RUNNING ON EMPTY
(Reflections on the Gasoline Shortage of 1990)
Having just returned from the second segment of coast to coast trip and back -- about 9,600 miles in all -- something that I would have never attempted had gasoline prices in June been what they are now, my thoughts turn to the current Middle Eastern dilemma and its effect on the world.
Clearly, the issue is one of oil. Granted that Saddam Hussein is a menace to the Arab world and that his occupation of Kuwait is entirely unacceptable and that his grabbing of foreign nationals as a prevention/shield against retaliation is cowardly and barbaric, still, none of these things are, in themselves, the cause of the present mess. As a radio commentator pointed out just this morning, when Lybia's Kadaffi pulled off the same sort of maneuver against Chad, no one (except the French) hardly took notice. And when Saddam used poison gas against the Iranians, and even against his own Kurdish tribes, the U.S. government pretty much chose to ignore the whole issue. Clearly, there is a critically selective factor at work, and it is neither human rights, national sovereignties, or even, perhaps, strategic location. It is purely and simply -- OIL.
And cheap oil at that. According to INSIGHT (a rather conservative weekly overall) Kuwait had been deliberately undercutting OPEC prices despite Saddam's repeated warnings. True, they had struck a compromise shortly before the invasion, but the general pattern of their dealings gave Iraq no confidence that this late agreement would be any more honored than the past ones. But even this reflections on intra-cartel price haggling are largely beside the real point. The real problem is the distribution of wealth, not only in the Middle East, but in the world.
That King Faud of Saudi Arabia is one of the richest man in the world (18 Billion -- 2nd. to that oil rich Sultan in S.E. Asia) or that the exiled Emir of Kuwait lives on a similar scale (including 54 wives) only are the more spectacular examples of the gross imbalance that exists in Arab world, where a few Bedouin sheiks wallow in wealth while millions of their fellow Arabs starve. Plus the fact that these "kingdoms" and emirates continue to exist as semi-independent entities almost only as fiefdoms or "protectorates" of the Western powers, only underlines the global problem of uneven access to and unjust distribution of the world's wealth. The fact that President Bush (plus a number of senators and congressmen I heard on the McNeil-Lehrer Report) could not only appeal to the (our) American "lifestyle" being threatened, but that they could do so spontaneously without any apparent hesitation or embarrassment I think shows just how pathetically dependent, shortsighted, and selfish we have become.
The dependence problem is all too evident. We have become addicted to cheap gasoline. The wide-spread acceptance of the commuter life-style (I have more than one friend who drives 60 miles round-trip to work each day -- which is comparatively nothing), the desire to live in the country with all the amenities of the city, the abandonment of any serious commitment to keep America's railroads healthy and efficient, the proliferation of gasoline-powered recreational toys (snowmobiles, dirt-bikes, RVs, ATVs, aqua-scooters, out-board runabouts and gas-guzzling cabin cruisers) -- all these syndromes point to a "substance-addiction" of a very real sort, and along with it, a denial of reality.
Nowhere is this denial of reality more glaring than in the shortsightedness that has lead to the present panic -- and even our readiness to risk war to protect "our lifestyle." At the time of the last major petroleum crunch (1973 I think it was) we imported about one-third of our petroleum needs. Now it is about one-half. Apparently we learned nothing. After a period of automotive redesign and experimentation with alternative fuels, gas mileage goals have been greatly watered-down and alcohol processing plant development has been scuttled. And so, even though only about 10% of our petroleum was imported from Iraq or Kuwait, the fact that we will have to bid competitively against the rest to the world for the remaining available oil will mean that we will finally have to begin paying something like the real price for this non-renewable resource.
As a contemporary columnist (quoting Yogi Berra) has pointed out, there is an eerie sense of "deja-vu all over again" about all of this. I believe it was also in the early 1970s that the book, The Limits of Growth, appeared on the scene with its sober, but widely criticized predictions of the immanent demise of our affluent Western life-style in the face of the grim realities of the precipitous decline of non-renewable resources, exponential population growth, and vastly compounded environmental degradation and pollution. Admittedly, the computer models utilized in the study were highly problematic and some of the particular predictions may have proved to have been far wide of the mark, but still, the principal premise of the study, that you simply cannot have infinite growth within a finite world seems to have been the real target of the consumerist wrath, as well as, once the furor died down, the subject of collective amnesia. Now that this self-evident truism is being driven home again in the present situation, addictive denial is gearing up to find (and act upon) any excuse to avoid the real problem.
Finally, the consummate selfishness revealed by this whole situation has to be faced squarely. It is said that America, with less than 5% of the world's population, either consumes or controls nearly one-third of the world's resources. Whether this is actually true or not I do not know (I very much suspect statistics -- they have an air of infallibility about them that readily makes them subject to quotation without verification), but what is evident is that from our present reactions to the outrages of Saddam Hussein, that we intend to act as if we not only command the allocation of one-third of the world's resources, but that we allocate to ourselves the right to dispose of all of them -- in the name of the rest of the world, of course! Without the UN sanction we would be seen all to clearly for what we are.
