Probably, one day, they’ll speak of this as the Oil Age, just as we now talk of the bygone Bronze and Iron Ages. In his new book, Jeff Rubin – former chief economist at CIBC World Markets – charts what he sees as the inevitable (and imminent) end of the oil-powered era. His title signals that he riffs on themes discussed in Thomas Friedman’s popular The World Is Flat. But while Friedman predicts an increasingly globalized world in which developed and developing nations compete on a level playing field (this is the “flatness” to which he refers), Rubin argues that the coming scarcity of oil will divide the world again into more inwardly focused regions.
No longer will we jet off to distant destinations on a whim; no more will we eat imported avocados (except on special occasions); almost done are the days when the vast majority of our manufactured goods are shipped to us on that proverbial slow boat from China. Rubin sees a future in which we increasingly vacation, eat and manufacture locally. High oil prices – he predicts they’ll spike as soon as the economy gets its legs again – will also eviscerate car-oriented suburbs, and push North American commuters out of their vehicles and onto transit.
Rubin (BA 1977 Innis) discusses possible alternate energy sources, from coal to nuclear, ethanol, wind, solar and geothermal, but barring a striking innovation – which he concedes is possible – he sees our world contracting without cheap, portable oil to fuel it. “Put less vacation travel, less business travel and less air freight together, and all those newly built airports… will soon become gleaming mausoleums to a past age of cheap and abundant energy.” The picture he paints is not apocalyptic – we will adjust to the new norm – but in Rubin’s view, we who have become used to more will soon have to content ourselves with a lot less.