Reconciling Conflicting Futures
There has been a notable increase recently in the publication of books that attempt to predict the future. Although many of these titles confront issues of major concern from similar vantage points (such as climate change), the most intriguing books illustrate extreme—and conflicting—forecasts.
Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next ($30; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 2011) anticipates a future in which airports overtake traditional cities as hubs of commercial and cultural activity. Authors John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay predict that current trajectories in airline traffic and airport growth will result in the future dominance of the airport as a geophysical and economic center within metropolitan areas. While the book presents a compelling scenario (also predicted in the 1990’s by OMA), it makes questionable presumptions about the continued affordability of fossil fuels.
Christopher Steiner’s book $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better ($24.99; Grand Central Publishing, 2009) paints a decidedly different picture of the future of air travel. In “Chapter $8: The Skies Will Empty,” Steiner predicts that the end of cheap oil will sound the death knell for four of the five remaining legacy airlines, simply because rising fuel costs will eventually make frequent flying unpalatable for most passengers. Although fuel price fluctuations are typical, it is notable that jet fuel accounted for only 13 percent of costs in 2003—yet as much as 40 percent of costs in 2008. According to International Air Transport Association CEO Giovanni Bisignani, “the crisis is reshaping the industry in more severe ways than the demand shocks of SARS or 9/11.”
So how could two future viewpoints be so opposed? I believe the culprit is timing. Although both texts make persuasive arguments about future transformations, the real question is when such changes will occur. If oil prices don’t exceed $4 per gallon for a decade, for example, the airport while likely continue to expand its role as a vital commercial center during that time. However, the consumption of nonrenewable resources follows a predictable trajectory—and ultimately fossil fuels will become increasingly expensive. As Steiner acknowledges, people will continue to fly, but more will choose less expensive routes—including staying put.