NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Last year, gas prices soared over four dollars a gallon and Americans responded by driving a hundred billion fewer miles than the year before. Right now, at $2.50 a gallon or so, things seem back to normal. But writer Christopher Steiner argues that's a delusion. He thinks we need to prepare for life at six, 10, even 20 dollars a gallon, prices which will change a lot more than our driving habits. They will transform what we eat, where we live, and how we view the world. And while there will be losers, he believes the airline industry will largely disappear, for example, for the most part, he asserts our lives will be better.

Some will obviously disputes his thesis that the huge increases in gas prices are inevitable, but just for today let's stipulate that he's right. Starting with how your behavior changed at four dollars a gallon, what will be different at six, 10, 20 dollars a gallon? Will you move? Will your business boom or bust? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program we'll wrap up the last day of hearings on Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court, but first, Christopher Steiner. He is a staff writer for Forbes Magazine. His book is called "$20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better." And he joins us from the studios of Chicago Public Radio and it's nice of you to be with us today.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER STEINER (Author, "$20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better"): Absolutely. Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And as big as the changes were at four dollars a gallon, you write that they still left us with the ability to deny, deny, deny and that real change will not begin until it goes to six.

Mr. STEINER: I think six dollars is a serious tipping point for just Americans psychologically. I think at that point we're going to say, okay, there's no turning back. We're not going back to two. This is reality. Let's change how we do things.

CONAN: And obviously one of the things that happened at four, not only we drove less, we started driving different kinds of vehicles.

Mr. STEINER: Absolutely. I mean, you couldn't get rid of an SUV for 20 cents on the dollar and you couldn't find a Prius for anywhere near sticker price. I mean, it was amazing the way people changed their habits. The stuff they didn't do at three dollars, stuff they didn't even do at $3.50. Four dollars was a psychological tipping point. And it changed a lot of things.

CONAN: It also had a strange, well, some unanticipated side-effects, for example, collections of gas tax revenues went down and that affected all kinds of things that are supported by gas taxes.

Mr. STEINER: Yeah. In fact, we're facing a problem right now on Capitol Hill. The Highway Trust Fund is about to run out of money again. And the government is probably going to have to inject it with money from the general fund or somewhere else. Because they haven't reset the gas tax federally since the early '90s. It's at 18.4 cents and that doesn't slide with the price of gas. So, it was 18.4 cents when gas was a dollar. It was 18.4 cents when gas was four dollars. Even though, when the price of gas goes up, the price of roads, building roads, goes up almost at the same rate, because asphalt, of course, is another byproduct of petroleum.

And to build the roads, you need to use gasoline. It affects all types of construction. So, right when the government needed more money to keep up our roads, they got less because we went on and drove a hundred billion fewer miles, as you mentioned, and bought less gasoline.

CONAN: And then there are, as you mentioned, asphalt is gas - oil, rather, is used in a lot of products other than gasoline. In fact, while we import a whole lot of oil, what, I think about 60 percent is used for fuel, for gasoline.

Mr. STEINER: Yeah, about half of it goes into our fuel tanks. And then the rest of it goes, I mean, if you're sitting in an office right now, look around. Look at your carpet, your desk is probably laminated, your ceiling tiles are probably made of fuel, all of it, all of it.

CONAN: Everything. So, when the price of oil goes to six, eight, 10, 20 dollars a gallon, all those things are going to be fabulously more expensive. Plastics that are disposable today, filling up landfills across the country, all of a sudden those are going to become dear.

Mr. STEINER: Well, I think we'll use less stuff first of all. And second of all, there's other ways to make plastic. You know, you can make it from corn, you can make it from coal, and in general, we'll value the stuff we have more. We'll become less of a disposable society.

CONAN: We want to hear from our callers today and our emailers. How would your life change if the price of gasoline moved from about $2.50 a gallon, where it is now for regular, up to, well, six, eight, 10, 20 dollars a gallon. Give us a call - 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. Let's start with Jesse(ph). Jesse with us from Charlottesville in Virginia.

