Thursday, August 07, 2008

In my last post I noted how I believe that the high cost of oil will a good thing for the resurgence of downtown Spartanburg. This is a theory I've been kicking around for several months and I'm eager to see if it plays out like I believe it will. Let's hope so!

High gas prices, if they continue to rise, have the potential to entirely restructure freight and passenger transportation in this country, for the better I believe. Interstate highway travel will be the first to stumble if gas prices stay high. We have a railroad system that has languished when compared to the railroads of other industrialized nations; but even if a major railroad expansion were to occur, it would be very difficult to accommodate the bulk of intercity and interstate trade that currently takes place through the use of trucks and interstate highway travel.

So what could this mean for the future of trade and land use? It's my hope that these conditions will cause a resurgence of locally-produced food and goods and the collapse of urban sprawl. Land use could begin to follow early 20th century patterns of dense urban centers surrounded by agricultural lands. Prices for homes and land in suburban areas could bottom out as it becomes more difficult to travel long distances regularly and crumbling cookie cutter subdivisions could become the new low-income housing areas. Residents in these areas might find work in the farms blossoming in the areas which have remained rural. Small towns would find themselves repopulated with former suburbanites who wish to have closer access to the goods they've grown accustomed to. Land prices in cities and small towns would rise as population increases and businesses follow. The job market might look more interesting too as more products are produced locally. Trades that had become consolidated and marginalized by giant national and multi-national corporations could reemerge as it becomes more expensive to ship goods. Imagine how small towns will look when they're more populated by small-scale craftsmen, who actually have the ability to make enough money to support themselves.

Of course this is the rosy longer-term outlook. In the short term, goods will be generally more expensive and the economy will struggle to readjust. People will have to scale back and either hope that their government can bail them out or find a place in the new economy. If the government does try to bail the economy out, I just hope they don't try to prolong the transition away from an oil-based economy, because one way or another its days are numbered.

Historically, it seems new economies have also been fertile grounds for exploitation, although it's difficult for me to figure out how that might apply in this case. I think of the rise of sedentary agriculture which was the ultimate root in the split between the haves and the have nots. And there was the collapse of the Roman Empire's economy, which resulted in feudalism as protection against marauding gangs. The rise of industrialization resulted in ghastly factory conditions for low-wage workers who wanted steady funds rather than unpredictable agricultural earnings. And some have pointed to the repeated disasters within the German economy during the 1920s as a root cause in the rise of the National Socialist Party.

But with any luck, people will be able to seamlessly reinhabit an economy similar to one practiced just 80 years ago. We can hope that the cultural memory of that older economy isn't so far out of reach that people aren't able to make the adjustment.

Who knows? Maybe the poor under-appreciated small town historians of the world will finally be able to make some money as economic advisers!

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