The Globe & Mail this morning had a commentary about the new energy crisis — not a crisis of supply as back in 1973 (does anyone remember gas lineups?) but one of rapidly rising prices. So of course the comments on this article range from government conspiracy through corporate waste. And there are side mentions of the change to public transportation where it is available.
What fascinates me is that during my lifetime both business and government has been hard at work systematically dismantling public transportation networks all across North America. When I was living in Toronto the main street closest to me used to have an inter-urban train on it that ran from Toronto out to Guelph. Now you can get there by driving on the expressway — if you have a car. Toronto, like most cities, is surrounded by a wide expanse of suburbs that are almost exclusively glued together by cars. The other night there was an analyst talking about the shift to public transportation — in the US (and most likely in Canada as well) less than 5% of the population has access to public transportation.
But wait, there’s more. In eastern Ontario where we live there are the ghosts of an old agricultural past — abandoned processing plants that used to take the products of the region and brew beer or make cheese or 100’s of other items. These plants provided local employment and kept the transportation costs down on the raw materials. But as part of the great scale-up these were all closed down in favor of shipping all the materials to big plants in distant locations. And even more, buying the materials themselves from distant parts so the local agricultural producers died a slow death. The 12,000 mile salad, unfortunately, is far more the rule than the exception.
So here we are — our civilization has been restructured around long distance transportation that is no longer cheap and looks to be getting even less so. We have dismantled the widespread networks of public transportation in favor of private vehicals, then encouraged people to buy the least efficient kinds. Local agriculture, that once sustained the cities and provided for a vibrant rural life has been largely shutdown. And of course those huge processing plants were sometimes staffed with the cheapest labor available — who sometimes have issues with the government.
My question is very simple — can this clock be rolled back? Will the politicians have the vision to undo the destructive changes to transportation and re-vitalize the rail networks? Can local agriculture be rediscovered? Or will these events happen as a consequence of a general economic collapse as distance-spanning economies fail from their own costs and people are forced to find other ways? Not everyone was this stupid — look at Europa.