We all love cheap gas. Watching the “sale” meter out race “gallons” at four times the pace and then seeing the hefty total can produce a slight feeling of shock.
For me, vivid memories from my childhood of an oil crisis of decades past began to surface. Turmoil in a faraway place called “the middle east” caused per-barrel prices to head skyward. The sacrosanct $1 per gallon mark was pierced. Cars stretched for blocks around gas stations as rationing strategies were put into place. I recall cultural anxiety akin to the post Sept. 11th kind - our entire way of life was under threat.
So, the recent news that prices might be headed downward again soon might be something that should be celebrated as welcomed relief. Or should it?
The truth of the matter is that in the long term, we would be better served by even higher prices. At $4 per gallon, gas really isn’t that much more than 30 years ago, once inflation is considered. And, think of how we have organized our lives around the availability of cheap fuel. Take for example, the city I live in, Seattle. We take tremendous pride in being “green,” so many people do commute by bike and public transportation. But, beneath the surface, our lives still depend on many car trips. When my kids were as young as 8, their recreation-level soccer teams began playing clubs located all over the city, up to 30 minutes away, when there was plenty of able competition nearby. I rarely, if ever, saw families arriving together.
Data confirms that our driving patterns have begun to change with the recent price spikes and there are reports that demand has already begun to slide. However, large-scale transformation will only occur if prices reach a level at which it’s not just the poor and middle classes who bear most of the sacrifice. We are still a long ways from the point at which key decision makers in business and government will have be motivated to act. Sustained higher prices provide the only real economic incentives to break our addiction to gasoline and to encourage the development of other energy and transportation sources. In addition to possible environmental and health benefits, alternatives lessen our dependence on oil from parts of the world that are hardly known as havens of democracy or human rights.
On a more personal level, we might just become better stewards if gas costs more. In place of starting our engines, perhaps we’ll walk or bike more, which is good for our physical well-being. Perhaps we’ll share rides and shop and even fellowship locally, which is beneficial for strengthening our communities. Furthermore, the strain on our budgets may force us to reevaluate how we spend our money. Perhaps we’ll buy less or say no to activities that keep us running (make that, driving) around like busy fools. We may even re-organize the when and where of our activities (like kids soccer games). Maybe we’ll even rethink our place on the planet. After all, why do I feel entitled to cheap gas when $4 would seem like a giveaway to Europeans? All of this seems good for our spiritual lives.
To be certain, expensive gasoline will cause undeniable pain in the near term. The cost of just about everything will rise, possibly stalling our long-awaited economic recovery. More importantly, people on the lower end of the economic scale can least afford to pay more for fuel, so we will need to find innovative ways to share the burden.
As we are slowly learning about government deficits, however, serious problems that affect future generations won’t go away simply by pretending they don’t exist. Nor can we solve them without deeply shared sacrifice. The real value of paying more at the pump is easy to miss if we focus on price alone.
(Photo courtesy of Sura Nualpradid.)