Sunday, September 04, 2005

The End of the Oil Culture

The pain in the pocketbook is very real here in Wisconsin. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, gasoline prices have skyrocketed straight out of control. To make matters worse, many here in Vernon county, one of the poorest in the state, are facing the onset of autumn with the reality of growing fuel oil heating costs. Perhaps it's time, finally, for the United States to take a serious look at our dependence on oil (and by extension, gasoline) and look at ways to reduce our need of it.

Joe Baker at the Rock River Times nails it:

When demand outstrips supply, growth [development] will stop.

That means oil prices will soar until it is high enough to force demand downward.

The coming energy crunch will end our present car-crazy suburban lifestyle and force us to adopt alternative ways.

It is unfathomable to me how this reality continues to elude the thoughts of most Americans. Someday, likely in the next ten to twenty years, our country's voracious appetite for oil will be left unsated. All of the experts agree that there is a finite amount of oil on the planet and that, at some point, the supply will begin to decline. So why are we doing so little in regards to our transportation network as a country to prepare for this eventuality?

The first reason is federal government policy in the wake of the 1970's oil crisis. Most Asian and European nations took away from that time a sense of just how fragile and limited a petroleum-dependent infrastructure would be. They chose to heavily tax gasoline and petroleum, thereby forcing consumers and businesses to look for options that freed them from petroleum dependence. Consumer demand forced the development of extensive public transportation networks and much more stringent fuel economy standards for automobiles.
In the U.S., by contrast, our government took the stance that a cheap supply of oil would be the engine to drive our economy. The good and bad news is that it worked. Good news because the United States experienced unparalleled economic growth in the past 20 years, resulting in one of the highest economic qualities-of-life in the world. The bad news is that very little has been done to deal with the eventuality of diminishing petroleum supply. American automobiles have a mandated average fuel economy of an anemic 27.5 mpg in highway mileage, a figure which is actually impressive given the even more generous CAFE standards for the massive SUV's that have become the vogue fashion items of wealthy suburbanites. While most major American cities have public transportation, only New York and Chicago have truly extensive networks, and even these cities face massive automobile traffic each day. As the price of gasoline climbs higher and higher, the urban/suburban architecture of American cities becomes less and less economically viable.

The second reason for the lack of energy conservation in the American transportation network is the pop cultural significance of automobiles. Nothing is a more intrinsically recognized part of Americana than the automobile. From the classy cars of the 50's to the 70's muscle cars to today's monster SUV's, automobiles are one of the most recognizable American innovations and are cultural icons. Especially flashy automobiles with big engines, lots of horsepower and, unfortunately, the worst gas mileage to be found on the planet. One only has to watch a suburban Chicago soccer mom at the local Jewel-Osco loading groceries into a Hummer H2 (and I have!)to realize that Americans have a fanatical devotion to the feeling of power that comes with a monstrous, gas-guzzling behemoth. The only hope we have for a better energy future and less dependence on foreign oil is to somehow change this image. The recent upsurge in the popularity of hybrid cars shows that change is possible, but it's slow and time is running out!

So what happens as the price of gasoline climbs to $5, 6$ or even 7$ per gallon? True, that rising cost may finally remind the Big 3 automakers that gas-guzzling road hogs are not the responsible product to be peddling. The terrible reality is, however, that oil affects every aspect of our economy. It inflates the cost of every good we consume in the form of increased shipping costs. It's reflected in increased heating costs for a huge chunk of the country, many citizens of which cannot afford much in the way of increased expenses. The problem is exacerbated by how entrenched it is. For a personal example, as the cost of gas increases in Wisconsin, I cannot just run out to the local car dealership and buy a new, more fuel efficient vehicle without making some major financial commitments. Nor can I suddenly reduce my 150-mile daily commute without some major hassles and resume writing. The damage from our irresponsible energy policies, re-affirmed once again by the Bush Administration's egregious oil company welfare program (known to the rest of us as the Energy Act of 2005), is extensive and not easily corrected.

Baker again:

Obviously, the first and foremost step is conservation, then rising use of whatever alternative energies are available. Meantime, we need to get that contingency plan in place and begin thinking about what may happen as the social fabric unravels.

And we'd better start today. Our petroleum habit is unsustainable and the longer we wait to break it, the more severe the withdrawal will be.

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