Adapt, don’t complain, over oil

Every week it seems gas prices continue soaring to heights never before seen, and every jump in the price is accompanied by a mixture of outrage and panic. What’s surprising to me is not that prices continue to rise, but that many people are taking it so personally and displaying such angst when we’ve known for months, even years, that gas prices would be climbing, and we’ve been given plenty of advance notice to adjust our lifestyles to minimize the harm to ourselves.

For decades, capricious mobility has been an American tradition, and now it’s time to reconsider that. While citizens of other countries have packed themselves into dense cities and relied on walking, biking, and taking trains to all of their destinations, we Americans have been content to spread ourselves all over this continent, prepared to drive for miles at the slightest whim.

I personally have not been waiting for gas to reach $10 per gallon to start taking control of my life back from OPEC. When a car accident (not my fault) put my vehicle into early retirement, I decided I didn’t want to get a new one. I was barely using it anyway. I was already quite happy using my bicycle to go most of the places I needed to go, and the main use of my car was for spur of the moment trips that weren’t worth the exertion of a bike ride. It turns out that lacking that option (more like, an excuse for laziness) is not quite so bad as one might think.

So I ride my bike almost everywhere I need to go, and supplement that with MARTA and ZipCar as necessary, and things have been working out pretty well so far, although Atlanta surely could stand to improve the number of roads with bike lanes. When I’m riding on 10th Street I’m usually thinking about things like how effective my helmet would be in protecting my skull should I get mowed down. (The simple solution, not to deter would-be bicyclists, is just to avoid 10th Street.)

I only see the effects of rising gas prices indirectly, as the price of various goods and services which entail the use of gasoline at some point have been rising. While there’s not much an individual can do about that, the collective reduction of demand will allow prices to come down and will allow a better, more efficient allocation of resources. While an individual might have the option of driving or biking to work, there is no option for a shipping company to haul cargo by bicycle.

I understand that biking is not an option for everybody. While there are those who perhaps physically cannot handle traversing distances greater than a mile in anything lacking a motor, there are others who simply don’t want to endure the inconvenience. That’s totally fine. Another great American tradition is the ability to use money to deflect inconvenience from oneself. For the luxury of personal motorized transport, with the timing and destination of your choosing, you will pay a premium that grows every day as the cost of crude oil rises.

The important part in that last line is that word “luxury”. In my opinion, the time has passed to feel like every American is entitled to their own set of motorized wheels and the means by which to fill it up with gas as often as they would like. That might have been a right when gas was under ninety cents a gallon ten years ago, but that’s over. Maybe someday we’ll make it back to that price level, but it seems quite doubtful to me.

For instance, citizens of countries like China and India are now increasingly buying cars and consuming oil, permanently jacking up demand. This is a necessary consequence of globalization, and in exchange for the ability to employ Chinese workers at miniscule wages so they can make us cheap toasters and televisions, we have to accept that over time that infusion of cash into their economy is going to give them the ability to start to raise their standard of living. That’s a good thing and I welcome it, but the consequential increase in demand for things like oil has to be accounted for. To make up for this, we have no choice but for our oil consumption to come back to reasonable levels, and that’s just to maintain prices where they already are.

All this time I’ve discussed the monetary cost of frivolously burning gasoline, and that’s not to mention the externalities that don’t get taken into account when you pay at the pump. This means the harmful effects of emissions. This also means the domestic security costs inherent in sending half your paycheck to a group of countries whose relationships with ours range from shaky to downright hostile.

We put all our metaphorical eggs in one basket in forming this dependence on foreign oil and now we need to break it. We’ve been hearing lots of unique approaches lately, including people holding prayer vigils at gas stations (just like our governor did for the drought) and otherwise harassing the stations’ owners and employees, even though they aren’t responsible for more than a tiny percentage of the overall pump price.

There is only one answer: collectively reducing demand, starting with the individual. The benefits go beyond cost savings. You’ll be in better shape for the added exercise, and you’ll have taken control over your life.