Another “gas out” came and went May 19 without slowing the soaring cost of petrol in the United States, much less denting the escalation of our oil addiction. U.S. oil consumption is now over 20 million barrels per day—a quarter of the 80 million barrels going down the global gullet daily. Our habit will grow by 420,000 barrels this year, a rise of an additional 1150 barrels of oil every day, the Energy Information Administration projects.
And we are outraged that the average price of gasoline has passed $2.00 with no end in sight. Furious truckers have blocked freeways in Los Angeles and container terminals in Northern California. Ordinary commuters are impotent, but angry enough to be heard. Even the most progressive politicians genuinely committed to fuel efficiency and renewable energy can bring up these issues only under deep cover while pledging “action on gas prices.”
There are a few voices of reason. Oklahoma Secretary of State David Fleischaker came right out and said it: “Gas is underpriced.” We could look at the end of the age of cheap oil as “an opportunity rather than a crisis,” wrote Mitchell Anderson in the Toronto Star. How much better off we’d be if our governments had implemented a gas tax decades ago, in order to pay for things like health care, mass transit, and political advertising. But you can only say such things if you’re not running for public office, as MSN columnist Alan Murray pointed out.
In the simplistic view of the “gas out” campaign, if Americans refused to buy gas on one day, oil companies would “choke on their stockpiles” and lose billions. This protest scheme proposed to move the day we buy gas, rather than reducing our consumption. Such merely gestural venting doesn’t cause participants any inconvenience. Which is precisely how the Bush administration pegged us: that “the American people continue to demand plentiful and cheap energy without sacrifice or inconvenience.”
What the “gas out” did accomplish was to give the media an opportunity to talk to Americans about whether rising prices would reduce their driving. Dallas oil tycoon Boone Pickens made waves when he predicted $3 per gallon prices in the near future. The Memorial Day weekend will give some clues to what price will get people to stop driving, he said.
The St. Petersburg Times asked people on the street if any “breaking point” would force them to drive less. Melissa Wineman (19), who drives about 80 miles per day, responded: "What could you do. Not drive? You couldn't get anywhere." 26-year-old Padrica Causey, who drives about 40 miles per day, said that there was no breaking point: "I can't stop driving." A story at Eastern Illinois University elicited similar responses. Junior Lisa Hall stated what she felt is self-evident: "I obviously still have to drive to work. I just can't stop driving."
I got around by bicycle on May 19, like I have almost every day of my adult life. This is a highly patriotic act, though perhaps it’s also a form of treason in the Regime of Oil, whose Commander in Chief insists that “we need an energy policy that encourages consumption.”
When I was a bilingual teacher at the largest elementary school in Oklahoma City, almost every day a student or teacher would ask me why I rode a bike. If I replied “Why, do you want me to drive a car?” the kids would respond “yes.” When I told a teacher that my children’s school was two miles away, she said “Ooh, that’s a long way.” Car culture has stunted their imagination.
I soon wore out my patience running through a litany of three reasons: biking was cheap, good exercise, and good for the earth. Only the exercise part made any (theoretical) sense to adults here. I knew it was pointless to observe that we had gone to war in Iraq to protect their right to commute in SUVs. And I surely was not going to get on the soapbox about our driving habits being “why the US operates some 700 military bases around the world,” as Robert Freeman points out, “and spends over half a trillion dollars per year on military affairs, more than all the rest of the world—its “allies” included—combined.”
Many people have been asking recently: What country do we live in? The answer came to me in “the dream life of the culture”: advertising. The wonderful world where Chevrolet is sponsoring “An American Revolution.”
A television ad for a Cadillac SRX has come to symbolize for me what George Monbiot calls “a civilization in denial.” A young couple is driving this fleet SUV up a mountain road, the sunroof open, not another vehicle in sight. They put their hands out the windows and begin mimicking an eagle floating on air currents. “Spread your wings,” the narrator says.
Last Thanksgiving I saw this ad run on CBS after Boomer Esiason had given thanks to the troops in Iraq for protecting our freedoms. You have to read between the lines in the full-time fantasy league of Media America to realize that the freedoms we promote and defend are very selective. Driving a luxury SUV like the SRX that costs about $50,000, weighs 4,300 pounds, and has a “stealth fighter aesthetic,” as one critic wrote, is one of those freedoms. Peaceful protest and dissent, apparently, is not.