JESSE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

JESSE: Well, I'm in a band, in a small kind of local - you know, toured nationally and internationally, but, you know, we're barely making the bills. And I'm interested to see, you know, how when the gas gets really expensive, you know, all of a sudden we're gonna make no money.

CONAN: Right.

JESSE: Yeah, it sort of shrinks your market but also concentrates the market.

CONAN: Yeah, there will be fewer interlopers coming in from outside just as you will be unable to go play - well, Chicago or Los Angeles quite so easily. Chris Steiner, that's going to change things for musicians.

Mr. STEINER: That's something I never thought of. You're totally right. I guess you will have less interlopers, but you won't be able to get around. I think the good news for bands looking far ahead is that there will be more people living closer to you. Most likely you'll live in denser locations, and that means more music venues, which means you can cover more ground without going as far.

CONAN: Hmm. Jesse, where are you playing next?

JESSE: Let's see. Next, I'm out in the West coast, going to Oregon, Seattle and stuff. And, you know, if you like old time music, (unintelligible), there you go.

CONAN: All right.

JESSE: I've got another comment about - with the cost of gas going up so much, how much of that money - would it be silly to artificially inflate the gas prices early so that the extra money can be invested in more sustainable transportation use, and light rail and Metro, stuff like that.

CONAN: Well, we know where Jesse's band is playing. We know he's also not running for Congress because he is talking about raising the gas tax.

JESSE: (Unintelligible).

Mr. STEINER: That's right. Go ahead.

CONAN: I heard you. Chris, go ahead.

Mr. STEINER: Yeah, I know, I think it's politically, it's just such a messy thing. It's dynamite. No one wants to touch it. I mean, even we all know that the highway fund needs more money and that we should have raised the gas tax in Washington just at least on the federal level. The Obama administration doesn't want to do it because of the 2010 elections. They don't want to poison the Democrats with that toxic thing. And even though I do think, yeah, his point about raising the gas tax, I mean, I think a dollar tax phased in over quarters, you know, over across, maybe four year - no, I'm sorry, two years. I think that would do us a lot of good. And I think, you look at the money situation. Our government needs that revenue and it could sorely use it. I mean if you look at the deficits we have, they already do it in Europe. And there's no reason we couldn't do it here.

CONAN: Again, I don't think Chris is running for Congress either, so…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEINER: I am not.

CONAN: Well, let's hear from another Chris(ph). This one calling from Phoenix.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi, Neal. I'm a long time listener, first time caller.

CONAN: Well, thank you for both those things.

CHRIS: And actually I'm a downtown real estate broker in Phoenix. And I can't wait for the price of gas to get to be 10 or $15 a gallon. The urban real estate market is limited here, and the higher the price of gas, the more demand, and so my business will improve. And I can see a gas station outside my dining room window, and every time the price of gas goes up, my partner and I cheer…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHRIS: …because it's good for business.

CONAN: And that goes to your point, Chris Steiner, that indeed we would become a denser society. People would move back into cities and towns.

Mr. STEINER: That's right…

CHRIS: I love downtown Chicago and downtown New York. I just want Phoenix to be the same thing because this is my home. So I'm looking forward to it.

CONAN: Chris Steiner, go ahead.

Mr. STEINER: Yeah. I mean, when you talk about New York, I mean, the amazing thing about it is on the island of Manhattan, at least, you have 70,000 people per square mile. When you talk about a city like Dallas, you're talking about 3,000 people per square mile. The difference is amazing. But the reason you can do what you do in New York is because of the transit infrastructure that underlies the island.

Infrastructure begets density. So, what I would look for in the future, as the price of gas goes up, you're going to see cities behave more like New York. They are going to build - they are going to be willing to spend the real money to build the types of subways and light rail and elevated trains that will be needed to give people enjoyable density, that still makes life livable with the density that comes with energy savings.

