July 4, 2008
Al Gore and his apocalyptic apostles couldn’t do it. Railroad fanatics with their striped caps and oilcans couldn’t do it. Urban gardeners dressed up like vegetables couldn’t do it. Even the green-is-chic fad couldn’t do it. It’s the hundred-dollar tank of gas that’s going to do it.
Sure, we’re all sort of concerned about climate change. We all marvel at the comfort, speed, and efficiency of the trains in Europe. We all gobble up books on living for a year exclusively on locally-grown foods, the latest family adventure. We all love the idea of a house that generates its own energy. But this is Fantasyland, Wonderland, Narnia, the world of the talking bee and polar bear, and Thomas the Tank. Only Tomorrowland will make us change, and right now that’s like looking in the wicked witch’s mirror: Our vision of the future is going from Autopia to dystopia, from sky’s-the-limit to sky-is-falling, from the Home of the Future to the Future of the Home.
We’re in the midst of a paradigm shift. The long-successful American economic model is swiftly moving east and south, while America is starting to bear the karmic consequences. Having sowed the wind, we’re reaping the whirlwind.
Five dollars — do I hear ten? — for a gallon of gas is no momentary blip, like the short-lived schemes of the oil cartels in the 1970’s to squeeze up prices by squeezing down supply. Asia has started its own torrid affair with the automobile, and petroleum producers are going full-bore to keep up with the new demand. The frenzied futures markets are influencing prices to some degree, but the operative dynamic is rudimentary economic law.
The economies of China, India, and Southeast Asia — with many parts of South America and Africa following apace — are achieving by themselves what American foreign policy had long tried to advance on its own terms. Some time ago, policy experts replaced the patronizing, static term "third-world countries" by the less demeaning, more dynamic "developing countries." To most of us, it didn’t matter what they were called; we presumed they would remain pathetically poor and ever dependent on our bread-basket for relief. It was heart-warming to hear about those "people’s banks" lending poor women a few bucks to start little weaving and farming businesses, but that was about as far as we thought things would ever go. Now governments all over are relaxing their ideological grip and allowing laissez-faire, early-American-style enterprise to flourish, first by embracing U.S. outsourcing and then by encouraging consumer economies of their own. The result in those countries is a growing middle class with growing middle-class tastes: home ownership, car in every garage, chicken or portion of pig in every pot. To our surprise, and to our short-term detriment, developing countries are doing something we never thought would happen: developing. And all of that takes fuel.
Running parallel with fuel is food. Another result of development is healthier people. As life expectancy increases, populations and their nutritional needs soar. The old paradigm’s method of food supply is large-scale industrialized agriculture, a system which produced astounding surpluses at very low cost in yesterday’s America, and which many developing countries are now adopting as national policy. Forests are giving way to factory-farms, and, as in India’s case, the hopelessly uncompetitive traditional farmers are giving up and selling out. Mass agriculture is fuel-dependant, both for production and for shipping, so ever upward goes demand. We’ll never see cheap gas again.
New paradigms — the Copernican Revolution is the classic example — are not imposed on a culture from above but gradually take root from below. In fact, those with the authority to impose things are usually the last to see what’s coming.
In our case, U.S. auto makers continued to churn out their long-time cash cows, the SUV’s, big pickups, and minivans, seemingly oblivious to the spiraling price of oil; only now, glutted with unsold vehicles, are they drastically cutting production while fuel-efficient cars from prescient Asia clobber them. As for our head-in-sand government, just a couple months ago, Congress passed its typical pork-barrel energy bill, protecting these doddering companies from so-called "unrealistic" mileage standards. And last spring’s Clinton-McCain "gas-tax holiday" proposal, laughed to scorn by the drivers it was supposed to help, was simply the distillation of the pettiness and short-sightedness that have sabotaged every attempt at a comprehensive energy policy for over three decades.
The same tunnel-vision applies to the rising cost of industrialized food, also petroleum-related, as transportation expenses increase and more acreage is devoted to biofuel crops. The ethanol bandwagon is another sorry example of the quick-fix trumping the what-if.
But now that the pump is talking to the pocketbook, people are taking whatever they can into their own hands. Ridership on once-despised public transportation is up in every major city and urban corridor; fuel-efficient cars are not just the choice of misers and greens anymore; and regionally-grown produce, now suddenly competitive in price with the agribusiness stuff, is flying out of farmers’ markets this summer.
As fuel prices continue their march to the sky, Americans’ concept of themselves and their country will radically change, from what they do to what they buy to where they live. Through much anxiety, disorientation, and economic devastation, a new paradigm of American life will evolve. Once in place in people’s minds, however, it will generate a new kind of prosperity and significantly enhance the quality of life.
Our fuel-fueled Tomorrowland is done for. Something truly new is right around the bend.