The nationwide outrage over gas prices is interesting on several levels. Reading the Journal-Sentinel’s coverage of the recent spike in gasoline prices I was floored by three themes: the utter ignorance that the people interviewed had towards the oil market in general, the shocking suggestion that the suburbs don’t hold The Answer to happy living, and the general hint that conservation holds the key to the future.
It’s strange in reporting on the effects rising gas prices have on the personal and business interests of Milwaukee, the newspaper makes no mention of the reasons why prices are so high. It’s certainly not a mystery of the universe; instead it’s based on the fundamental economic idea of supply and demand. To review how America got into this mess in the first place is certainly beyond the purpose of this post, but for a 10,000 foot overview I suggest reading this post by Kevin Drum on the now-cresting Peak Oil problem. To summarize his point:
Oil production will almost certainly surpass 84 million barrels per day as new fields come online in the future, but demand is going to increase right along with it. Thus, unless there’s a global economic shock of some kind, it’s likely that demand is now permanently equal to supply. There’s no spare capacity left, and there never will be again.
This mean that we’re now living in a different world. I’m not sure what all the ramifications of this are, but one thing is pretty certain: the next oil shock — and there will be one eventually — is going to be worse than any previous shock. Fasten your seat belts.
I should note that the oil shock he describes is not what we are experiencing right now. Oil today stands at around $65 per barrel, which around here roughly translates to $2.85 per gallon. Assuming a linear increase of gasoline prices compared with crude oil prices (which is a best case scenario,) imagine what it would be like if oil went to $100 per barrel or $300 per barrel in one day due to a terrorist attack on a refining facility or a hurricane wreaking havoc on the platforms of an offshore oil field.
Imagine what would happen, realistically, if gas were $5 per gallon or $10 per gallon TOMORROW. How would your life change?
The American media’s stubborn desire to interview “common folks” about how gas prices are affecting them without explaining the root cause in their coverage is leading us to an intellectual dead-end. I’m continually reminded of the White Guy Who Walks Right At The Trouble, portrayed in Cedric the Entertainer’s comedy act. “WHY DIDN’T ANYBODY TELL ME?” the white guy exclaims. I think that come $8 per gallon gasoline, the public will be asking the same question with the same level of indignation.
So now, to the suprises that I found in the article.
Americans love their suburbs and exurbs. They love not living anywhere near where they shop, where they play, and where they work. I used to think the American Dream was a two story house on a quarter acre out in the suburbs, with no sounds, no traffic, and no people around to bother me. Wirkuswhazz and Cal always took the opposite view, and I never understood what drew them to living in the urban environments. I believe I’m starting to understand now. I drive 20 miles each way to work every day; Wirksu rides his bike. I generally feel like we don’t live in the suburbs. We’re close enough to various commercial areas that we can walk to eat, grocery shop, go to the hardware store, go to Best Buy, Costco, etc. It’s not high-density living, but it’s certainly easier to walk to places than where my parents now live. Wisconsin has very few high-density urban areas. Madison and Milwaukee are probably the only two, and its tough to call Madison truly urban, though they make up for it by having a highly pedestrian-friendly layout. Milwaukee and its many, many suburbs scream its inhabitants disdain for urban living, which is why it blew my mind to read the following in the Journal-Sentinel article:
Hartling has scuttled a regular summer trip to Six Flags Great America because of the gas increase and is urging her 23-year-old daughter, Aliceson, to buy a hybrid car to get better mileage. She said she wishes there was a more economical way of getting around, but in the rural swath of Waukesha County where she lives she has no choice.
“If I lived in the city would I be riding a bike?” she asked. “You bet!”
Rural Wisconsinites questioning whether unneccesarily living miles from everything is a good idea? This absolutely floored me. Now, one person’s opinion in an interview (and not a strong one at that) does not a movement make, but I have never seen this kind of thinking in the general coverage of “gas prices are rising, what will YOU do?” coverage.
