A RECENT BOOK, titled $20 Per Gallon, by Christopher Steiner, imagines a future in which oil is depleted and the price of gas soars out of sight. Surprisingly, a hopeful rather than an apocalyptic mood surfaces a number of times in the book. Its upbeat subtitle promises: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better.

Steiner hit on a nifty structure for his work. The opening chapter is on life at four dollars a gallon. Each following chapter ratchets the price up two dollars and then imagines how civilization will realign at that level. For example, at eight dollars the airline industry is crushed. At 14 bucks, Wal-Mart—and pretty much all of exurbia with its extreme dependency on the car—is no longer a going concern. Despite the subtitle's promise of a life changed for the better, the reader might reasonably wonder, "Better for whom?" as the middle class in places like China and India race ahead, until they see America in their rearview mirrors.

Which of the author's speculations might actually happen remains to be seen. But the debate concerning the underlying hypothesis is largely over. Almost no expert disputes that know oil reserves around the planet are headed toward depletion. Or that tapping into reserves yet to be discovered will only postpone the inevitable. Lifestyles based on the premise of nearly endless cheap oil have to undergo profound change.

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September 21, 2009

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