The responses of politicians and the media to the rise in gas prices are a sad commentary on the state of intelligence and discourse in these sectors of our society. The release of less than one day's worth of oil from storage and a small reduction in the gas tax are laughable, self-serving responses. One New York radio station had listeners search, as if it were the holy grail, for the first gas station in the metropolitan area to charge two dollars a gallon for gas.
Americans really are spoiled. Adjusted for inflation, gasoline in this country costs less now than it did 36 years ago. In today's dollars, gas cost two dollars and twenty cents a gallon in 1980. In this country, gasoline is closer in price to bottled water than it is to its price in most other industrialized countries. Because gas is so cheap, Americans buy more fuel-guzzling sport utility vehicles and trucks. They drive faster and farther, which also use more gas. Three car garages are the norm in new suburban housing developments. Autos and roads form an essential umbilical cord which connects suburban residents to work, food and clothing needs, schools, athletics, entertainment and vacations.
Like so many of the issues politicians and the media make a big fuss about, the price rise and the gas tax are "red herrings." They serve to distract us from other real and much more serious issues.
Many people agree that the users of roads should pay for their construction and maintenance. Taxing the fuel that powers vehicles seems an elegant way to directly have the users themselves pay.
However, many costs are not paid for by the users, but by everybody else. In the case of gasoline and cars some expenses are paid with our taxes. These, as well as local and global health and environmental costs amount to between $1,000 and $2,000 per person per year, even for those who don't own a car.
The government spends more on the military to keep the Persian Gulf safe for US oil companies than the oil companies spend buying oil there. Yet, the tax code has many ways for oil companies to avoid paying taxes or to actually collect benefits. When the oil companies get to keep the proceeds from a repealed 4.3 cents a gallon gas tax, it'll fit right into the pattern.
Environmental costs from automobiles range from dirty air all along Connecticut's highways (highways which have run over its once fine cities), to pools of oil on Rhode Island beaches and in tropical rainforests, and deforestation from road and parking lot construction. These costs may pale, however, when compared with those of global climate change from our very profligate energy-use. Already insurance companies are reducing their exposure to risk along many coastlines in deference to increasingly severe storms. With the government, they have paid out billions of dollars to cover damages from hurricanes, floods, droughts, fires, snow storms and other recent erratic and record-breaking weather events. These may be caused or worsened by the changes we've already made to the atmosphere.
There are human costs, too. Inner-city children suffer from asthma and (according to a report released just this week) can expect shorter lives because of the great concentration of cars and pollution in urban areas. Veterans with Gulf War Syndrome, people whose land has been fouled by international oil giants so they can supply cheap gas to us, and those without cars - children, the poor and elderly - all pay an exorbitant price for our national oil addiction.
One big problem with cheap gasoline is that it encourages us to expect that gas will always be inexpensive and plentiful. This expectation underlies the design and construction of our communities and our food and transportation systems. New houses, schools, malls, fast food outlets and megastores assume a trouble-free energy future.
At some time we will likely face the realities of global climate change or a sharp increase in the price of oil because of geopolitics or decreasing supplies. Since politicians and the media won't even hint at this possibility, it's up to us to act.
We can cut down our gas use by driving fewer and more efficient vehicles, carpooling, shopping less, walking more, combining errands and gardening, of course.
A garden always helps us to evolve the kind of intense local connection which keeps us closer to home and driving less. Now's the time of year to do it.
See you tomorrow at the Springside Farm Festival in New Haven.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
This page and its contents are copyright © 1996-1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.