Those 700 military bases around the world, and the $500 billion military budget that is being used to squelch dissident voices at home and abroad, entitle us to live in colossal denial. When we want to fly like an eagle, or get away for a close encounter with nature, we can do it enclosed within two or three tons of steel. Car ads teach us why the American way of life is so great that it can never be challenged, as our national leaders have proclaimed. True to the denial of addicts, these ads almost never show another vehicle on the road, or hint at the over 3,000 traffic fatalities per day in the world, or per month in the U.S. No one is asked to intuit that all those people trying to get away are not moving towards paradise, they are helping pave it. There is no suggestion that the white lines of the freeway are wiping out the eagle’s habitat.
It is also through ads that dissidents are trying to make these links more visible. Just in time for the biggest driving weekend of the year, the Detroit Project Action Fund launched a new campaign, “connecting the dots between skyrocketing gas prices… and our bankrupt energy policies,” as Arianna Huffington wrote. Experience shows it is hard to break through public apathy and corporate censorship. In 2003 the Detroit Project aired TV ads that linked America’s oil habit to terrorism. These ads connected the gas nozzles that pump 400-plus million gallons of gas in the U.S. every day (out of 840,000 million gallons of oil used daily, over 60% imported), to the loss of freedom and lives in the parts of the world dedicated to feeding our habit. Some stations in New York, Los Angeles, and Detroit refused to air the ads. After all, a fifth of all ads in the U.S., costing around $15 billion per year, relate to cars. Momentary glimpses of truth in advertising like the Detroit Project, or the What Would Jesus Drive? campaign, have been a bare glitch on the radar screen.
I hear a lot of outraged citizens demanding that we “take back America.” I know they mean well, but they bring to mind the song lyric: “I went to join the revolution, but I couldn’t find a parking space.” To take back America we’d have to tear up the asphalt that covers it.
The truth is, the regime of oil is following our lead. They are meeting the needs of those like that couple in the SUV who take the dominion of cars for granted, and imagine that, like the American eagle, we are soaring above the earth, lords of all we survey. How do you take back America from suburban moms, who are the biggest fans of behemoths like the Hummer?
What would it take, I wonder, to break through the self-absorption of “the only nation ever to drive to the poorhouse in an automobile,” as Will Rogers once said? In her book Asphalt Nation, Jane Kay Holtz writes: “There is no question that deposing the car from its dominion over the earth is a radical, even revolutionary move.” But the design of our cities assures our dependency, and makes wars in oil-rich nations inevitable.
Global oil production has already passed its peak, while the miles we drive continues to escalate—now over three billion a year in the U.S. A rational response to this crisis would be to redesign our cities and our lives. We desperately need to design more fuel-efficient vehicles, and to build mass transit. Yet Congress has made available outsized tax breaks to Americans who purchase vehicles that weigh over 6,000 pounds, and get 10 miles per gallon or less.
Many scientists recognize the need for a dramatic about-face in our lifestyle and energy policy. Dr. Martin Hoffert and his colleagues have published essays in Science and Nature magazines calling for “an energy research program on the scale of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo program.” Given the coming disaster of global warming, Dr. Arthur Nozik of the National Renewable Energy Lab insists that our survival is “going to require a revolution, not an evolution” in our development of alternatives energy sources and modes of transportation.
We cannot have security while trying to spread our wings in an SUV, or trying to export this lifestyle. The Chinese are now undergoing their own “transportation revolution”; their oil imports rose 30% last year. The number of cars in China will pass that of the U.S. by 2030. The earth cannot sustain that: every Chinese in a car would mean “the death of the planet,” asserts Herbert Chao. Imaging and building an alternative is a challenge without historical precedent. This much is now clear: the current regime of oil not only will ignore that challenge, it will treat as “potential terrorists” all those who publicly question our self-destructive path.
Gregory Stephens has taught at the University of California, and was recently a Rockefeller Fellow at the Center for International Studies, University of North Carolina. His writings and radio shows are available at: www.gregorystephens.com. This column was adapted from his book-in-progress Real Revolutionaries: Revisioning Kinship and Co-Creation. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
Additional Sources (most references hyper-linked)
Among those who refer to the “regime of oil”: Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? (London: Zed, 2002).
Ads as “dream life of culture,” Sut Jhally quoted in “The Ad and the Ego,” available at http://www.newsreel.org.
Overview of scientists calling for energy revolution: Kenneth Chang, “As Earth Warms, the Hottest Issue Is Energy,” New York Times, November 4, 2003; Amanda Griscom, “A Declaration of Energy Independence,” Grist Magazine, 6-30-03.
Martin Hoffert et al., “Energy Implications of future stabilization of atmospheric CO2 content,” Nature 395 (10-29-1998).
Tax breaks for SUVs and 3-ton vehicles: Neela Banerjee, “Pushing Energy Conservation Into the Back Seat of the S.U.V.,” New York Times, November 22, 2003.
Kenneth Deffeyes, Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage (Princeton UP, 2003).
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