Monday, June 30, 2008

Wildly gas-ticulating

[Ed. Note: I talked to Steve awhile ago about each of us blogging about a shared topic, a sort of intellectual exchange and a way to take in some different perspectives. One night, I was lying awake in bed worrying about the world, and decided on the following topic: Gas. I passed that single word on to Steve, with no other guidelines. Check out the result of his efforts over at Mixed Cookies. Feel free to comment here or there. Or if you have a blog of your own, let the dialoguing begin, and I will link to it from here. Enjoy!]

Rowan has been trying to sell her car, a little gas-sipper. The other day, a guy pulled into the yard in a giant truck with tires that reached up to my nipples. He wanted something more gas efficient. And a couple days earlier, a woman came to look at the car with her young child in tow. She wanted to replace her Yukon.

People are feeling the pinch of the economy and looking for relief. For some folks, the use of less gas is the most salient remedy.

A couple of weeks ago, Steve said that he thought there would be gas riots by the end of the summer. While we haven't reached that point yet, we have reached the point where people are prostituting themselves for gas money, including one incident that involved someone getting stabbed with scissors.

The situation is far more dire in Cameroon, where the people have rioted in the streets against their government's policies on gas and food. It is a place where cabbies often leave their cars sitting immobile until they can scrape together more money through other means in order to afford more gas.

We feel like the cost of our gas is so very painful, but we can put things into perspective if we look at the price of gas in Europe. Our gas is cheap compared to other countries. And while Europe offers a quality of life and an income similar to America, the people of many other countries are paying a ridiculous percentage of their income to buy gas, since wages are lower but gas costs remain the same or higher.

But how long can we continue behaving the way we have before we find ourselves in similarly dire straits?

Some of the people looking at Rowan's car have said they are interested, but they want to sell their current vehicles first. But with gas at its current price and rising, who is going to buy a vehicle that gets 10 mpg?

These people are somewhat trapped in their current circumstances by their previous short-sighted behaviors.

Their situations are not so different than what has happened to our country. Unlike other places in the world, we have sufficient space that has allowed for mass exoduses from the cities into the suburbs. Ironically, in an age where we have used technology to bring us intellectually closer together, we have tried to physically separate ourselves. We have failed to build a superior public transit infrastructure, and we have failed to fully utilize the infrastructure we have, also partly due to some need for physical independence.

Perhaps the current administration has failed us by not pushing through legislation to require automotive makers to develop vehicles with higher gas mileage, but it isn't the government that is buying all of the gas guzzlers.

And now these previous actions, which were allowed and encouraged by a strong economy and low fuel costs, are coming back to haunt us and are not easily remedied.

Some people want the government to step in and save us from the high gas prices. McCain, among others, has advocated for the idea of a gas tax "holiday" for the summer. But even if this holiday was extended for a full year or more, the idea is stupid because its effects would be minimal. The politicians are proposing an 18-cent-per-gallon cut in taxes. The average American drives 12,000 miles a year. If we use 20 mpg as an average of efficiency, the average American uses 600 gallons of gas a year. A savings of $0.18 a gallon equals $108 a year. However, the program would only run for the summer, meaning everyone would save less than $30, but at a cost of about $10 billion to the nation. Like the economic stimulus checks, it is moderate relief for us, but a giant tax on our children and our future.

The government can only affect prices so much, and the answer to the problem of rising gas prices is a riddle worthy of the sphinx. There are not simple answers since there are so many factors involved, factors as far-ranging as insurgents in the Niger delta.

The price of oil, like the price of most commodities, is regulated by the much discussed and recognized laws of supply and demand. But part of the problem with thinking about oil in this way is that no one is really sure how big the supply is. We are dealing with a problem we don't fully understand.

Instead of wishing for lower gas prices or waiting for the government to wave its long-sought magic wand, we need to change our behaviors. We need to make ourselves less reliant on fuel, instead of waiting around for others to make the change.

Joseph Romm points out that only 27 percent of Republicans believe that humans are the cause of global warming. (I don't mean to attack conservatives here; I just think Romm makes a good point starting from the use of this bit of information.) The main concern he finds with this statistic is that "if you don't believe humans are the cause of global warming, you're not going to believe that humans are the solution to global warming." If someone doesn't think his or her vehicle is harming the environment, there is less impetus to change behavior.

