Sunday, June 8, 2008

A gas rant

Although for all my adult life we as Americans have been able to practically ignore the price of gasoline as it affects our daily lives, we can't do it any more, can we? $4 a gallon has a way of getting our attention whether we like it or not. And while I don't like it either, I am not going to bitch about it, not just because I can't do anything about it, but also because we knew this day was coming.

But thinking back, we ought to have known this day was coming since the so-called Arab oil embargo of 1973. As retaliation for our nation's support of Israel, Arab nations drastically reduced their crude oil shipments to remind us of the power they had (and still have) over us because we built our economy on cheap gas. Sure, some of us responded by buying Ford Pintos, Chevy Vegas, and introduced ourselves to Datsun and Toyota, but before long, the crisis passed and most of us went right back to driving Oldsmobuicks. But the oil-rich nations knew they had us, and they did not forget it.

I am not quite old enough to really remember the 1973 oil embargo firsthand, but I can remember the next time we got bent over the gas pump, in 1979 and 1980. The nation was beset by inflation at the time, which oil states saw as a perfect opportunity to remind us how dependent we were on them. Again we were shocked at the price of gas, and bitched loudly, but other than some gas stations selling gas by the liter to ease the harsh reality, and a brief return to more fuel-efficient cars, we did nothing about it.

Their experience with piece-of-shit American cars, and their memories of being bent over at the pump influenced my parents to buy a Honda Accord in 1985. It got 40 miles to the gallon, never broke down, and is fondly remembered by my mother as her most favorite car ever. Around that same time, more and more of our nation's drivers were also discovering the joys of owning a fuel-efficient, well-built import.

I was driving the time the next time gas prices got our attention, but it was in a good way. When I graduated high school in 1985, gas was well over $1 a gallon. In 1987, the price one point that year, I distinctly remember paying 74 cents a gallon to fill the 10.5 gallon tank of my Volkswagen that year. Compared with inflated prices of everything else up to that time, that made gas about as cheap as it ever had been. In the years that passed, gas went up, back down, up again, on and on. But the one constant was that the price of fuel was not a concern for anyone who could afford a car.

That scenario continued unabated clear through to the late 1990s, when a phenomenon I still don't fully understand took hold of the car-buying public. The so-called sport-utility vehicle, which had been around for 25 or 30 years, gained popularity as a sensible choice of transportation. I heard it from so many people I know who had/still have one: it has so much room! it's so comfortable! I like sitting up high while I drive, it's big and I feel safer! Nobody seemed to care that SUVs got crappy gas mileage, being trucks with more steel and interior. Meanwhile sales of smaller, more sensible cars languished, even though they still suited the realistic transportation needs of the vast majority of drivers.

The next chorus of gas price bitching I remember was around the time when Hurricane Katrina disrupted the Southeast's fuel supply system. Admittedly, that was a temporary situation, but it turned out to be a wakeup call that nobody wanted to answer until now. Also around that time, the gas-electric car finally started being bought in number, but not really enough to make much difference. People's opinions were usually something like: yeah, it's good on gas, but it's kinda funny looking, it's small, and I just wouldn't want to be seen driving something like that. But now we are at the point where not so many of us can afford to buy a car based on how it looks or how we see it as an extension of our persona, and guess what? If you want one of those hybrids, you have stand in line to get one, and pay whatever price the dealer thinks they can get.

There are people who think that gas prices will eventually come back down, and based on the last 35 years of history, prices probably will come down some. But since our economy and society is still based on cheap gas, isn't it about time we quit bitching and did something about it once and for all?