$4 Gas: Catalyst or Cataclysm

I don’t have a problem with four-dollar gas.  Or five-dollar gas.  Or six dollars or seven.  Maybe it’s my own shallowness that causes me to simply want to be a part of something bigger than myself.  Though I served in Gulf War one, I don’t really think that my military experience gave me the sense of participation in a great national struggle.

So maybe I long to be a part of such a struggle, such an opportunity, where the future of the world turns on the behavior of the generations involved in that struggle.  Then again maybe my motivation runs deeper.  Maybe I simply believe in the greatness of America so much so that I understand that without America’s participation in any global struggle there will never be the positive outcome that the world desires.

It should come as no surprise that Americans need a kick in the butt to get involved in any global struggle. World War I, which began in 1914, raged for over three years before the United States was co-opted into full participation.  The fighting of World War II began in 1939 yet it was more than two years before the United States became fully involved in that global conflict and then only after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  So I’m not surprised that high gas prices in other countries a few years back, when gas prices here in America were still a tolerable two dollars a gallon, were insufficient to spur the great American economy into action.  We were able to sit back and relax knowing that this enemy wasn’t disembarking on our shores.   But now the battle has been brought directly to our homeland.  Gasoline prices are spiking, as never before, and regardless of who’s to blame, the bottom line is that each and every American who pays for gasoline is acutely aware that changes are needed in our energy policy.

My fear is that quickly rectifying the situation in a manner that returns gas to below three dollars a gallon would remove the impetus to action on the part of Americans. This is exactly what happened in the late 70s. President Carter put forth an ambitious energy policy that the Reagan administration promptly abandoned after prices returned to normal.

Fortunately, four-dollar gas is not the violent, instantaneous call to action that Pearl Harbor or 9/11 was.  Four-dollar gas at American pumps is not the type of catastrophe with ripples that are felt for months and even years in the American psyche.  If gas returns to a tolerable level tomorrow we will quickly forget how thin our wallets have been over the past year and return to our gluttony of the world’s oil supply.  But it should now be clear to every American that long-term and permanent changes need to be made to American energy policy.

“Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me,” the adage goes.  A century ago we committed to creating a petroleum-based economy.  Who could have foreseen the unintended consequences that occurred in the last hundred years?  But with hindsight as a counselor, we can now see the follies of many of our decisions.  Notwithstanding that every war is a war over resources, the last two wars the United States has been involved in have clearly been wars for access to oil.

Applying all of the greatness of America’s creativity, ingenuity and economic might to the problem, I suspect that since it took nearly a century to create the problem we now face, it will take at least half as much time to change our course.  Fifty years–half a century–to undo what we have done.  The constant pain inflicted on Americans by four dollar a gallon gasoline is the necessary catalyst to jumpstart America’s complete involvement in solving the current conundrum in which we now find ourselves.

There have been many studies done attempting to predict the point at which the world will reach peak oil production, that point in time at which the world will have produced the most oil it can at a given point in time after which oil production will steadily decline.  Regardless of whether you believe peak oil production will occur in 10 years 20 years or 30 years, given the fact that oil is a limited resource, that day will one day arrive. If gasoline were to return to two dollars a gallon tomorrow, the past year of rising oil prices rising gas prices and economic woes caused by those conditions should be a clear glimpse into the future when oil production is, without a doubt, on the decline. This is the time for the United States to act.  This is the time for the United States to reclaim our role as world leader–by accepting the reality of the situation and accepting the challenges that this situation presents for our great nation.

Already we’ve seen Americans begin to make great changes.  Studies are showing that individuals and families are driving fewer miles than they did a year ago and carpooling is up.  Cities are investing in new mass transportation and the use of current mass transportation is on the rise.  Local and state governments are taking the initiative to try various tactics to decrease gas and energy usage, from Michigan’s Governor Jennifer Granholm proposing a reduction of the speed limit to 55 to Utah’s governor instituting a four-day workweek.  Every day it seems I read about another start-up automobile company investing in the development of car powered by alternative energy sources.  Homebuilders are, more and more, constructing their products with greater energy efficiency and incorporating newer technologies to reduce energy usage in the home.  All in all, America is beginning, once again, to demonstrate its willingness and ability to rise to any challenge it faces.  The sign of our greatness will not be our ability to quickly return gasoline prices to two dollars a gallon but rather our willingness and ability to learn from the lessons of the last century and incorporate those lessons into new energy policy that becomes a benchmark for the next century and for every other country on the planet.

It’s human nature to take the path of least resistance.  When gas is cheap, there’s virtually no resistance and certainly no reason to change direction.  But when gasoline is four dollars or more per gallon, resistance is great and there becomes a national consensus that a new direction is needed that provides less resistance than the current course of action.

Difficulties are part of life.  There’s no avoiding them.  But rising fuel costs need not be the cataclysmic event most people think it is. The question becomes, will we view ourselves as victims as difficulties mount or will we view these difficulties as opportunities?  America has a history of the latter.  America has a history of not backing down.  Today, with gas at four dollars a gallon and rising, the enemy is clear and our challenges are well defined.  We should view every painful trip to the pump as a reminder that each of us has a part to play in creating America’s future for ourselves and our children and our grandchildren.

As I dictate this article, I’m making the 150-mile journey from San Antonio, Texas, to Waco, Texas in the family minivan.  I’m acutely aware of the fact that I am a part of the problem, as are the myriad of cars that surround me in stop and go traffic through Austin.  I’m acutely aware that the sheer geographic vastness of America, and the development of the automobile 100 years ago have caused each of us to make lifestyle choices which are not easily undone.  I wonder how I might make this trip a decade from now.  I wonder if I-35 will more closely resemble the Flintstones or the Jetsons.  I may be only one American, but I know from conversations with friends over the kitchen counter that many share my concerns but they also share my optimism.  But I’m also enough of a realist to understand that in the absence of an external force acting upon it an object at rest tends to stay at rest.  Four dollar a gallon gasoline is the external force America needs to get the ball rolling.

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Published in: on July 14, 2008 at 7:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

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