Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Gas vs Water: What's Not Being Said

I don't know about you, but I get sick and tired of hearing and reading "We complain about gas prices rising to $3.00 a gallon, yet pay a hundred bucks a gallon for a Starbucks coffee." or X dollars per gallon of bottled water, or something else.

The fact is, your average person can decide to go without the coffee or drink water out of the tap. Ergo, we choose to spend the money on the coffee and water. While I agree we'd be better off if we brewed our own coffee and drank out of the water fountain, the fact is the water or coffee is our choice in this manner.

But try to go without gas for a long period of time. Chances are, you'll find your car stalled on the road.

Most people don't live in a place where Public Transit is a viable option. Bus service is crappy, and limited to the poorer areas of town. Trains, where they exist, usually go to and from downtown and, if you're lucky, are able to go from there to another side of town; but there's no sane way to loop around downtown. And if you want to go somewhere for the evening, better plan a quick trip if you're using Public Transit -- usually it's done before the night life is.

And those places where there's good public transit usually end up having a bare-boned system made to maximize their market during prosperous years (when those using it either had to or made a statement by choosing it), leaving a system unable to make a suitable change for times like this (when gas doubles over a year and the need becomes obvious).

So people develop a dependence on automobiles (for obvious reasons), and economic development spurs the dependency further. Space becomes automobile-based, shoving businesses back for roads and garages to the front of houses (seen the latest developments?). Gas stations become oasis for multiple forms of refreshment, incorporating fast food joints and convenience stores in their (vastly expanding) spaces as well as ample space to drive around the feuling points and up-front parking. The idea of Sidewalks is consigned to bicycle trails that take over old rail lines, cutting off possible avenues of transit expansion while giving the illusion of expanding parkland. Wal-Mart and their Kin (Lowe's, Office Max and other similar stores, along with the ubiquitous Malls) become out downtowns, controlling how we deal with the world around us. Soccer Moms turn to Yukons and Hummers not so much as a driving statement but for the sheer comfort of being able to sit UP in an SUV instead of down in a Corolla or Probe (and not be subjected to a visual groping every so often by SUV driving men). And, since a lot of time is now spent in a car, you end up eating and drinking a lot in it.

And, of course, when Gas Prices go up, you end up with a lot of people unable to cut back on their consumption without compromising their lives. Hence their complaints.

But before you tear into them for their complaints, consider the above. And this: how many people were willing to sacrifice for "a more sustainable future?" very few, and usually they were viewed as fools by most of us who bought the cars and bought into the lifestyle implied. They sacrificed, and we got about a cent per gallon break, making it easier for us to buy the cappucinos and bottled water to fill the cupholders with. And since we're talking about few enough people, they end up being packed away in Urban Enclaves where the rest of us can ignore them in our gas-devouering Heavens. Their sacrifice, nothing gained for us.

And now, when the piper comes due, guess who gets looked at. That's right, the SUV mom whining about paying more for the gas she has (and we have) been suckled on since the birth of our consumer culture in 1956 (the year the Interstate Highway System was passed, along with the funding).

No, I'm not feeling sorry for the SUV Mom. But I'm not sitting on a high horse, either. After all, I've made a living off our gas-guzzling culture; usually at the lower realms of the pay scale. And I've seen how inadequate our mass transit systems have become. I've seen our hyper-low density developments of the past (and even lower density developments of the present) and wonder how we'll ever adjust to Europe-level prices (double what ours are now). I've seen how our lifestyles have abandoned any concept of a town center, focusing instead on corporate-made points where our behaviors all revolve around shopping instead of friendship or talking.

This has been going on for sixty years. I'm not sure we can reverse it without a collapse of our way of life -- economic, social, intellectual or religious.

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