We like our rights here in America. I have the right to drive my giant vehicle if I want, and while some of my neighbors might leer, the government will not even give me a small glance. However, as Romm states, "if we hold off today on government action, we will almost guarantee the need for extreme and intrusive government action in the future." If we don't make changes, or push the government to enforce changes, we'll find ourselves in a position where we don't have the ability to choose for ourselves.

We can blame Bush and the GOP all we want for our problems, but Daniel Gross contends that a changing of Presidents will not bring immediate change to our hurting economy. Gross does make the point that while new Presidents don't immediately affect the economy, they can affect our perceptions of the economy. This can lead to dangerous thinking, I believe, since our nation's perceptions of infallibility have perhaps led us to our current state of affairs. We so often feel that there are obvious solutions to our problems.

If we think a change in government is going to fix all of our problems, our personal burden to change is removed. We need to realize that each of us needs to do our part. I know that sounds old-fashioned and quaint, but in this situation I think it's true.

Thinking back on Rowan's attempts to sell her car, the image of the woman and her child and their Yukon sticks in my head. She wanted to save money now, but I think the real savings are in the quality of life for her child when she grows up. But do people think about this? As I've discussed before, people don't act for the greater good, they act for themselves. But whatever creates action is, on some level, good, I suppose.

There has been a lighter side to the situation, as it provides another launching point for the humor-inclined among us. For example, the Onion reports that "98% of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation for Others." As long as we can laugh about the situation, things are not that bad yet.

And not all of the fallout from the gas "crisis" has been negative, some people argue. Some of our behaviors have been changing, such as some companies offering four-day work-weeks to save a day of commuter's gasoline. We need to take these stepping stones and keep moving forward. To quote Tupac, who I'm sure would be driving a bio-diesel Escalade if he were alive, "You see, the old way wasn't working, so it's on us to do what we gotta do, to survive."

Garrison Keillor recently wrote an essay titled "For the sake of the girl with the beautiful swing." He is wandering through a small town and stops to watch an in-progress Little League game. He finds himself seated next to the father of the only girl in the game. The two men talk, and Keillor learns how the father feels about his daughter: "here is his girl taking a big lead off third base and he loves her so beautifully and unabashedly and wants the world to be there for her when it comes her time to fly."

Keillor feels that our President has let us down, and he hopes that, "for the sake of the girl with the beautiful swing," our next President is better.

But it isn't just the President who must be better. Fourth of July has come and passed, and even Will Smith hasn't saved us. I have not seen Hancock yet, but I think we can take a lot from a quote from the eponymous hero: "You deserve better from me. I can be better. I will be better."

It's a mantra we should all adopt.

We must all be better, for the sake of the future, for the sake of that girl with the beautiful swing, for the sake of that person across from you at the gas pump.

For the sake of that girl still riding in the back of the Yukon.

And, yes, for ourselves.


Steve said...

1) Your nipples?

2) I like this longer form for you, Kurd. Now make it 2x as long and get it into some journals. You have to mix this with some present action in your life (more about Rowan, probably) and it's perfect writing. It's almost more magazine than journal nonfiction (both are good).

Steve said...

...And I kind of agree with those Republicans, honestly. When I taught Global Warming in Missouri, I often, often came through my readings with the idea that none of this is set in stone, scientifically. Maybe I am just too contrarian for my own good in this case, but I do not see how humans have enough perspective on the patterns of our planet's warming and cooling cycles. This question was posed in one article I long ago read, and it has always stuck with me: "Does the average temperature of the planet's surface even have any relevance?" Does it? What does such a mean-reading mean? If my toes are warmer than my heart, am I dying?

Kurd said...

I agree with you, somewhat. Perhaps natural cycles are coinciding with man's existence to make our actions appear more directly costly. But, as I sort of mentioned, I feel that type of thinking leads us down a dangerous path. If we don't feel at fault, we don't change our behavior. Even if the average surface temperature doesn't really matter, we still overconsume. What happens when we cut down the last tree to make the last wrapper for the last Big Mac made from a real cow because we no longer have any place to graze them because our land is filled with garbage? Or because the ground is dimpled with holes from our search to replace the resources we've used up? Maybe it's the minimalist in me, but I think we need an ethos (and maybe throw in some pathos and structure it with some logos) of, simply, less. Less gas, less waste, just less. For less stress, I guess. I have no problem with the term "conservative," except when it's used as a perfect synonym for "status quo." Eventually something has got to give. Otherwise we will reach a point where not even Ron Popeil can invent something to save us.