Before you all go lynching me for demanding higher gas prices, hear me out. As someone who drives 54 miles or so round trip to work each day, I’m no fan of overpaying at the pump. It grinds my gears every time I spend 40 bucks or more to fill up my four-banger, when it seems like it wasn’t that long ago that it only cost me about 25 to fill my pickup truck.
When I was a kid, we had a gas crisis, and we were told that someday we’d just run out of oil, and if we didn’t do something about it, we’d be quite screwed in just a few years. At the time, we believed what we were told, and our parents ran out and started buying tiny, fuel-efficient automobiles with funny names like Honda, Toyota, and Datsun. People don’t talk too much about it now, but those early Japanese imports weren’t very good cars. They were light on gas, but the thin, recycled-steel bodies tended to rust out quickly, parts were hard to get, and many local mechanics either didn’t work on “them foreign cars” at all, or worked on them grudgingly and charged through the nose for the privilege.
It didn’t matter. We were all saving the world, and being smart about it. When oil supplies would start to run low a few years hence, we’d be ready with our cars that sipped instead of slurped. Who cares if a generation of drivers grew up with back problems from sitting in cars that were never designed to hold six-footers?
Then, the impossible happened. We didn’t run out of gas. We didn’t even come close. Gas prices stayed the same. They even went down for a while. When I started driving in the early ’80s, gas was pretty easy to find for about $1.25 a gallon. By the mid-’90s, I was paying under a dollar.
All of this caused the notoriously short-term-memoried American public to go hog-wild once again. While we never quite returned to the heady days of building 8 miles-per-gallon vehicles (Dodge Viper excepted), we began buying sport-utes and campers and strange-looking military machines called “Hummers” by the thousands.
Of course, the impossible happened again, and gas prices began to climb. And climb. And climb. Higher than they’d ever been before. Higher than some would have believed possible in the modern era with all of that cheap oil flowing out of Iraq.
Pardon me while I pause to snicker.
It turns out that we were never really in danger of running completely out of oil. While such a thing is theoretically possible, experts in the ’70s made us believe that one day, the straw would hit the empty bottom of the oil wells and that would be it. We’d hear a sick gurgling sound, and just like that, no more gasoline. We’d be stuck on permanent “E.”
The truth, as usual, is more complicated than that. There’s lots of oil remaining underground, but the more of it we take, the more difficult it becomes to draw out what’s left. Getting at what’s left isn’t impossible, it’s simply a matter of building more expensive and higher risk (and therefore more expensive) wells.
It doesn’t take a math whiz to figure out that a more expensive supply, coupled with increased bidding competition from countries that are industrializing (such as China) results in higher gas prices to the consumer. It also shouldn’t take a math whiz to figure out that, short of discovering a new and gigantic really cheap source of oil (which would only delay things anyway), there’s no end to this. Gas prices will continue to rise throughout our lifetimes. Yes, there will be fluctuations, and they will occasionally drop a bit, but the trend will remain upward.
At some point, these prices will begin to take a toll on our economy. All of those pots and pans and clothes we now ship cheaply across the Pacific will begin to cost more. All of those semi-trucks we see tooling along our highways will cease to be a cost-effective means of shipping. Everything that is moved more than a few miles to its destination, which is to say everything, will rise in price faster than our ability to pay for it.
At that point, we’ll be screwed.
What do we need? We need better public transportation, so we all don’t have to sit on a highway every morning smogging up our lungs at 3 bucks a gallon. We need a nationwide rail system that isn’t the punch line to a joke. We need alternative sources of fuel that are cleaner and cheaper. We need you and me to buy fuel-efficient cars that will help tide us over until we can bring the other stuff on-line.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the only time anything gets done around here is when someone is taking a hit in the wallet, or is in danger of doing so. We can talk about how proud we were to put a man on the moon with nothing more than a good rah-rah speech by JFK, but once the government put the guy there and the bill showed up in the mail, we put the kibosh on such nonsense.
So we need high gas prices as an incentive to make that other stuff happen. I know. I don’t like it either. But the alternative is to party blindly until we paint ourselves into a corner, and I care too much about this stupid country to want to see that happen.
What about you?