Rock Island, IL

The top headline in our local paper on Mother’s Day (which, by the way, is poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket, but that’s grist for another mill) was “Containment Fails.” It referred, of course, to that little problem down in our Topsoil Collection Basin once known as the Gulf of Mexico.

Later that morning, walking to St. George, Inc. (another poor excuse, it often seems to me, for picking a man’s pocket), I was passed by a shiny new Chevy pick-up truck sporting a “Palin 2012” sticker.

It is difficult to keep the headline and the bumper sticker separate, for containment may continue to fail if the candidate from the school of “drill-baby-drill” gets a berth in our next electoral charade.

Which is only to say that things could be worse. Not different, mind you, but worse, for it turns out that on our political landscape the difference between an elephant and a donkey—so far as energy is concerned—is a difference (if difference there be) of degree, not kind. The pachydermic Proboscidae and jackassic Perissodactyla are standing on our southern shores and looking at the most recent oil disaster as a technological rather than as a moral problem.

There is neither trumpeting from the former nor braying from the latter about how we shouldn’t be drilling offshore in the first place. There are only mixed noises about being more careful and better prepared should such an unfortunate technological malfunction (somewhat akin to a wardrobe malfunction) ever happen again. Hypermobility, long-distance exchange of goods, orange juice in the cold Fargo winters—these, as our former Vice President said, are non-negotiable.

But what we are staring at off our southern shore is most assuredly a moral rather than a technological problem. It is a moral problem because we have presumed upon the earth to provide for us a standard of living no one deserves or is entitled to, a standard that has quite obviously been acquired on the credit cards of the unborn. It is a standard that is nothing less than a sickness unto death.

That we would use a steam shovel to pick up a dime, as Wendell Berry said long ago, was only the earliest indication that we have no idea what energy is for, except to issue us exemptions from our natural condition, which is to work. Having so used the steam shovel and all our other oil-fed labor-saving devices, which don’t really save labor so much as evict laborers, we find ourselves with an apparently flummoxing unemployment problem. What is more, we’re fat in an age of hunger and lazy in an age of ambition. We have exercise and weight-loss “industries” and aren’t in the least bit embarrassed by their proliferation. We apparently aren’t at all troubled by the fact that coal-powered electricity runs our elliptical machines and stair-climbers. We are perfectly reconciled to the moving sidewalks of the world of George Jetson, whose wife flexes no other muscle than her tongue but somehow still manages to have an eighteen-inch waist.

I often ask students, whom I frequently see motoring past me to the drug store just up the road from campus, “you can’t walk two blocks for your birth control?”

Control is obviously at the heart of our recent technological malfunction down in the gulf. We presume everywhere to have control—and everywhere we are had by it. We would master that which in the end we are mastered by. We would squeeze every last drop of ancient sunlight out of the earth to preserve our supposed freedom from the limits of place, only to find ourselves severely limited—and in some cases poisoned—by our place. If in our pursuit of such control we destroy an ecosystem and the livelihoods of those who live in it, we’ll call it a trade-off rather than a cost and look for the next place to drill, baby, drill—armed, of course, with better ways of containing the unintended consequences that eventuate when control proves once again to be illusory.

But then control is always illusory. Consider how little control we have over the one thing without which we are pretty much helpless. I mean cheap readily available oil. Most of the world’s available but rapidly diminishing oil is owned by people who don’t like us. Our relation to them is precisely that of junkie to pusher, and, as is always the case in such a relationship, amicability depends upon the ability of the one who has no control—that is, the junkie—to pay. Once he runs out of cash, desperation sets in, and the corpses start piling up.

We’re drawing ever-nearer that pathetic state of affairs in which, as Patrick Deneen has noted, we have to pick through the ash trays for a butt that has a little smoke left in it—either that, or suffer the DTs. This, I think, is no unapt emblem of what we’re witnessing in the gulf. We’re scrounging the ash trays of the globe with desperate unsteady hands, sometimes burning them on not-yet extinguished camels. How close we are to going, perforce, cold turkey no one knows—or wants to know.

But something else is happening. We’re standing on those southern shores and watching the gulf fill not with one but with two kinds of aged sunlight: soil and oil. True, the gulf is also accumulating pesticides that are killing a large part of it. But just as it has been filling for a long time now with Midwestern topsoil, so today it is filling with the very drug that for half a century has enabled a certain kind of agri-addict to ship fertility south in singularly impressive quantities. Credit, cheap energy, and labor-saving farm implements evicted most of the farm population from the land, and the unintended consequence of that experiment in control has turned out to be another containment problem: the land itself has been evicted.

