The big news last Monday was that gasoline in this country reached its highest average price ever, $1.47 per gallon. Although much was made of this historic high price, we should realize how ridiculously cheap gasoline actually is here and how destructive our gluttonous individual and societal addiction to it is. Americans are really quite spoiled.
Gasoline's an amazing, energy-filled substance, the product of an immense infrastructure which reaches from wells deep into a desert half-way around the world, through exotic-organism-spreading super tankers, subsidized ports and sprawling refineries, to underground tanks leaking MTBE into water supplies and tail pipes spewing a toxic mix into the air we breathe. At every stage, energy use and pollution abound.
One gallon of gasoline, which powers an SUV for about twenty minutes, contains energy equal what a human being gets from ten day's worth of nutritious meals. That makes us at least 700 times as efficient at using energy as one of these gas-guzzling vehicles. And, gasoline's price represents a mere 10 to 30 percent of the cost of owning and operating an automobile.
Our addiction to gasoline is especially destructive because its external costs are so high. These costs (which are not included in the pump price) are paid for with our taxes and with increasing environment damage and climate instability. External costs include: corporate tax benefits, local air pollution, urban sprawl, a large and unknown variety of abnormally strong, climate-related events including floods, hurricanes, cyclones, heat waves, droughts and the spread of exotic diseases, as well as the defense of the Persian Gulf (estimated ten years ago to cost half a trillion dollars annually; that's over $2,000 per US citizen every year).
Considering all this, gasoline's cost per gallon is ridiculously low! It is less than that of milk, most bottled water, soda, or even one cup of cappuccino. Last summer, in Europe, we paid about $5 a gallon for gasoline, probably much closer to its true cost. At $55 a fill-up, we were amazed. Meanwhile, at Connecticut movie theaters, bottled water costs between $12 and $15 a gallon. Humans lived for hundreds of millennia without gasoline. We can't live for more than a few days without water.
The lower the price of gasoline, the more we use it and the more the external costs add up. Americans, who make up less than five percent of the world's population, own over 33 percent of the Earth's cars. Compared to 1950, the planet now has twice as many people and ten times as many automobiles.
Like drug pushers, the petroleum industry, especially the multinational oil companies and OPEC, have a self-serving interest in keeping the world addicted to their product. They want the price to be just below the breaking point- the price at which we seriously consider ending our addiction and turning to more environmentally benign ways of satisfying our energy needs. These include walking, driving less, using more efficient trains, buses and cars or even getting vegetables from our back yards instead of from Mexico or California via a supermarket.
Connecticut Governor John Rowland, however, wants to encourage our destructive addiction. He plans to lower gasoline taxes and raise the price of bus rides.
The problems resulting from our gluttonous gasoline use are real and growing. Since neither government nor industry shows any signs of doing anything about them, it is up to individuals and communities to stop complaining and find ways to use less gasoline energy.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
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