I got a text from a friend last week: “Paid $4.09 per gallon today. A 30-cent increase from my last fill-up.”
I wasn’t sure what to make of the message. My friend knows I don’t own a car; the price of gas is immaterial in my life. Yet even I understand that pump price is the immediate barometer of our national psyche. As gas prices spike, our collective mood plummets.
The price of gas, at any given moment, is universally known down to the fractional tenth of a cent. It’s posted along roadsides in big, easily changed numbers. It towers over freeway interchanges. And it fluctuates in irrational yet immediate relation to demand, supply, and the news cycle.
Tankers queue, unloaded, outside the Port of Long Beach, and the price of liquid cisterned beneath pavement in Waltham, Massachusetts automatically shoots up. Shut off imports from Russia and the value of crude flowing through New Jersey refineries skyrockets.
The spontaneous correlation between the price of gas and perceived threats to our way of life is not new. Sixty years ago, in 1962, I recall my father dismissing a news report about Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. “What’s that got to do with the price of gas?” His subtext was clear. Science, environmentalism, harmony with nature. That’s all fine, so long as it doesn’t affect me. One iota.
The inverse relationship between our national well-being and the price of a slippery substance that we never actually see makes perfect sense in a nation enthralled with the twin idylls of constant movement and individual independence. Despite what Dunkin’ proclaims, American runs on gasoline, and the cheaper it is, the faster, farther we run.
Today, a trifecta of challenges is driving up the price of gas with record speed: supply chain issues as production awakens from the pandemic; overheated demand due to that same sad pandemic; and the brutal war in Ukraine. The number of media reports angsting over gas prices appears exponentially proportional to the number of fingers we can wag at the problem. My favorite recent headline: “Is $5 per Gallon Gas Worth the Price of Democracy?” That’s how literal we draw the connection between the price of gas and…pretty much anything we value.
Most prudent analyses of human society indicate that burning gasoline is the primary contributor to making our planet warmer, thus less hospitable to humans; that our short-term actions are undermining our long-term survival. We know, intellectually, that we could improve the quality of our planet by using less gas; and Capitalism 101 teaches us that a sure-fire way to decrease demand is to increase price. But the gap between awareness and action since Rachel Carson’s clarion call and today only gets wider. We say we want a fresh, green earth. But our actions betray that what we really want is to be able to drive, in private vehicles, wherever we want, whenever we want.
We are willing to pay handsomely for this privilege, in both time and money. The average American spends over an hour a day commuting, and 20% of their annual income on transportation. Me? A fraction of that. Yet I confess I must be a genetically mutant American, as my DNA simply lacks the love-of-automobile gene. I always preferred the lethargic ease of Ferdinand the Bull rather than racing frantic like Wiley E. Coyote.
My response to my friend’s text was as inadequate as it was expected. “I love you guys, but you’re probably not surprised I don’t have much empathy for the price of gas. We need to use a lot less of it unless we’re gonna burn this planet up.” The moment I hit ‘Send’ I realized how insufficient.
I may choose to operate differently from my fellow citizens, but I cannot dismiss the reality of their lives. Despite our kneejerk despair, the price of gas does have a direct effect on most Americans; and even if we wanted to rearrange our lives to be less auto-dependent, we can’t do it anytime soon. We have spent the last hundred years building a nation of suburbs and freeways that preferences easy, long-distance driving over any other mode of travel. It would take years of collective effort to restructure the United States from a nation of automobiles to one of trains and buses, bicycle and pedestrians. Yet I see no evidence that we even want to make such change.
Five dollar per gallon gas is a fact in the here and now. The fate of democracy—or of the earth—is too abstract to draw a reasoned comparison. And so we will complain. But we will also pony up and keep driving. Because we are creatures of habit who have built a world that offers no other option.
I have little faith in human ability to better balance the long-term consequences of short-term action. But I have tremendous faith in humanity’s ability to react to crisis. And if there’s anything I know for certain: over the next few decades, we’ve got a lot of crises coming down the pike.
So I hope that my friend accepts my response to his plight as honest rather than flippant. I’ve crafted a life immune to the fluctuating price of gas, yet I know that price hikes have real consequences for many, many Americans. I also understand that the price of gas is our totem for the mess we’ve made of our world. The higher it climbs, the deeper out despair.