So either way the oil ends up in the gulf. The only difference is the dispatch with which we have invited the gulf—and the heartland and every other place we were told to toil in by the sweat of our brow—to go to hell.

If I am harsh on my students who can’t walk two blocks to get their birth control, that is because, by and large, and like almost everyone else, they are unwilling personally to take the first reasonable step and scale back. No one else is taking that step (least of all Mommy and Daddy), so why should they? Or, as I often hear said, scaling back is a great idea, “but society isn’t going to do it.”

Let’s be clear about one thing. You introduce “society,” and the discussion is over. For what, when translated, does “society isn’t going to do it” mean? It means “I am not going to do it.” That’s the great benefit of introducing an abstraction into the conversation. It puts an end to everything.

We may as well start blathering about “the millions of working class people the world over.” But there is no way for us to know those millions, just as there is no way for us know “society.” This we intuit exactly, perfectly, and when we see the “millions” doing nothing, when we see “society” doing nothing, we give ourselves easy permission to do nothing.

I absolve me.

This recent catastrophe in the gulf isn’t the result of careless producers only. It is, as Berry said back in the day of the Exxon Valdez, the result of uncontrolled greed at the top and lazy passive consumptiveness at the bottom. Neither the top nor the bottom respects the limits of time, place, or intelligence. Neither respects the limits of Nature. Neither is interested in doing anything but excusing the body from its necessary work in the world—in this case, the work of getting from the dorm to the drugstore, or from home to the office, or from the vinyl-clad manse to soccer practice. Or from doing the work of work—the work, say, of hand labor.

It is certain, I think, that, given the world we’ve built, we need oil to help us come down from oil, just as the junkie, if he is going to break his addiction, will need fixes in ever smaller doses until at last he’s clean. Our problem, or one of our problems, is that we use the car to get from A to B when maybe we ought to be using it only to get from A to T and U and V and right on down to Z. A to B or A to M doesn’t necessarily warrant traveling by fire, which is the element of hell.

I, for one, would favor severe government-imposed mileage standards on new vehicles. I would support a massive transition to motorcycles. (Let commuters get wet, cold, and miserable, I say.) But what I wouldn’t do is have us refuse the changes that are available to us regardless of what “society” or the “millions” will or won’t do.

Toward the end of “Faustian Economics” Berry says that if we were smart we’d slow down a little and hit the natural limits that await us slowly instead of at top speed.

What is more practical than this? Why not slow down from fifty to forty? And then from forty to thirty? Each of us, individually, regardless of what the Joneses are doing, can slow down. The journey of a single mile begins with a thousand RPMs.

I confess that I am angry in a vague sort of way at BP and US policymakers and the general drift of things and several other abstractions, including the purveyors of Keystone Light. But demand is as much to blame here as is supply and its governmental abettors. And I, like everyone else I know, am a part of demand. Moreover, I can see without any naysayer’s pointing this out that there are many more on the demand than on the supply side of our energy crisis. (Many on the demand side are much poorer than the few on the supply side, but that is grist for another mill.) But it’s time to attempt the kind of containment that need not fail, not even on that unassailable and uncontainable holiday known as Mother’s Day (poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket). It is time to contain demand. It is time that each of us govern himself more severely, and then more severely still, and then more severely still.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I would have us remake private life in this country. That is an option available to anyone who drives two blocks to get his (or her) birth control or whatever it is he thinks he needs—or whatever it is that gives him the illusion of freedom from natural limits. It doesn’t solve the whole problem, but then I have not been talking about the whole problem.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar John Gorentz May 12, 2010 at 7:34 am

I, for one, would favor severe government-imposed mileage standards on new vehicles.

Why not instead put our political energy to use in doing something to discourage fossil fuel consumption, like a severe, netzero gas tax? Mileage standards don’t deal with the fuel consumption problem except perhaps in a very roundabout, ineffective way.

On the other hand, they do have the benefit of allowing those who are financially well off to continue to burn fossil fuels with no penalty, and they also have the benefit of building more political corruption into our system.

avatar Dianne May 12, 2010 at 11:27 am

Do both. Impose severe mileage standards and a whopping big gas tax.

