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Our finite planet: planning for a decline in our oil bounty

By Michael Lardelli - posted Monday, 20 August 2007

In my local supermarket in Prospect there is a wonderful photo from the early 1900’s. A tram is rolling down the centre of an uncrowded Prospect Road. When I see this image it makes me reflect on how much Adelaide’s transport has changed. Since World War II Adelaide has become almost entirely dependent on cars for transport. Why?

Australia’s petrol is cheap compared to many other nations since our fuel taxes, while considerable, are relatively low. This situation has persisted for decades and has had enormous implications for the structure of Adelaide.

Compared to European cities, where fuel taxes are high, Adelaide is very spread out. Areas built after WWII are almost completely dependent on car transport. In older areas, like Prospect, trams have been forced off the roads to make more room for cars. Would our only remaining tram-run to Glenelg still exist if it competed with cars for most of its route?


Residents of Adelaide’s outer suburbs, and especially the far north and south of the city, are almost completely dependent upon car transport for everything they do outside their homes - trips to the shops, taking children to school and sport, getting to work and back. “Corner” stores are non-existent and buses are infrequent. Many distances are too great to be practical by bicycle except for the truly fit.

The families that live in these outer areas are typically those on more limited incomes and with little wriggle-room in their budgets due to the costs of mortgages, children, food and fuel.

Cheap fuel has permitted the development of these spread-out “communities”. In the USA, where fuel taxes are even lower, the extent of urban sprawl is more extreme. (Urban design commentator James Howard Kunstler speaks of the “outer suburban asteroid belts” of US cities.) To the degree that outer Adelaide has been planned at all, the planners must have assumed that petrol would always be cheap - or they never bothered to consider the question. But what if that assumption is wrong?

Increasing economic activity (growth) can only occur if energy use increases. The two are absolutely linked. The economic growth of the past 100 years has been supported by accelerating use of fossil fuel energy - mainly oil. Since the late 1990’s an ever-increasing number of (mostly) scientists have been warning that the world’s oil production may soon stall and then begin to decline. We will enter a new economic epoch with very high fuel prices and a contracting economy.

Nobody, least of all our political and business leaders, wants to believe this. Life is only meant to get faster and the stockmarket must only go up. No politician gets elected by promising a poorer future and CEOs do not raise share values and earn bonuses by promising less profit.

If we become convinced that our finite planet’s oil bounty is running low then our first response is to declare that an alternative must be found! Unfortunately, even if true alternatives existed they would not be practical to implement in the timeframes involved. And no number of windmills, solar panels or geothermal-driven turbines is going to keep our cars running cheaply.


I wrote about the imminent decline of oil for The Adelaide Review in late 2005 and an acquaintance sent a copy to Dr Jane Lomax-Smith, our minister for education and children’s services and tourism and the City of Adelaide. (Minister Lomax-Smith prides herself on being the only person with some scientific training in the South Australian Cabinet.)

While the article made fairly straightforward and obvious comments on the implications of high fuel prices for Adelaide, Jane’s reply was, “Rising oil prices may well be a call to action but the article includes random predictions and can't be said to be a blue print for strategic planning”. That was 18 months ago, the price of oil has since risen higher and we still have no public admission from the SA government that higher oil prices are even a problem.

Chloe Fox, the Labor Member for Bright recently made a private investigation of this issue and then expressed her distress in a touchingly passionate speech in parliament. It is also somewhat ironic that the Democrats, especially Sandra Kanck, are “out-greening” the SA Greens with impressively straightforward statements on oil and related issues such as sustainable population. But Rann’s Cabinet is eerily silent.

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First published in the Adelaide Review on August 17, 2007.

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About the Author

Michael Lardelli is Senior Lecturer in Genetics at The University of Adelaide. Since 2004 he has been an activist for spreading awareness on the impact of energy decline resulting from oil depletion. He has written numerous articles on the topic published in The Adelaide Review and elsewhere, has delivered ABC Radio National Perspectives, spoken at events organised by the South Australian Department of Trade and Economic Development and edits the (subscription only) Beyond Oil SA email newsletter. He has lectured on "peak oil" to students in the Australian School of Petroleum.

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