There are those who predicted, years back, that the next major war would be fought between East and West over the oil of the Middle East. Fortunately, largely due to the East's (i.e. the former Communist world -- with the exception of some of Eastern Europe) self-sufficiency in petroleum reserves, this has not been the case. Soviet Russia, without any direct dependence on Middle Eastern oil, but with a keen interest in Middle Eastern peace, seems ready, even if hesitantly, to stand by our side in this conflict. But what we are seeing, I submit, is the beginning of a major North-South conflict, that is, if "North" can be taken to be symbolic of the "developed" nations, and "South" as expressive of the developing, so-called "Third World". Saddam Hussein's appeal to this element, like that of Mohamar Quadaffi and Fidel Castro, should not be underestimated.
All this may come down to the old appeal of the "have-nots" against the "haves" but in a county like ours, where the top one-percent earned as much as the whole bottom forty-percent (a figure roughly twice as alarming as a mere decade ago) it shows that we Americans have become alarmingly insensitive to the rot within our own society. But if we are in no position to be lecturing the rest of the world on what is "fair" or "just", perhaps the present crisis at least ought to open our eyes, once for all, that there is something gravely wrong with the present allocation of resources and wealth in this world, and more than the all too predictable appearance of a few rabble-rousing dictators, some of whom will give us real problems once they get their hands on nuclear weapons and not just poison gas, that we are as just as much of or a major part of the problem. Certainly, any aggressive "solution" on our part, other than one which addresses the underlying problems, including those raised by "the Limits of Growth" will prove to be worse than no solution at all. What is my part in this solution -- other than this kind of ruminating on the subject? All the way home on this last segment of the trip, paying up to $1.35 per gallon (and a minimum of 54.9 cents per liter in Canada, or roughly $1.80 per gallon in US currency depending on the exchange rate) I pondered on the subject. I literally ran on empty the 50 or so miles across the eastern U.P. to get south of the Mackinac bridge where I knew the prices might be more reasonable (I had two gallons reserve in a container just in case and used it lest I tie up traffic on the bridge). In Cheboygan the cut-rate station's price was $1.29 for a gallon of regular unleaded. This is a bargain? But friends of mine have already paid up to $1.45 a gallon in some Michigan stations and 70 cents or more per liter is predicted in Canada before the year is over.
How much longer can we go on this way? The answer is -- a long while! People just slow down for a short while, but once they get used to the cost, or as soon as the can pass it on to their employer or tax deductions, they will go on as per usual. Canada is a prime example. There nothing but broken down pickups full of firewood seem to travel any less than 5 to 10 MPH (or about 10 to 15 Km/H) over the posted speed limit! Not only speed, but inflation is the name of the game. I was told that 70% of the Canadian gas dollar is tax money; I suppose to help pay for their wonderful medical insurance. The way they drive they may need it!
Unfortunately, finding myself on a "fixed income" as we "senior citizens" put it (unfortunately there is no "golden age" discount for gas), and barely able to afford any medical insurance as it is, I can not revert to the usual non-solution, except perhaps tax-deductions, but that only when you've earned enough to deduct anything in the first place. So what can I do except to stay home more?
I suppose I could think of converting my Jeep engine to burn natural gas and try to line up a outlet from our slowly dying gas well -- but I'm told Shell (as well as the State DNR) aren't too keen on such arrangements. When a well is commercially dead, they like to see it "shut in" or for all practical purposes considered dead and buried. Until it dies, that monthly check is what has paid for my normal (until this summer) gasoline bills.
I could wish I still had my '79 Volkswagen diesel which gave me close to 45 miles per gallon overall, but high mileage, age, and bad roads all combined to do that buggy in. My used '85 Jeep Cherokee does very well to get half that mileage, which really isn't bad at nearly two and a half times the VW's weight. In any case, short of sudden catastrophe, I'm likely to have the present rig for a long time to come, the body showing little or no rust or wear (except a bit of scraped paint and a few minor dents due to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune) after 97,000 miles and an engine that is still practically new after a rebuild job at 76,000 miles. (It had a cracked head due to over-heating with faulty gasket, but I chose to spend the money for a complete rebuild sensing I'd be married to this machine for a long time to come.)
What I have to face up to is that I really don't need to do things like go to the Post Office fifteen miles away each week, that I still can have delivery to my mail box everyday except Sunday if I wish -- something I halted when it got too hard on the VW. I may even bicycle there to mail this letter today, now that I have been given a wider tire 10-speed "mountain bike" to try to negotiate our sandy northwoods trails (but alas, some of the sand pits are too soft for any bike!) Am I then to revert to one of those ATV's with balloon tires? Not if their gas mileage is anywhere as bad as my old Johnson "Ski-Horse" snowmobile -- my Jeep does better than that!
Nor do I have to go to town every week to shop. Years ago I made a computerized shopping list to take care of everything except fresh vegetables for one month. It's a bit out of date since the local market rearranged things extensively (I had everything I needed listed in order of its location in the store) but that can be updated. I also found out that lettuce, if carefully selected, will last a surprisingly long time. So if I did it before, in the dead of winter, I can do it again.
So maybe this all comes down to saying that if I want to get by economically in the present crisis, as well as set an example of sorts for those who insist on living, as it were, in another time frame, all I need do is to begin to take seriously my vow to live as a hermit, to readjust my "lifestyle" a bit more to express physically or concretely what I spiritually, if not always psychologically claim to be. Enough said about that.
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