“A to B or A to M doesn’t necessarily warrant traveling by fire, which is the element of hell.”

I’d say. Internal combustion engines: what the hell were we thinking?

avatar Peter B. Nelson May 13, 2010 at 4:03 pm

Peter B. Nelson said:

Thank you, Prof. Peters. Another great post. But…

Making fuel more productive does not lower demand, quite the opposite. The more efficient the vehicle the farther it can travel on the same dollar’s worth of fuel. CAFE increases cause sprawl. The only way to lower demand is to increase cost. That will happen naturally with diminishing supplies, but can be artificially hastened with increasing taxes.

Yet many if not most Americans are utterly dependent on cheap transportation fuel for their livelihoods: commutes, groceries, rent and productivity. They probably aren’t the telecommuting college types reading this blog – they’re more the farming, constructing, driving blue collar types – but we might at least *attempt* to conjure up a little bit of sympathy and charity towards them. We shouldn’t peevishly “send them to hell” in a hurry just because they’re already shuffling there in ignorance.

So here’s my idea: increase fuel taxes by a very small amount, but frequently, for years. By making the increase small enough, the immediate pain to real-living-actual-fellow-human-beings is minimized. But by continuing the small increases indefinitely, long-term benefits will be realized.

The precise amount and frequency is open to prudential considerations, but here are realistic numbers (see )…

Current federal fuel tax is about 20 cents/gallon. If we increase it 2 cents every month, it will double in one year, but still be less than the Canadian rate. After five years the tax would be about $1.50/gallon. Only after a decade of such increases would the new U.S. fuel-tax rate of $2.50/gallon even begin to approach the higher European rates ($4/gal U.K., $6/gal Germany).

If we raise fuel *prices* to European levels over ten years we should effect a rise in fuel *efficiency* and fuel *conservation* to European levels over ten years. But, and here’s the key, the gradual change should forgo most of the unintended (and extremely counterproductive) consequences of an instantaneous “shock and awe” punitive tax hike. People need time to adjust – to start carpools, to move closer to their jobs, to buy better cars, to find or create new jobs replacing those made economically unfeasible. This can’t happen overnight.

I love your bringing speed limits into the conversation. Personally, I *always* set my cruise control to the speed limit (calibrated by GPS). Driving slower is easier, cheaper, safer and quieter. But, as a practical matter, the existing limit of 65 is already impossible to enforce. Freeway limits of 55, 40 or 30 would be roundly ignored. The abject failures of alcohol “prohibition” and “the war on drugs” should be a cautionary tale to anyone who would criminalize widely popular behavior.

My own imaginary ideal speeding solution is technological: speed limit signs broadcasting to governors in passing cars, capping their speeds at the legal maximum. Until then, better education about the fuel-efficiency gains of slower speeds, combined with higher fuel costs, is probably the best start.

avatar John Médaille May 13, 2010 at 4:44 pm

I don’t think we have urban sprawl because we have more efficient cars. We have it because we have cars at all, and have designed the entire transportation system around them. Yet it would be hard to conceive of a less efficient system, even if you offered a Nobel Prize for doing so. And the systems cannot be dealt with in isolation. People have no choice but to use cars; few of us live a bike ride or a brisk walk from our work. Or even from our grocery store.

I suggest, as a govmint sponsored behavior modification program, two things: toll roads and use fees on cars. For the first, if you want to live in the remotest suburb but also want six lanes of the finest concrete to your front door, fine. Just pay for it. Toll tag the road to your MacMansion and make the tolls put the whole cost on you and your neighbors.

The second thing is mileage fees on cars. Set a target of, say, 35 mpg. For each mpg below that, impose a $2,000 tax. So if a car gets 30mpg, it pays a $10,000 tax. Use the money to subsidize more efficient cars. One that gets say, 40mpg, gets to divide up the monies paid by the gas-guzzlers in some formula or other, depending on the receipts.

But I agree with you, Peter, that prices need to reflect costs. Alas, the market does not do this, because so many costs are externalized or non-market costs to begin with.

avatar John Gorentz May 14, 2010 at 1:27 am

Excellent comment, Peter B. Nelson. Your proposals have the added benefit of showing deep respect for your fellow human beings, as well as minimizing the need for expensive regulation and bloated (and corruption-prone) public payrolls.