CONAN: And Chris, thanks very much for the phone call.

CHRIS: Thank you.

CONAN: And concomitantly, the people who move to the exurbs, well, they are -those places are going to turn into ghost towns, you say.

Mr. STEINER: I think eventually, a lot of those places just aren't - they're just not sustainable. I mean, 4,000 square feet at a low price, you're not going to be able to heat it. You're not going to be able to cool it, let alone the fact that you've got to drive six or seven miles to get everywhere.

These are places without sidewalks, in some cases. I mean, they out-and-out acknowledge that you are going to get out of bed and get straight into your car. I mean, that's the way life works. And in the future, that's just not going to be sustainable.

CONAN: And another loser in all of this, as we mentioned, airlines. You say at $8 a gallon, that's the killer asteroid for the airlines.

Mr. STEINER: Well, it's certainly the killer asteroid for most of airlines. They'll stick around, just because there's always going to be people who need to get somewhere fast and are willing to pay. But half of our domestic capacity will disappear at $8 per gallon. In fact, we may lose some of them before then.

United is in dire straits right now, as are a couple of the other carriers, just because of the economic malaise right now. People aren't flying, even with cheap ticket prices. But if we go to eight bucks and a coast-to-coast ticket is $1,000, the traffic is going to go way down. You're going to see most of the legacies go out of business.

Southwest and Jet Blue would probably take over the skies, for the most part. Continental may hold on as our one international carrier of consequence for the United States.

CONAN: And a trip to Europe would cost…

Mr. STEINER: Probably about 2,000 bucks at that point.

CONAN: Wow. That almost makes traveling by ship competitive.

Mr. STEINER: Well, you know, it happened once. It'll happen again.

CONAN: And the other thing you - industry that you say is due for a big comeback is rail, because as those prices for flights go up and up and up, it's going to be non-commercial - not commercially possible to fly routes of 350, 500 miles, and so rail traffic is going to have to build up.

Mr. STEINER: I mean, rails are such a beautiful thing. I mean, to be able to get on a train in downtown Chicago here at Union Station and get off in midtown Manhattan seven hours later, that's something that we could have. That's something that other countries already have.

I mean, look at what Spain has built over the last 10 years. I mean, they have cut the travel time between Madrid and Barcelona from seven hours to two and a half. Their trains go 200 miles an hour.

We have nothing like it. Even the Northeast Corridor that goes from Boston to Washington, its top speed is 150, 140 miles at a couple points, and that's it. Most of it goes much slower. But as the price goes up, you're going to see these projects pushed. And I think first you'll see regional networks in the Midwest that go from, like, say Chicago to Milwaukee to St. Louis to Detroit. And you'll see the same thing on the West Coast, and you'll see the same thing in the Southeast. And eventually, those lines will all be joined.

CONAN: And you see this as a government project, a gigantic Amtrak? Or is this going to be so competitive that private industry is going to get back into it?

Mr. STEINER: That's a good question. I think government is clearly a wildcard here. They could effect change quicker than, say, the pure price of gas would affect it. I don't know. It all depends who's in charge, how much money they have, what they decide to do. I certainly think the government will be involved with anything like this because it's just hard to do without them.

CONAN: Chris Steiner's book is called "$20 Per Gallon." He argues that will be a good thing. He also says it's going to be inevitable. So what would be different for you at 6, 10, $20 a gallon? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Chris Steiner acknowledges that the road to $20 gas will leave many people financially devastated. Huge companies will disappear but, he writes, not all of the change we face is gloomy.

We will get more exercise, breathe fewer toxins, eat better food and make a smaller impact on our earth. Giant businesses will rise as entrepreneurs' intrepid minds elegantly solve our society's mounting challenges. Some people even welcome oil's coming paucity and expense as one of humankind's grand experiments, and in fact, it will be so. The future will be exhilarating.

