Rocks in Our Heads
September 12, 2005,
The impediments to clear collective thinking about the problems we face were not washed away by Hurricane Katrina -- and may still be there after Hurricane Ophelia romps up the Atlantic coast later this week.
One Big Thought making the rounds of the editorial pages is that "fuel efficiency" will be the cure-all for our energy predicament -- that if everybody could trade in his Ford Explorer for a Toyota Prius, life in the USA would just purr happily forward. This has been the position of the more metaphysical branches of the enviro sector, as personified by the Rocky Mountain Institute and its preposterous "hyper-car" project.
The truth is that it does not really matter whether the freeways are crammed full of SUVs or nimble hybrid cars. The problem is car-dependency and the infrastructure for daily living predicated on it, not the kind of vehicles we run. I have yet to hear one US senator of either party propose that part of the recent $300 billion highway bill ought to be redirected to rebuilding America's passenger rail system -- even after the bitter lesson of Katrina, which demonstrated that people who don't own cars can't get out of harm's way in this country.
Another Big Thought still clogging the collective imagination is the idea that if only we switch to "alternative fuels" we can run the interstate highway system, Disney World, and WalMart just like before. The country is full of people now who want gold stars for running their household car fleet on discarded Fry-Max oil from the local Dunkin Donuts. . . or on oil squeezed from hemp seeds. Notice that the premise of a drive-in society remains.
Now the scary part of this is that these ideas are coming generally from the smarter people in our society. The dumb ones are are praying for the Rapture, or waiting for the market to magically fix everything, or sitting around the suburbs of Houston oiling their riot guns in front of the Nascar telecast.
In the background, the US is chugging straight into the Christmas 2005 clusterfuck, which will consist of large numbers of citizens finding themselves financially crushed by the cost of heating their houses combined with the persistent high cost of fueling their cars for all the chores of daily life. More people may die in Chicago as a result of high heating costs this winter than were killed by Katrina on the Gulf Coast.
In the economic sector, the delusion persists that the US Economy will be "unaffected" by the massive losses entailed by Katrina (as the New York Times put it last week). We don't need no steenkin' Mississippi Reever sheeping terminals or oil refineries. It is hard to imagine what species of gnostic theology this line of thinking is predicated on. Or how the economic press figures that price inflation of all ordinary household goods will not shoot up when truckers are paying twice as much this year to move frozen fried chickens from Arkansas to Philadelphia -- not to mention the fact that the disposable income previously allocated to Blue Light Special shopping in the chain stores is now being blown out the tailpipes of people struggling to pay for their fifty-mile commutes.
The disruptions now underway will ramify whether further traumas occur this season or not -- more hurricanes, terrorist incidents, financial stumbles. People have been e-mailing me to ask if this is the beginning of The Long Emergency. I'm not a hundred percent sure myself, but you can see it from here.