I too have for many years — decades, even — thought that a fuel tax increase should be gradual and predictable. A program of regular, incremental increases that begins with a tax of, say, 20 cents in year one would have better results already in year one than a one-time increase of say, 30 cents per gallon. In year 1 some people would start to make decisions on where to live, what vehicle to buy, etc. based in part on what costs would be ten years from now.

But there is a problem. How would you deal with the fact that Congress can’t bind itself to future tax increases, and could call the program off at the first available excuse. Think of how some politicians were calling for cuts in gas taxes back when gas prices were up around $4/gallon. Any ideas on how to make Congress stick with the program?

You didn’t say whether you would want gas tax increases to be netzero increases, with compensating cuts elsewhere. With netzero, an advantage of gradual increases would be that the compensating tax cuts could be tuned year-by-year. We wouldn’t have to haul out our crystal balls to see what kind of tax cuts would be needed ten years from now to pay for tax increases now. If those annual cuts could be institutionalized, it might make it less likely for Congress to cancel the increases. People would come to expect their annual reductions. But the willingness of Congress to cancel tax increases is like nothing compared to the willingness of Congress to cancel tax cuts. So it would be difficult to make this work.

Another problem is that like all excise taxes, gas taxes are regressive. My favored way of dealing with that would be to make the compensating tax cuts in FICA payroll taxes, which are also regressive.

The devil is in the details. The problem is that the people who are skilled in doing the details tend to be people who oppose things like a gas tax. I have a theory that this is because they oppose anything that relies on on market forces, which a gas tax does, because they have an instinctive desire (perhaps an unconscious one) to regulate human choices more than to mitigate problems. The people who DO understand how to harness the power of markets tend to be people whose heads are stuck firmly in the sand when it comes to facing up to the problem of our dependence on diminishing supplies of oil.

avatar Sophie May 14, 2010 at 3:56 pm

“I would support a massive transition to motorcycles. (Let commuters get wet, cold, and miserable, I say.)”

But my question is, what about the safety of commuters? Motorcycles, statistically, are involved in a lot more crashes annually than automobiles. Transitioning a large number of ‘rookies’ from cars to motorcycles would cause even more motorcycle-related crashes, as ‘newbies’ and ‘rookies’ tend to be the largest group of people involved in fatal crashes.
To make motorcycles as safe as automobiles would require a massive infrastructure of motorcycle-only roads to be built or similar safety devices, which costs money (not a good idea when our government is already spending so much!), requires those machines you so detest, and-let’s not forget what the point of this article was-oil.
I agree that change is necessary. But I don’t think that this particular aspect is particularly thought through yet.
I don’t like to sit around philosophizing because I’m not a politician and I know that my many theories probably have many holes in them as well; but in my opinion, the car is going to have to stay, for now. We can gradually begin shifting over to a bicycle, public-transit, walking-oriented commuter lifestyle, but for now a sudden change would be too chaotic and would waste lots of money. Right now, we have to address the issue of oil shortage, while still keeping the car. A way to do this is to make use of alternative fuels. Bio-fuels, solar-cells, hydrogen fuel cells, wind-and-water-powered electric cars, and even nuclear power (when used with extreme caution) are all opportunities that we have at our finger tips, and we could easily convert our gas-station and highway culture using these less extreme methods.
I thoroughly enjoyed your article and found your points interesting, and hope to read more in the future.

avatar John Gorentz May 14, 2010 at 11:49 pm

Regarding safety vs the environment and human rights:

I have had this discussion with my wife and with others. I want a small car that has excellent gas mileage; she/they want a larger one that is safer. I point out that it’s not very safe for the young soldiers who have to go to Iraq to protect our oil supplies and then come home in body bags.

Maybe it’s better for us to do our part and accept some risks.

avatar D.W. Sabin May 15, 2010 at 10:34 am

Gosh, I’m just relieved that the Great Satrapy On The Muddy Potomac aint decided that we need “Thinking Standards” in the country because gosh, that might cause the populace to actually assess the collective mindset and you know, recognizing the comic idiocy of our besotted culture on too many fronts to keep track of anymore , it might be a tad daunting and the National Juvenile might retreat to National Infant.

Gee, whats a little oil slick amongst hypoxic zones?

avatar Thomas McCullough May 15, 2010 at 3:17 pm

I’m feeling guilty that I just drove a mere five miles round trip to the library on a lovely day, the first time I drove in weeks. I should’ve biked but didn’t want to spend the time. Appropriately, I was punished for it. I live in a tourist town (polis as whore) and downtown was clogged with cars. It would’ve been faster to bike.

