspects of daily living that will likely change when producers of goods and services no longer have inexpensive and adequate supplies of the fossil fuel resources they need. I’m certain that the questions I raise will in turn raise other concerns as well. It is only by acknowledging the consequences affecting each of us that we can begin an intelligent national process of planning and implementing new methods of providing the goods and services we’ll need or desire.]

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I recently had the good fortune to visit my daughter at the university she attends in New Orleans. Scheduled many months ago, the trip was designed to coincide with the spectacular Mardi Gras festival which serves as a grand and delightful marker for a city too often associated instead with the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. Although the weather was not as cooperative as we would have liked during the four days of my trip (tornado warnings on the night of Mardi Gras dampened at least my enthusiasm to wander around the French Quarter), I nonetheless caught my fair share of beads during one of the amazing parades that wind their way down St. Charles Avenue, while taking in many other sights and sounds of the celebrations.

It’s an incredible event, wildly entertaining and just plain wilder than one can imagine. Reports indicated that it drew upwards of a million revelers to this unique city—the most since Katrina struck in 2005.

Being as involved with the subject of Peak Oil as I am these days, I soon enough found myself wondering what happens to this spectacle once we are fully engulfed by the effects of ever-declining oil production.

Last summer, I took an initial look at air travel. Among others, I posed the following question: “What decisions are the various transportation industries—freight and aviation in particular—going to be faced with when the worldwide supply of oil cannot ever match demand again? Who decides which of those two will have priority? It’s unlikely that only one industry will have all of its demand met, so that means both industries will suffer reductions in what is available to them. Then what?”

What does happen a few short years down the road when we have nowhere near the same amounts of fossil fuels at our disposal (and/or at prices even remotely affordable) to travel to New Orleans, and when those who design and operate the hundreds of floats and tractors and emergency vehicles that are part and parcel of the Mardi Gras festivities are now at the mercy of fuel prices that have doubled? Tripled? Quadrupled? Hundreds of gas-sucking vehicles crawling along a 5 or 7 mile parade route run up a serious gas/diesel tab in today’s economy.

Then what indeed? A reasonable several hundred dollar round trip air fare from Boston to New Orleans during this celebration is likely going to be a lot more expensive in years to come, and most likely prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of visitors. Granted, many thousands may still find ways to get there, but you can be certain that if air fares have spiked through the roof in a few years, gas prices for our automobiles won’t be far behind. Are citizens who live even just a few hundred miles away going to want to pay $6.00, $8.00, $11.00 for a gallon of gas to go to a festival? Is something like Mardi Gras going to be any kind of priority for most?

Given the dazzling levels of shortsightedness on display by those who balk at investing in mass transit and/or high-speed rail, what options might be available in a half-dozen or so years from now (not that mass transit will be in place in so short a period of time)? Anyone thinking that we’ll just rev’ up design, production, and construction in a week or two is even more delusional than imaginable. Those are investments (among others) which must begin now.

A determined segment of leaders are hell-bent on cutting funding for alternative energy research and transportation—among many other categories vital to our future well-being—and are doing so contrary to what most polls state that Americans want. What’s going on? If they succeed in their efforts, what then? Can we all just rely on whatever magical technology these officials seem to believe will come flying to the rescue in years ahead? Are there some special alternatives that are going to be envisioned, designed, produced, and implemented successfully, commercially, and nationally overnight? Is that the plan for those so determined to cut spending so as to preserve tax benefits for the oil companies and multi-millionaires among us? Is that what we’re about?

The Mardi Gras pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into the New Orleans economy. Not too difficult to imagine that city more so than most, and its industry leaders, count on that revenue more than just a little. What’s the ripple effect to New Orleans and its businesses when hundreds of millions of dollars are not-so-suddenly reduced by half, or more, simply because most attendees can no longer (or choose to no longer) afford the travel and lodging costs? What city services will be placed on the chopping block? How many more will suffer?

What of the restaurants and hotels that likewise depend on Mardi Gras? It was almost impossible to find lodging in the few months leading up to Mardi Gras unless you were willing to pay some seriously jacked-up prices and travel a long way into New Orleans each day. Many, many fewer patrons represent a tremendous hit to the bottom lines of those in the lodging and food service industries.

Many if not most of those retailers depend on tractor-trailers to deliver or transport supplies. Can you say diesel fuel price hikes? It’s hard to imagine that either the transportation industry or the lodging and restaurant industries are each going to absorb on their own the increased fuel prices (another domino effect which comes into play when supply no longer satisfies demand). As freight delivery charges increase and are passed on to end-users such as hotels and restaurants, and food costs themselves increase because the fossil fuels needed to provide fertilizers and a host of other “ingredients” of food production have likewise climbed into new territory (while the quantity of the fossil fuels themselves are on the decline), the unpleasant outcome is fairly obvious.

What happens to the taxi drivers who escort all these new patrons who descend on their city? (Based on my conversations with several of them however, the drivers have decidedly mixed feelings about Mardi Gras, given the logistical nightmares they must deal with every time a parade route or street-cleaning crew cuts off their travel options.)

I usually rent a car when I travel to New Orleans to visit my daughter. She cautioned me against doing so during Mardi Gras. Heeding her advice, I made do with buses, the partially-available street car lines, or a good pair of sneakers to get me around during my stay. I had the choice of taking a cab or the airport shuttle to get me to/from the city. I opted for the latter. The 55-minute or so trip from pick-up on campus to a half-dozen or so hotel stops en route to the airport when I left was by contrast a two and a half hour “adventure” when I first arrived.

Getting dropped off at my daughter’s school was the last of 8 stops the shuttle made in New Orleans after we left the airport. It seemed that almost every street was closed off that Saturday afternoon either by police barricades, an actual parade, or the random hoards of street cleaning crews which materialized seemingly out of thin air on multiple occasions as we wound our way through the city proper. At one point, although we were only four cars from a Canal Street intersection, those crews held up the shuttle van through four consecutive light cycles! That is a lot of wasted fuel….No doubt the very reasonable $40.00 or so round trip shuttle fare is going to also be a lot more expensive in years to come—assuming they (and the taxi drivers) have access to the fuel they need as and when needed. No guarantees….

Hundreds if not thousands of merchants, from street vendors on up to retail stores in and around the French Quarter, also no doubt depend on Mardi Gras revenue to bolster their bottom line. Whatever merchandise they offer is also most likely trucked in from somewhere else. Those suppliers won’t be immune to increased fuel prices and/or limitations on availability, and that means at least one entity somewhere along the supply chain is going to wind up paying, and then passing the costs along.

And the employees of the countless industries who depend on events like the Mardi Gras for a substantial portion of their annual income (keeping in mind that Peak Oil is not limited to impacting just the Mardi Gras festival while other lesser events and conventions escape unscathed)? When all of these increased prices are absorbed and then passed on to the ultimate end-users, more than a substantial percentage of those businesses are not going to be able to endure the increases or supply restrictions or lack of buyers because consumers no longer want to pay the higher prices. And that then means that more than a fair amount of employees and business owners are going to find themselves looking for work elsewhere. A lot of dominoes tumble when people are out of work … no need to elaborate.

“Just do something to lower fuel prices and none of this will be a problem” is a wonderful strategy and solution … if you don’t mind living in some alternate reality. Here on earth, however, these declining oil production consequences all inevitable, logical, and unavoidable—despite heavy doses of political grandstanding.

We can either duck for cover, or start appreciating the tasks at hand and get busy adding our voices and offering productive input into the almost-inconceivably complex planning and implementing Peak Oil will mandate—regardless of political ideology.

It is, as mentioned repeatedly, time to get busy.

More to come….