Chris Steiner's book is titled "$20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better." How about you? How will your life be different at 6, 10, $20 a gallon? Will you move? What will happen to your business? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Ron, and Ron's calling us from Holton, Kansas.

RON (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Ron. Go ahead, please.

RON: You know, for three years, I ran a small herd of cattle on my ranch in southeast Kansas, which is about 170 miles one way from Holton, and so when this gas got up $4.10, $4.15 a gallon, I said this is crazy. I can't go down there in the winter and bring hay, even, you know?

So I sold my herd of cattle, and I'm wondering how many small ranchers like me, who have other jobs but ranch on the side, I'm wondering how many of those are going to go away in high gas, too?

CONAN: Chris Steiner, what do you think?

Mr. STEINER: I don't know. It's a very good question as far as the small ranchers go. I think the small ranchers who are closer to urban areas or even to small-to medium-sized towns are going to do better because what people are going to look for at that point is local produce, something you really don't see in the grocery store right now.

Like, when I go to, say, Safeway or Albertsons, I see apples from New Zealand. I see apples from Washington State. I don't see apples from southwest Michigan or southeast Wisconsin, even though it's very close to my house in Chicago, and those areas are full of orchards.

Now in the future, I'm going to see apples from southwest Michigan. I'm going to see apples from southeast Wisconsin because the cost of moving apples from New Zealand is no longer going to be negligible.

CONAN: And one of the most interesting short lines in Chris Steiner's book is: Globalism is reversible.

Mr. STEINER: Yeah. No, I mean, it really is. You know, Thomas Friedman sold a lot of books proclaiming the world is flat, and he's right. But the earth's going to get round again as the price of gas goes up.

CONAN: Ron, what do you do on that farm now, on that ranch now?

RON: Well, when I was in the military, my son - I financed the building of a small cabin down there, a steel cabin, and basically all the pastures are growing up into brush and trees, and in 20 years, it'll be deciduous forest again.

CONAN: Hm. What it was originally.

RON: Yes.

CONAN: All right, Ron, good luck.

RON: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. One of the things that Chris Steiner writes in his book, that steel cabin, probably a good idea. We're not going to see asphalt roofs too much anymore, either.

Here's an email we have from Heather in Cleveland. I am curious what your guest believes the effect will be, if any, on retail. Would big-box stores like Wal-Mart or the neighborhood mom-and-pop stores thrive in a $20-a-gallon environment?

Mr. STEINER: What a great question. In Chapter 14, Wal-Mart's killed off by the high price of gas. And Wal-Mart could certainly morph to something different than it is now, but what it is now is a network with 6,000 suppliers, 80 percent of whom are in China.

This stuff gets shipped over from China, then disseminated to 4,000 different stores in America by 7,000 Wal-Mart semi-trucks. That is a network built purely on gasoline. The only reason it works is because of cheap oil.

Now the Wal-Mart people, they're very smart. Maybe they'll figure out a new way of doing things, but that will have to involve more local goods, local services, local things like that. Maybe they'll end up on Main Street in 12,000-square-foot stores rather than five miles outside of town in 200,000-square-foot stores. But we may end up with a pile of what they call ghost boxes all over America, which is what they call an abandoned Wal-Mart store.

CONAN: And that would build up downtown areas that had been devastated by the growth of those big-box stores outside of those towns.

Mr. STEINER: Exactly. I mean, I see small town Main Street - especially the small towns that have good, old infrastructures that are still there, they may even be empty right now. Those are the kind of towns that are going to thrive and profit in the future.

CONAN: Here's an email from Jennifer in Minnesota. People don't understand what it's like for us living in rural America. I drive 48 miles each way to work every day, and gas prices, well, any increase over $4 a gallon would break my family.

As it stands right now, I can't afford to buy a more efficient vehicle or to move, and jobs closer to my house don't pay enough. So it would be a financial disaster for us.