Mr. Peters, that is a perfect post – intelligent, decent and good. I love you for it. (don’t get freaked: it’s platonic) Thank you. I have a number of people I’m going to refer it to, though it’s rather preaching-to-the-choir references. I like you mostly and agree with you mostly, but have been pained by your frequent bent towards a sort of superior smug irony. I’m 59 and it probably irritates me mostly because you sound (read) like me at 30.

avatar D.W. Sabin May 16, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Technology Guilt will not provide the clarity we need for this issue. We are restless and supremely aggressive creatures whose principle output , beyond ourselves, is environmental modification on a vast scale. To feel guilt over this capacity is to feel guilt over being.

What we have yet to confront is tied to what Medaille refers to…the socialization of destructive habitat impact as a means to maximize the wealth of a select group of expoiters who use public want as justification. The “Get Out Of Jail Free Card” of so-called External Costs. The very notion is a kind of economic vaudville, an old saw of a joke that keeps on taking. Accordingly, the consuming public becomes the un-indicted co-conspirator in the intemperate plunder and so we will not prosecute our own conduct until such time as there is no other choice, at which point, our puny restorative abilities will be revealed.

Just as we have a tremendous ability to transform the environment, so too do we have a prodigious ability to understand our environment and conduct ourselves within it wisely. But, given our rather over-confident estimation of ourselves…our acute narcissism and feelings of ennobled agency, we have effectively created a DMZ of sorts, a Berlin Wall which sets us apart from, rather than within the biosphere. Hence, we are at odds with ourselves.”Nature” becomes the other, “Wilderness” is reduced to a salve and we continue to throw everything we can lay our hands on into the maw…including ourselves. This kind of drunken behavior generally ends badly.

Life…Being…..the Light, they are perhaps overlooked in our impatiently busy lives. Nietzsche is often reviled for having the temerity to suggest the Death of God. As Irony haunts the human like a Greek Chorus, the epochal reaction to an institutionalized and politicized God was the Age of Reason. Simply put, science and reason were to be put to work against perceived superstitions and the power structures that had accreted to them. Funny enough, Reason, this antidote to superstition created its own thick carapace of superstition to the point that Reason became just as Dead as God, replaced by dogma and aggressive opinion , aided by high production values…the antipode to an increasingly detached public. This marvelous thinking and acting spiritual organism called man became an automaton. Impatient and testy but automatic nonetheless and so now, with our habitat sullied, our infatuation with “wealth” chastened, we find ourselves bereft of both Reason and God and the the best we can come up with is an inchoate moaning for “change”. Somehow, we continue to think that things like this oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico are an “accident” and we will identify the villain and punish them so that we can go on “leaping” into the future. Ho Ho Ho.

Mordant as usual,the funniest thing for me is that God’s lifeboat cast we weak humans is named Reason.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins May 16, 2010 at 3:08 pm

All excellent proposals. As long as we’re being compassionate about the impact of higher fuel taxes on working families who didn’t entirely create the absence of other forms of transportation, or jobs close to home, we could allocate some of the fuel tax money to decrease social security payroll, or increase the Earned Income Credit. Money comes back for the family, but the more you drive, the less you keep. Use the rest to pay the up-front capital costs of rebuilding urban rail networks that were bought up and dismantled by GM et. al.

As to the difficult of outlawing popular behavior, in this case speeding, we could establish a network of cameras on major roadways, with the proviso that they would only be used as evidence of speeds at least ten mph over the speed limit, or weaving in traffic over the speed limit. There is a delicate political balance. We ALL drive a little over the speed limit sometime. If clicking cameras were sending a majority of voters hundreds of dollars in tickets, we know what the number one issue of the next election would be… but if the impact is limited to a manageable minority of egregious violators, it might work. (I thought about this often when I was driving a paratransit bus).

Having a car is addictive. I didn’t get one until 2007 — there are some places the buses just don’t go, or that are too far to ride a bicycle. I intend to still ride my bike anyplace I would have before I had the car, but I slip sometimes. I can’t afford a Prius. A Kia Rio gets 30-35 mpg, for 40% of the cost. If I lived in a city with a rail system, I’d rely on Zip Car or Flex Car.

avatar Mark Perkins May 16, 2010 at 3:12 pm

I largely like this post, and that slightly frightens me.

avatar alcatraz May 17, 2010 at 11:34 am

“Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. ” This comes from Orwell’s 1984. The telescreen was present in every home and could never be turned off. It was crude and heavy handed.