The ultimate question surrounding America’s love of cars as symbols of wealth and freedom has always been: at what specific gasoline price do cars go from being an asset to a liability? What cost per gallon would cause America to pause and look at the amount of money it pours into the Auto Industry in pursuit of status and freedom of movement and say, “Is it worth it?”
We’re certainly not there today, but as the “man on the street’s” answer strays from the “I guess I’ll just pay higher prices” phase through the “I’ll have to stop going places for fun” phase and towards the “if I lived closer to everything I needed, I wouldn’t have to drive as much” phase I think we’ll see a common wisdom shift towards more conservation. Not because it is being forced the populace by the government, but because people wake up to the idea that they can conserve all by themselves; that they have the ability to bring their own costs down by making certain lifestyle choices. You can certainly see inklings of it in today’s coverage:
Pam Hartling said she’s made adjustments in light of the ever-rising gas prices, but she still drives a Chrysler minivan from her Town of Waukesha home.
“I think about combining errands,” she said while pumping $36.91 of regular unleaded at $2.60 per gallon at the Speedway on Waukesha’s E. Sunset Drive. “But I don’t think there’s a lot that you have control of. I certainly wouldn’t buy a Durango.”
Hartling has scuttled a regular summer trip to Six Flags Great America because of the gas increase and is urging her 23-year-old daughter, Aliceson, to buy a hybrid car to get better mileage.
Price are “ridiculous, but what can you do?” Ray said as she filled up her Dodge Dynasty.
She said she puts $10 worth of gas in her car every three days. She said she now wishes she had purchased a smaller, more fuel-efficient car.
At the BP station on E. Wisconsin Ave. in Oconomowoc, Tom Johnson of Racine put 16.6 gallons into his Toyota Camry. The $45 it cost put a dent in his wallet, but not as much as if he drove the Lexus SUV he left parked at home.
“Since public transit isn’t an option and carpooling is hit or miss, I don’t have much choice” but to pay whatever gas costs, Johnson said. “At least I can drive something that gets decent mileage.”
Now for a little Bush-bashing, just because it’s so easy in the context of this article.
The article strays several times into rhetorical idiocy. Apparently, the common wisdom is that there is a gigantic pot of oil somewhere that we could get a greater share of if only the mythical Somone would do it. The media does little disabuse the populace of this common wisdom.
“I guess we’re going to have to get rid of the cars or park them and not use them,” he said. “Somebody should do something about the price, to get it down where people can afford it.”
To conserve money, Hernandez put in only half a tank. She said she has also started carpooling.
“I still need money to live off. It’s very frustrating,” she said, adding she’d like to know the reason behind the high prices.
The reason is simple: George W. Bush is an oilman. His biggest donors are oilmen. Coincidentally, oil companies are posting record-breaking profits every quarter. Have you heard George W. Bush’s solution to the problem? Drill in Alaska. I’ll ignore the environmental argument here and drive straight to the reality-based argument. If they started the process of drilling oil in Alaska TODAY (building the infrastructure, scouting drill points, etc.), we would not get any precious gasoline for years and years. Drilling in Alaska does not solve today’s problems, but funny thing, it would put more money into the oil companies’ coffers in the future. Imagine that.
So, to conclude, I hate the man-on-the-street interviews. “Why oh why are gas prices going up? It’s causing me so much hardship!” people exclaim for the cameras and reporters, but the well-coifed TV reporters never answer the question. They parade the financial problems that the system causes, yet never deign to explain to the common folk how the system works or, more importantly, what is causing it to freak out right now. On the other hand, so many of this style of interviews are done by so many different media companies that it does give one lots of anecdotal information in order to zero in on the current state of Public Opinion. As that Public Opinion starts lumbering away from its previously held addiction to the sweet, sweet juice of commuting 50 miles in from the suburbs daily, it could signal a greater change in store for the American City once Peak Oil has its way with global gasoline prices.