And you acknowledge, Chris, for a lot of people, it's going to be difficult.

Mr. STEINER: Well, at some point, they're just going to make the decision to move. That's what's going to happen. I mean, she has that job. It's 50 miles away. Maybe they move over there. I mean, I think a lot of Americans right now face situations just like her. And they don't mind making the drive because they may have made that decision when gas was $1.50, and it really wasn't a big deal. In the future, we'll decide more - you know, we'll make that decision as to where we live and where we work. It won't be so ambiguous. It'll really -they'll really be tied together.

CONAN: Let's go to Doug, Doug with us from Phoenix.

DOUG (Caller): Hello, how's it going?

CONAN: Pretty well, thanks.

DOUG: I have to say I'm conflicted about all of this. I would love to see more public transport, and I'd love to see more dense urbanization. I am currently a flight instructor, and my goal is to someday be an airline pilot, and that projection from the airline industry kind of makes sense from what I've been hearing.

I wonder if you guest has considered the possibility of developments of alternative fuel, algae-based biodiesel for aircraft and electric cars for the automotive sector.

CONAN: Chris?

Mr. STEINER: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, electric cars are definitely going to become parts of our lives. The problem with the cars is that it just - it's going to take so long for them to come in. People are going to take the path of least resistance, and that's moving to denser places.

Right now, there's 200-million vehicles or so on the streets of America. Even if we build five-million electric cars a year, it would take 40 years to replace all of our vehicles with electric ones. It's just not something that's going to happen quick enough to make the kind of difference that we need it to.

As far as planes go, there are people who think a generation from now, planes will be able to run on a biofuel. Right now, they can do it on mixtures. But the fact remains that, you know, I think airline pilots are kind of in the same boat as journalists right now. We don't know what our future is going to be like. It's rather ambiguous.

CONAN: Doug…

DOUG: I know that Virgin Atlantic has experimented with running one engine on -I believe it's a coconut-based biofuel, that they did that a couple years ago.

Mr. STEINER: Yeah, it's very possible. I mean, I'm not saying it's not possible to do it. What I'm saying is that the cost when they do it, it's probably equal to $10 or $12 gasoline. It's not an equal exchange. They're just trying to figure out if they can do it. And I think eventually they'll be able to figure out a way to run stuff on vegetable oil, or what have you. The problem is that stuff isn't very cheap. It needs a feed stock. All of these crops need a feed stock, and right now, the feed stock is usually petroleum.

CONAN: The fertilizer, yeah.

Mr. STEINER: Yeah, right, exactly.

CONAN: Doug, thanks very much.

DOUG: Thank you.

CONAN: And good luck to you.

DOUG: Thanks.

Mr. STEINER: Absolutely.

CONAN: And here's email sort of on the same point from Benjamin. The U.S. government is a huge consumer of fuel for military applications. What are we to do without Apache helicopters or Abrams tanks?

Mr. STEINER: Well, yeah, the Abrams tanks - I mean, they are a fuel-sucker. And when we attack in Iraq, say, and our line of Abrams tanks is moving up the flank of the enemy, we a lot of times fly them fuel with Apache helicopters and other helicopters, and that ends up working out to about $600 a gallon when it finally gets to the Abrams tank.

So it certainly - but the military is very aware of its dependency, as they're aware of most things, and they're working on ways to get around it. But obviously, we're going to fly fewer sorties in the future. We're going to have fewer planes, but the military is working on this. They're very aware of it. Right now, when we have a mobile command structure in Iraq or Afghanistan, it's a giant tent that basically runs on diesel fuel all day because they need to air condition it because the place is so hot, and if it's 130 degrees, you can't have commanders sitting in a tent that hot, and they have to run all the satellite equipment they have and all the computers they have.

They're building command centers right now for the Army that are going to run on wind power and on solar power. So they're aware of their problem, and they're working on it.