Why do the rulers need obligatory telescreens? The few who control great wealth need not force specific actions on the many, once they have machines for most of the productive work. They retain control if they can keep the great majority of men and women, the hewers of wood and drawers of water, divided and distracted. If they turn you against your neighbor, each of you will waste your time and energy hating the other. Can I attain a meaningful life by denouncing liberals, taxes, tea-baggers or white supremacists? Maybe not, but nothing unites humans like a common enemy.

Evolution provided that. For tens of thousands of years, other humans and getting separated from the group have been the most dangerous things that we faced. Those who followed the leader, stuck with the group, were much more likely to survive and reproduce than those who questioned authority. It’s difficult for a woman to deliver her own child. The human birth canal is twisted, the process of labor is often slow and painful; those without helpers are much more likely to die. Would a contrary and independent woman get help from her neighbors? Maybe not- think of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They forbad young adults to live alone, they actually hung a few Quakers- it just happened that those who were hung were often women who wouldn’t shut up.

The wealthy elite do not want to destroy the oceans and future human well being. They simply want to stay in power. The CEOs of our great corporations are not ignorant yahoos. Many say that they welcome “reasonable environmental regulation”. Each layer of regulation however, slows down their money-making, so that their profit margin declines. In practice, they oppose new regulations, good and bad. Seems to me that moneymaking was a reasonable organizing principle when there were only a few million humans and the planet was less crowded. Now that we have killed off the cod and many other fishes, filled our oceans and rivers with mercury, paved over much of our continent, money and economic growth seem like a bad principle. However, what takes its place? Communist Cuba actually has a very good healthcare system with much more judicious use of medical technology than we do, but they don’t have a sustainable model either. Some say that society should be organized around maximizing “gross national happiness”, which sounds crazy to me.

The tremendous growth of human population (thanks to evolution) has invalidated the old rules. I don’t think that the human race will extinguish itself, but it is lurching about in a dangerous way with oil pollution, nuclear pollution, etc.

avatar Christopher Harrison May 20, 2010 at 8:27 am

Another great piece, as well as the comments. I’d like to call out one of the comments in particular, though.

John Gorentz said: “I have had this discussion with my wife and with others. I want a small car that has excellent gas mileage; she/they want a larger one that is safer. I point out that it’s not very safe for the young soldiers who have to go to Iraq to protect our oil supplies and then come home in body bags.”

I, too, have had this debate with my wife — it’s why she drives a Subaru Outback and I drive a Honda Fit (which she still refuses to drive after we’ve had the car for 2-1/2 years). However, I think the roots of this are much harder to pull out than many of us think.

We have so embraced and promoted the notion of individualism to the point of cult status (I cite the ongoing popularity of Ayn Rand as prime evidence) that it has both corrupted AND infantilized us. Trying to tell people that they need to drive smaller cars for the common good would just result in outcries against “tyranny” and limits to their “personal liberty” or “freedom”. We’ve even reached the point at which we have come to value these hyperindividualized concepts more than the future well-being of our own children — a fact that conversations with my wife and in-laws has also borne out in stark detail.

Furthermore, trying to link these problems to our military personnel fighting to protect a non-negotiable way of life is a dead end, simply because a military service member is, mostly, an abstraction for the majority of the population. Many people don’t even have a family member or close friend who is being called upon to jeopardize life and limb in defense of this unsustainable lifestyle. As Andrew Bacevich pointed out on one of the last episodes of Bill Moyers’ Journal: “We are now close to a decade into what the Pentagon now calls, ‘The Long War.’ And it is a war in which one-half of one percent of the American people bear the burden. And the other 99.5 percent basically go on about their daily life, as if the war did not exist.”

Sadly, I think that much of this essay and many of the comments that follow are spot-on, none of which fills me with hope and optimism that we will voluntarily back out of our current predicaments and choose a more sane course. If we are, as has been said, a collective nation of fossil fuel junkies — one hardly expects a junkie to behave in a sane and rational manner concerning their drug of choice.

avatar John Gorentz May 21, 2010 at 7:40 am

Christopher, one could also argue that individualism is the key to getting people to cut back on fuel consumption. To be able say something like this, it helps to remember that individualism comes in many varieties — some of them communitarian, some anti-communitarian, some statist, some anti-statist. Maybe it would be better to leave that word out of it altogether. But you can appeal to their sense of personal liberty and distaste for tyranny.

