The Benefits of $4 Gas
There is a great article today in Time. It covers a lot of ‘hot button’ issues with me, such as suburban sprawl, shorter work weeks, and conservation:
Gas prices are near $4 per gal., as no one needs to tell you, and they are likely to stay that way. Most of us still don’t have the alternatives we need to adapt with grace, which means that many will adapt just by suffering. We will run out of gas on I-80, ease our minivans over to the shoulder and tell the kids everything is O.K. We’ll fall behind on Visa bills to pay for gas so we can buy food made ever more expensive by energy costs.
But it’s also true that Americans are finding options where there seemed to be none. They’re ready to change — and waiting for their infrastructure to catch up. They are driving to commuter-rail lines only to find there are no parking spots left. They are running fewer errands and dumping their SUVs. Public-transit use is at a 50-year high. Gas purchases are down 2% to 3%. And all those changes bring secondary, hard-earned benefits.
“You suddenly are reminded how the economy works,” says Eric Roston, author of a new book about energy, The Carbon Age. “Nobody wants high prices for oil. But there’s also no faster mechanism to change behavior.” The suffering will go on. But the story, like any good tragedy, is not without redemption.
This is EXACTLY why I have long advocated higher carbon taxes. The suffering in that case could have at least been managed. In fact, had we instituted carbon taxes and used the money to incentivize fuel efficient vehicles and public transport, people would have not only had the expectation of higher prices, but also the means with which to adjust. Instead, people held out hope that price spikes were temporary, and so they didn’t adjust. Now that they don’t have a choice but to adjust, we get a lot more suffering than was necessary, and most people aren’t prepared. And of course we get empty promises from our political leaders about bringing prices back down – which results in more delays as some people will wait to see what happens.
This also points to the reasons I am not a ‘Doomer.’ I believe people will adjust, and that we will come up with solutions. But I also believe that due to our lack of preparation, we will undergo some difficult years. If prices hang around at these levels, then the faster people make the necessary decisions to reduce their carbon footprint, the less suffering there will be.
What we desperately need now is strong leadership. We need our political leaders to not only say “We are addicted to oil”, but to explain that there are no easy fixes. We need them to be up front that there is no relief coming from these prices, and we need them to provide incentives to speed up the changes we need to make (more fuel efficient vehicles on the roads, more riders on mass transit, more carpooling, etc.).
Lack of leadership got us to where we are. The cynical side of me says that lack of leadership will help delay the responses people need to make to adjust.