Peak oil & vulnerable people

by Margie Law

Peak Oil will pose a major equity and poverty problem for Tasmania. This is not a future problem it is with us right now. Both fuel and food prices are already reaching unprecedented levels and are mooted to rise rapidly in the near future.

Those people and communities who are already struggling to keep their heads above water are likely to go under – that is, unless concerted action is taken to avert major suffering. For government planners, it is vitally important to identify those most at risk early so that policies can be enacted to build resilience into vulnerable communities.

Some useful work has been done already. A major national study conducted in 2006 at (Griffiths University) mapped oil vulnerability across major Australian cities using a ‘vulnerability index’ for petrol prices and mortgage indebtedness. Unfortunately Tasmania was not included in the study, but it did show that the people most exposed to rising prices are those people who have large mortgages and who live at a distance from urban services and jobs. Outer suburban areas were found to have lower average incomes and travel by car more frequently and for longer distances.

Unfortunately this is just where much of our low-income public housing is located, and where walking and cycling to places is not easy. In Hobart we only have to see the distances traveled by people who live in housing subdivisions of Bridgewater and Rokeby, and then compare them to those who live in West Hobart or Sandy Bay. (The same issue is true in the United States – many of the subprime mortgages which triggered the global financial crisis in 2008 were located on the fringes of US cities.)

Petrol price increases will place stress on household expenditures, mobility and in the longer term, the very viability of some Australian suburbs. The nub of the problem in Australia is that our sprawling car-based cities are simply not suited to a situation where petrol prices go through the roof.

Australian Emeritus Professor Peter Newman illustrates this further, showing how poorer Australians fork out nearly 40 percent of their disposable income on transport whereas those who earn over $60,000 per annum fork out just 14 percent (see chart here). When both food and fuel starts to cost more than a family is earning then there is no choice but for them to go hungry or lose essential liberties that we expect Australians to enjoy.

What is being done to address this problem in Tasmania?

The Tasmanian government has taken some tentative steps 1) by announcing an oil price vulnerability study 2) by setting up a social inclusions strategy that is able to look at issues such as food security and 3) through the Tasmania Together project.

It is well worth contributing to these fairly low-key government processes, but the rapidity with which peak oil is likely to hit many Tasmanians may well result in these rather slow grinding processes being overtaken by events. They need to be matched with timely, hardnosed policies.

See Oil Vulnerability in Melbourne, then translate that to Tasmanian towns.

(Margie Law, pictured with daughter, has been an unflinching advocate for environmental and social justice issues for over two decades and ‘walks the talk’ through her sustainable living practices.)