I am amused by my fellow right-wing conservatives when on the one hand they speak in favor of risk, yet all of a sudden become safety advocates when it comes to buying gas-guzzling cars. They honor entrepreneurs who take risk. They honor the woman who resists the armed robber and risks danger to capture him for the police (much to the annoyance of those leftier persons who say people shouldn’t take such risks). They speak against the way FDR and his successors have perverted the idea of freedom to mean its opposite, security. They quote Benjamin Franklin on security vs liberty. They say, yes, we need social-security reform. People can handle the risk of managing their own retirement funds. Yet when it is suggested that we drive smaller cars, they turn about and don’t want to take any slight risk in a smaller car that might not withstand a crash as well as an Abrams tank.

I recommend that instead of hectoring them about the common good, we appeal to their sense of joie de vivre. Actually, I recommend that for everyone, not just for conservatives. I sometimes make this point on a bicycle touring forum when people get all self-righteous about bike riding and complain about the morals of SUV-driving. I say you’re not going to shame people into getting out on their bicycles. They’re not going to want to join us in becoming self-righteous prigs. The best way to make converts to our cause is to demonstrate that we’re having more fun than they are. And to do that, the best thing is to actually go out and enjoy what we’re doing.

So go out and live life on the edge. Join Lenore Skenazy in raising free-range kids. Relish the ability of people to make their own choices in free markets. And thumb your nose at the extreme safety-freaks while thrilling to the ride of a Honda Fit (or better yet, a bicycle) on the same road with SUVs.

avatar Sophie May 21, 2010 at 3:39 pm

The great thing about all the advances in alternative fuels is that one can drive any type of car without worrying about fuel efficiency!
I would just like to point out that while people can make their own choices in free markets, any parent would want their child to grow up to be able to make their own choices in free markets, so ‘safety-freaks’ aren’t to be ridiculed, but they are merely looking out for the futures of someone other than themselves.
A large car does not have to be a gas-guzzling car. Right now cost-effective kits are available to change a regular diesel engine to sustainable cooking oil, which is only a transition step towards completely ‘green’ fuels; such as hydrogen fuel cells, electric cars that run on wind and solar-powered electricity, biofuels, and more.

avatar John Gorentz May 21, 2010 at 7:54 pm


I don’t think we’ll ever get to a point where we shouldn’t concern ourselves with fuel efficiency. Alternative fuels may be renewable, but that doesn’t mean they are cheap. It takes a lot of petroleum to grow corn to make high-fructose corn syrup to make us all obese. If we become less obese, it will make us live longer which will drive up health care costs. If you divert some of that production to cooking oil to power your car, you’re going to be driving up the price of food and making some people do without. If you grow more corn, you’re going to be importing more petroleum to fertilize it and you’re going to be putting more of our marginal lands into corn production, with concomitant damage to our environment.

I work at a site that is doing research on the environmental effects of growing cellulose biofuels, which is an alternative to growing more corn for biofuels. That has some promise, but the benefits are a ways off and there is nothing to say they will be without cost. And whatever we burn, it will put carbon in the atmosphere, which creates its own set of problems.

It still might be a good idea for us to learn how to enjoy life on the edge, where we take personal risks in order to conserve fuel.

avatar Dianne May 21, 2010 at 11:12 pm

John makes excellent points about selective safety advocacy. Sophie, I am a mom and can certainly understand your point about parents making safety choices. But even with my typical case of parental worry for my kids (and I think driving is insanely dangerous), I have always had a problem with this idea that one needs to “protect” them with a big fat SUV. Even leaving aside the increased rollover danger of SUVs, which may be getting addressed by engineers now but was a real concern when my kids were younger, the insistence on driving an SUV “for safety reasons” always sounds like this to me: “I must make sure that the deadly weapon that I drive will prevail in a crash, so that someone else’s children die, not mine.”

If that’s how we think, if that’s what we feel forced into, then to hell with us. And for sure, to hell with our auto industry.

So our kids got driven around in Camrys when they were little, and now we have (and they are old enough to drive) Priuses. We’re still pretty much liable to hell for driving at all, but we do what we can. (The irony of owning two Priuses is not lost on me.)

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: