5 bucks a gallon to clear the mind
By TOM MAST
Star-Tribune staff writer
AAA projected a slight increase in travel over the Memorial Day weekend, as compared to a year earlier, despite the fact prices for gasoline were near or above record levels in many parts of the country.
So despite much grumbling, the price apparently was not high enough to dissuade most would-be travelers from hitting the road. In view of the fact our social structure over the past century has been shaped to a large extent by the automobile, our thirst for gasoline is hardly surprising. But as gasoline prices continue to climb, speculation invariably begins about just what price level will trigger dramatic changes in driving habits and lifestyles.
Last year, some people thought passing $3 a gallon would be a psychological threshold presaging real behavioral change. If Memorial Day 2007 is any indication, there's still some ways to go, although an analysis by USA Today found evidence of reduced driving earlier this year.
An official with the Society of Consumer Psychology thinks $3.50 could be the magic point at which profound change will be ushered in, while a marketing professor at the University of Southern California says $4.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll found Americans would significantly cut back on driving if gasoline hits $4.38 a gallon on average.
Clearly, Americans are prepared to pay a lot before reducing use of their automobiles or switching modes of transportation.
In a USA Today/Gallup poll, people overwhelmingly said they would not move or change jobs in order to cut commuter miles, or use mass transit as their main transportation, even if gasoline prices climb to over $10 a gallon. In fact, they reportedly wouldn't take such actions no matter how high the price goes.
What might be more surprising is that 41 percent of the respondents said they would not replace their cars for models that get better mileage no matter how high the price of gasoline climbs.
Such responses probably include a heaping teaspoon of bravado. Myself, I'm thinking $5 a gallon would truly focus the mind. Of course, I don't have any better evidence for this price point than anyone else has for theirs, except to say that forking over a fin for a gallon of gas when a couple of bucks formerly sufficed would be a Zen moment for many.
And if advocates for Hubbert's peak oil theory are correct, such an awakening might be closer than is comfortable to suppose.
If global oil supplies are now, or soon will be, pretty much running down the back side of the bell curve, $3-per-gallon motor fuel in years hence might be remembered with considerable fondness and longing.
I used to think that we would not be able to replace fossil fuels with alternative fuels and just keep driving. At some point there would be a sea change in attitudes and a realization that our personal vehicle ownership paradigm is unsustainable -- too much energy usage per capita at current (and future) population rates. No matter the cost, those vehicles will stay on the road.
But now I'm not so sure. The people of America and Europe who already own cars as well as the majority of the people in China and India who desperately want to own a car will happily agree to cut down every last acre of rain forest left anywhere and replace them with palm oil plantations for biodiesel if that is what is required. Honestly, do you think a majority of people would really care otherwise? As long as their own personal 'needs' are fulfilled?
The supply of petroleum will gradually tighten over many years. Drivers will slowly adjust to $5 and $6 gas just as they have adjusted to $3 gas. Meanwhile, with gas at $6, the economic incentive to level the Amazon and plant endless square miles of fodder for biodiesel will be overwhelming.
So, no, I no longer believe that we will have to give up our cars. What we will do instead is completely and utterly destroy the ecology of the earth by razing the rainforests and whatever else is required to keep a couple of billion cars on the road. This solution will be prefered by 80% of the public.
The average joe will not give up his auto until our planet is overheated, semi-sterilized, poisoned and storm wracked and humanity is suffering a massive die off, and, even then, he won't do so willingly.