Curbing Our Addiction to Cheap Fossil Fuels

Urbanization and a change in attitude regarding fuel prices could help wean us off this unpredictable resource.

In the summer of 2008, gas prices in the United States hit a record high of $4.11 per gallon. Gas had never broken the $4 barrier before, and it seemed like they could just go right on climbing. In response, we grumbled. We moaned. We made bad jokes about paying with our limbs and our first-born children. Then, we started ditching gas-guzzling vehicles like Hummers and oversized SUVs. We carpooled, combined our errands and found other ways to drive less. A large number of Americans across the political spectrum began supporting renewable energy initiatives and new technologies that could reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

Then prices crept back down again, and we got complacent. While we’re still not driving quite as much as we used to – a factor that probably has more to do with the economy than learning any kind of lesson – most people aren’t exactly lining up to buy the Chevy Volt.

Now, as gas prices threaten to reach new heights, our response is not to push harder than ever for greener solutions. Aside from a drive to use rising fuel prices as political fodder to damage President Obama’s chances of re-election, the nation’s reaction has been a collective shrug of the shoulders. A recent study found that Americans are less reactive to gas prices today than we were four years ago, and that it may take breaking the psychological barrier of $5 per gallon to prompt us into any kind of action.

And once that happens, the rallying cries will probably be more along the lines of “Drill Here, Drill Now” rather than “Go Hybrid.” Because the fact of the matter is, the vast majority of us perceive cheap fuel as a basic right.

There’s a good reason for that. America is the land of personal automobiles. This sprawling nation, with its vast network of highways, is nearly impossible to navigate without a car unless you live in a big city with plentiful public transit options. Just try to get through daily life in a suburb, exurb or rural area without owning a vehicle. Some people manage, riding bicycles, catching rides with others and dealing with inefficient and unreliable bus services. But for most people, it’s just not a viable option. Therefore, we have a certain expectation: if we’re to be productive members of society, we have to be able to get around without taking out a second mortgage just for gas.

It’s easy to find ourselves glaring at the digits displayed on the gas pump. None of us enjoys feeling like we’re being gouged. We place the blame on oil speculators who artificially raise prices by as much as 75 cents per gallon, and angrily decry the record profits that oil companies have been enjoying thanks to their tax breaks and lobbyists. Justly so. But don’t we deserve the blame just as much as they do? In our defensiveness over the need to drive personal vehicles, we too often refuse to make concessions that can help us all move forward into an era of green transportation.

Fossil fuels are a finite resource, a major source of pollution and the cause of numerous international conflicts and wars. We can’t grow oil like we can grow algae or biofuel crops. At this point, we should be thinking of our fossil fuel consumption in terms of transitioning to more sustainable options.

But what is it that we can do, as individuals? Instead of just complaining, we can make even more drastic cuts to our driving than ever before. Those of us who are privileged to live in cities with public transit systems should make use of them as often as possible, and the rest of us should push for the same rights in our own communities. Learn the various ways to use less fuel. Take romantic train rides instead of driving cross-country. Ride your bicycle to the store for that carton of milk. Support political efforts to fund renewable energy innovation. Demand high-speed rail. Spread the word about clean energy, which creates three times more jobs than fossil fuels. Consider moving to the city.

The latter option may, in fact, be the single most effective thing we can do. Urbanization is by far the most efficient way to share resources, and with conscious oversight, cities can be green. Population density frees up rural land for food production, preserves wilderness and increases available green space. The 2010 census shows that many Americans are reversing the suburbanization trend, moving back into urban areas in droves. Although this raises valid concerns about potential suburban blight, and may strain city budgets in the short-term, it’s a crucial step toward a more sustainable future.

Thankfully, despite the prevailing attitudes about gas prices, there’s a dot of light at the end of the tunnel. Hybrid sales are increasing, and many people purchasing new vehicles are paying closer attention to fuel efficiency. General Motors, once again the world’s number one automobile manufacturer, reports that sales of vehicles that get at least 30 miles to the gallon make up 40 percent of its sales, versus 16 percent in 2009.

Like any addiction, cheap fossil fuels will be a hard habit to break. But when it comes down to it, do we really have a choice?

Photo: David Drexler

Stephanie Rogers

Stephanie Rogers currently resides in North Carolina where she covers a variety of green topics, from sustainability to food.