Gas prices and New Minds

For more of my commentary on life in Richmond, Indiana check out RichmondMatters.com.
(Please note, because of the time that has passed since I wrote this article, it may no longer reflect my current views or the most accurate and complete information available on this subject.)

IMG_0061.JPGWhen gas prices go up, people tend to complain that something needs to be done about the problem. Many demand action from the local or federal government, gas companies, or fellow citizens. Like Jason Sparks, whose letter in the Pal-Item yesterday read, "Why is the government not stepping in?...How are we supposed to pay the bills?...Let's shut down the country, then maybe someone would step in. We cannot afford this." Or Brad Hall, who was quoted in an article today asking, "What's going to be next?...How're people going to survive and get around?"

That's the question, indeed.

How will we survive and get around when the price of gas is too high to afford? Or, perhaps more pressing, how will we survive when there is no more gas to buy? It is always surprising to me that people are so expectant of intervention by a third party (or higher power) for any sort of resolution about this issue. Yes, the government and gas companies have obligations and interests related to the availability of resources that literally fuel their existence and our culture, but they are not the only variable in the matter. And even if they were, simple math tells us that the demand for oil will (or already has) exceed the supply in ways that essentially mean the compulsory end of our oil-using existence.

Right now you pay USD$3 for the ability to transport your vehicle about 20 miles. When you have to push that hulk of metal up and down those hills and around those corners, I bet that'll seem like a pretty good deal.

Whether we can create a new kind of existence in the place of the current one is up to us. "Us" in the long term means "the human species," but "us" in the shorter term means the people in our community. There will be no sustainable government intervention to help the people of Richmond, Indiana buy gas at a lower price. There will be no goodwill gesture by the gas companies to help us pay our bills and buy as much gas as we always have at the same time. There is no charity auction or community fundraising campaign that can help bring gasoline to our local pumps more cheaply so we can stop worrying about it. It won't happen.

And yet we largely continue to insist on external resolutions instead of internal ingenuity and innovation. One might say that it's a symptom of an egregious kind of privilege and sense of entitlement that has us asking to have our cake and burn it for transport too. Or one might say that it's a cultural conditioning, we've expected from childhood for gas to flow like water when we need it, at the price that seems reasonable to us; breaks from that norm that has been in place for generations are jarring and distressing. Or one might say that we've just forgotten how to take matters into our own hands, how to apply a sense of entrepreneurship to the challenges that face our community. Or one might say that perhaps in this day in age, we know what we need to do, we're just scared.

It's scary to think about changing how I live (I can hardly stand it when the parking space on my street isn't available), but it's more scary to think about a world in which gas is $200/barrel, and all of the implications that would have for our way of life. I'm glad that some are willing to change their habits and way of life now; isn't gradual change always so much more tolerable than sudden drops in quality of life? But I also fear that even the changes being made aren't enough. We talk about managing money better to pay for gas, but we should also be talking about using less gas, or no gas. We talk about the fun of buying new hybrid cars, when we should also talk about incorporating better public transportation, carpooling, bike paths and other significant fuel efficiency measures into our strategic planning. We talk about bringing more jobs to our community that are a part of the global economy when we should also be talking about how we as a community can better survive when the global economy stops caring about Richmond, Indiana. We talk about recycling aluminum cans, but we should also be talking about completely different ways of producing and distributing the food and drinks we consume. These are all challenges we can take head on at the local and regional levels; Uncle Sam can join us if he wants, but we don't need him.

Not so long ago, we created the fragile fuel economy we live in through a series of incredible and admirable innovations and "advancements" in the way we thought out our world and what we could do with its resources. It seems to me that it will only be similar kinds of shifts in our perspective that take us to a place where humans can live sustainably on the Earth. Short of that, rearranging our errand routes and waiting for the government to step in is only prolonging the problem, and making the particulars of the eventual solution (voluntary or involuntary) that much more uncomfortable. As author Daniel Quinn wrote, old minds think: "How do we stop these bad things from happening?" New minds think: "How do we make things the way we want them to be?" We need new minds right here in Wayne County to ask and answer that question every day - it's not about fear, it's about creating something better for ourselves. Otherwise, we'll just be old minds complaining...driving around, and then eventually running, in circles.

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