CONAN: Even the generals, they would let them suffer. The computers, that's another story.

Mr. STEINER: They're the problem, for sure.

CONAN: Let's talk with Russ, Russ with us from Kansas City.

RUSS (Caller): Hello, yeah, back in the '90s, I converted a Jeep Cherokee to run on kerosene. I was getting about 40 miles a gallon. It was running a steam engine. And I would convert my Chevy 3500 full of tools, which I can't really pack them all in a Prius. I'm an alarm installer and electrician, and I need all my ladders and stuff. I would convert it to run on wood gas. I would make a gasafire(ph). I've done it before for small engines, and I can do it for a big engine.

CONAN: Gasafire, and at that - how expensive is that per gallon, Russ?

RUSS: Well, BTU for BTU, if I bought wood chips, it would be about - it worked out to be about $.60 a gallon for gasoline, if you're thinking just raw BTUs. So even at ruinously low efficiencies, it's a good bet. Wood chips might become - or wood pellets might become a little scarce as the economy and the economics of production changed, but I live on five acres of saplings. A little time with an axe or an electric chainsaw, and I'm good to go.

CONAN: So Chris Steiner…

RUSS: It's not the most efficient way to do things, but it is very reliable, and it worked in World War II in Norway.

CONAN: And I was going to say, Chris Steiner, you know, everybody is talking about Prius, we all could be driving Stanley Steamers instead.

Mr. STEINER: Boy, is that cool. Russ, you're going to be a man in demand in the future with those kinds of skills. Yeah.

RUSS: (Unintelligible) so that will be a familiar territory.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEINER: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

RUSS: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Russ.

Mr. STEINER: Thanks, Russ.

CONAN: How far in the future is this $6, $8, $10, $12, $20 a gallon?

Mr. STEINER: Well, you know, if we have a full economic recovery, and let's hope we do, I think $6 really isn't that far off. I mean, you see China's growth hasn't dissipated nearly as much as the rest of the world. They grew at an 8 percent clip in the second quarter. China actually passed us as the leading car market in the world. They bought more cars in the first half of year than the United States. And that's the first time that's ever happened.

So, you know, there's a big demand outside the U.S. for gas right now and it's not going to go away. If we recover - I can see $6 happening within the next three, four years.

CONAN: Whoo. Here's an e-mail from Chris(ph) in Birmingham, Alabama. I just spent 15 minutes circling the block listening to today's program before going into work. If gas hits $15 a gallon, NPR just might suffer. Indeed, the traffic jam is one of our biggest audience builders. I actually welcome more expensive gas, he writes, and the return of neighborhoods in the advent of true telecommuting. And I guess that would get a boost.

Here's an e-mail from Michael Morris(ph) in St. Louis. Zoning would need to change. People used to live very close to the factories and there were shops on the corners. Zoning laws that segregate building types have contributed to sprawl, and that will have to change. Indeed, that's one of the subjects, Chris, you write about in the book.

Mr. STEINER: Yeah. Michael, you're after my heart. I put that in the book. I mean, it's amazing the way we've manipulated zoning laws across the country to enable suburban sprawl. You can't put a shop in a neighborhood in most places. So a lot of things I write about will have - for them to be possible, zoning laws will have to change. You're absolutely right.

CONAN: All right. We're talking with Christopher Steiner. He's a writer for Forbes, and his new book is called "$20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better." If you'd like to get in on the conversation: 800-989-8255; e-mail: talk@npr.org. And this is TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And let's see if we can go next to John(ph). John's with us from Two Rivers in Alaska.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to say that a lot of times you folks, when you propose measures like this, you don't seem to understand what a direct attack it is on rural, lower income people. I'm just on my way home right now, driving home from my job. I've got 60 miles to go. You know, the price of gas is really important. And, for example, also the junker(ph) car law, they're saying that you can trade your junker in and you'll get, you know, a rebate on a new car, like a Prius or some kind of a fuel-efficient car.

