David Hoppe

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:: The high price of gas

Future shock

By David Hoppe


Here we go again: gasoline prices going UP.

The rising cost of a gallon of gas has been headline news for weeks. But you don't have to be a news junkie to get the message. All it takes is the need to get around in a car or a truck.

I drove up to northern Indiana last weekend. Usually the longest part of the trip sets in somewhere on Highway 421, between Brookston and Wanatah. The road is so straight and the landscape so flat it makes you want to grind your teeth just to have something new to think about.

This time, though, the trip's longest stretch took place at the pump. I watched dolefully, then with mounting alarm, as the numbers rolled hysterically past $30, then $35, $40, and $45, finally stopping at $47 plus change.

Recent headlines notwithstanding, we've known $4 gas was on its way; chances are the price will go higher still. This is painful but not unexpected. The only uncertainty here is what we'll do about it.

Remember 2008? Barely three years ago we were in almost the same spot. The overall economy seemed in better shape but that turned out to be a sham, fabricated from easy credit. For 25 years we'd been given credit cards instead of raises. It was a fool's paradise, propelled, in part, by artificially low energy prices.

In Spring 2008, gas rose to $3.75 a gallon and then surpassed $4. The causes cited at the time were oil producers' cutbacks coupled with their desire for greater profits.

Here in the United States, several things happened, almost all of them good.

People started looking for ways to limit their driving. Suddenly we were talking seriously about public transportation and pedestrian-friendly urban planning. There was a demand for more fuel-efficient cars. Indianapolis went on a bike lane binge, doing more for two-wheeled transportation in three years than had been accomplished in the previous quarter century.

We weren't as inclined to get behind the wheel to go pick up a gallon of milk. And, speaking of food, our interest in what was locally grown was accelerated by the realization that trucking produce across the country was not only inefficient, it was based on unrealistic energy prices.

Thinking local took on new meaning. A regionally-defined economic paradigm based on energy conservation began coming into focus.

On the other hand, the 2008 rise in gas prices also inspired the kind of spasmodic reactions familiar to anyone who's ever tried to quit smoking. Some of us started calling for the equivalent of looking for butts between our national couch cushions or at the bottom of our collective garbage bags. There were calls for domestic oil drilling in environmentally sensitive places, as well as more radical and destructive forms of procurement, such as deriving oil from shale.

For these folks, BP's deepwater oil drilling catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico was like a dark spot on a chest x-ray -- a warning sign, yes, but it didn't keep the addicts among us from making excuses for not changing their ways.

This time around, the gasoline spike is hitting us at an especially vulnerable moment. For most of us, the economy is still on the ropes. Incomes are down and credit is hard to come by. The weakened dollar exacerbates the situation. Higher gas prices mean that anything that travels is more expensive. Predictably, pressure is mounting for a major increase in domestic oil production.

But wherever the oil comes from, there's no guarantee that it will be cheap. Just the opposite. As sources of the stuff are reduced and getting it is made more extreme, the price is bound to go up. Like it or not, gasoline will be expensive.

This should not be news. We knew we'd have to do something about our dependency on fossil fuels when the Arabs cut supplies in the 1970's. Every president since Nixon has warned us that a day of reckoning was in store. Even George W. Bush - a person who knew something about going cold turkey - said our appetite for oil was an addiction.

What we choose to do about our energy consumption will have a direct impact on our understanding of both personal and collective liberties. That's probably why we've put off making any meaningful changes. We keep hoping for a market correction that will make things right - like they were when SUVs were cool.

But what's happening at the pump is just a preview of what's coming -- a cascade of challenges to our notions of livability. We can continue defining liberty, as we have with energy, as the right to consume and waste as much as we want. Until, that is, a crisis imposes its will upon us and we are forced to submit to necessity.

Or we can make choices now that assure us a reasonable shot at a sustainable future. This may lack the panache of crashing one's Hummer through a grove of redwoods. But, at least, the redwoods will still have a decent chance of being there.