I mean, these cars are in my dreams. They're the kind of cars rich people buy. I buy - I drive a junker I bought for $1,000. And where am I going to find another junker for $1,000 if, you know, if all these laws go through? How can -I mean, it takes - these measures are just totally from another planet from the one I live in.

CONAN: John, just - I hear your pain, but he's not talking about laws or measures or anything passed by a government. He's talking about the market that is going to increase the price of gasoline by, well, eight times is what he's talking about, $2.50 now up to $20 a gallon. He's not talking about government doing this. He's talking about the market doing this.

JOHN: Yeah. But he's saying that would be a good thing to do. And every time I sit here and people say things like that - and also the ones who propose the junker law, for example - I feel like that they think, when they say it's a good thing, they come from another planet. They have no idea what kind of life - what a direct attack - saying that's a good thing, what that means for rural, lower income people, like myself.

CONAN: Chris Steiner?

Mr. STEINER: John, I understand completely what you're saying. And I want you to know - I mean, I'm not attacking your way of life. When I wrote the book, originally, it was just kind of a thought experiment at what would happen if the price of gas went up. And surprisingly, from some points of view, there are good things that happen. There are a lot of bad things. There will be a lot of pain. But I think a lot of that pain is going to be toward the beginning of this as we change the way we live, as we go from a society built around the automobile, built around businesses that are - easily conquerable to shorter distances and denser life.

So I understand exactly what you're saying. But you understand, I am not promoting the price of gas going up. I'm just merely stating that I think it's going to happen.

JOHN: But you're saying it's a good thing, though.

Mr. STEINER: I'm saying there are good things that could come from it. Certainly not all of them will be good. And I'm…

JOHN: What I wish is that people who would say that good things will come of it or who propose the ecological laws, I think they should realize - you know, like the junker car law, I think they should realize that they should be aware that there's another world out there and that these things are so - such a direct attack and so harmful and hurtful to people who are trying to make a living in a rural, lower income setting.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call. Good luck.

JOHN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And another group heard from Kathleen(ph) in Florida. This is a great idea, except I'm in a motorized wheelchair and drive my van from that chair. Obviously, my van does not great miles per gallon, but there's no other way I can get back and forth to work. With 24-plus gallon tank, I would have to stop working since there's no way my salary would cover that sort of expense.

And this from Tony Miller(ph) in Minnesota. If gas went much above $5, I would move my town home at whatever price I could get and move into a city with excellent public transportation system, like San Francisco, Chicago, or New York.

And some of the benefits you're talking about - and again, this is not going to be possible for everybody - but some of the benefits you're talking about, Chris Steiner, come from people moving from those town homes on the edges of towns, where everything's done in the car to dense urban environments where you walk to work and walk to the movies and ride a bike to the store.

Mr. STEINER: That's right. And one of the weird things is that there's a professor at the University of North Carolina, his name is Charles Courtemanche, who has linked obesity to the price of gas.

Now, certainly, there are a lot of things that go into obesity, the kind of food - people eat, the kind of things they do in their spare time. But also the price of gas has played a role. As the price of gas stayed low over most of the past 30 years - you know, it just really blew up in the last eight years -people move further and further away, and our lives became more car-centric.

And just the activity you get from going, say, walking six blocks to the train, and then when you get off the train you usually have to walk to work, and that's another six, seven blocks, but then you do it on the way home too. It's really not a big deal to do but it makes a huge difference over time. And whereas going from your bed to your garage, to your car, to the parking lot of your place, to your desk, that does nothing for you.

CONAN: And the air will be cleaner because we'll be driving fewer miles. But anyway, Chris Steiner, thank you so much for your time today and good luck with the book.

Mr. STEINER: Thanks much, Neal.

CONAN: Christopher Steiner, staff writer for Forbes, is the author of "$20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better," with us today from the studios of Chicago Public Radio.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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