May 2, 2006
As I drove into the train station today, the commentator
on NPR began a commentary by asking the question: do you remember
the last time you ran out of gasoline?
As a matter of fact, I do. It only happened to me a couple
of times and neither time was I driving. I was with my friend
Tom Fudali, who had, when we were in high school together,
an unnerving habit of running close to the bottom of the tank
and had an equally uncanny ability to run out of gasoline
in a place where it was possible for him/us to coast into
a filling station.
The point of this was that it may well be, according to this
particular commentator, that we, as a world, have not been
paying attention to the global fuel gauge. There are signs
everywhere. Gas is rising to unthinkable prices in America
and it is beginning to cause real havoc in the country. Recently
I read a report that in certain parts of the country business
is up dramatically at pawn shops as the working poor pawn
possessions to top off the tank.
As I topped off my tank on the return leg of a trip, I heard
two well-dressed ladies complaining that the price of gas
had jumped by a quarter since one of them had been in Europe
for a couple of weeks. When in Scottsdale for the wedding
of my godson Scott, who is in turn the son of the aforementioned
Tom, the local Arizona paper trumpeted that small was the
NEW big in cars while another article declared that Americans
had not altered their vehicle buying habits. I wasn't quite
sure what to believe given these two diametrically opposed
opinions, opining to myself that the truth might depend on
your socio-economic group.
Certainly on the train I hear more conversation about the
price of oil; it is now checked more regularly by my fellow
travelers than the movement of the stock market.
When the idea of a $100 rebate to help pay for gasoline was
floated by the Republican party, there was widespread derision
at a party I attended - we would give everyone $100 so we
could give it back to the oil companies, increasing their
profits while we, as a country, would need to borrow money,
probably from the Chinese, to pay for this largesse. And it
is the burgeoning consumption of the Chinese which is contributing
to the elevation of the price per barrel of oil.
The ever growing demand for petroleum from emerging economies
like China and India has elevated the pressures on the market
as has the slowdown of oil flowing from Iraq, the nuclear
generated jitters regarding Iran's intentions, a leader in
Venezuela who delights in tweaking the nose of the U.S., civil
unrest in Nigeria, etc.
We could be moving toward the perfect petroleum storm. Even
if, as some experts claim, there is enough oil for our immediate
needs still in the ground, the whole house of cards could
tumble due to the above mentioned political uncertainties,
not to mention havoc that could be wrecked on refining by
There are howls of protests, even from Republicans, about
the record profits of oil companies. Personally, the idea
of record profits wouldn't bother me so much if I thought
the money was going into genuinely turning oil companies into
energy companies; I am afraid it isn't.
The current trifecta of troubles has been brewing for years
while we have sailed lazily on, seduced by oil prices less
than half of Europe's and fed by the apparent American belief
that bigger is always better, in all things, from homes to
meals to cars. We have not developed a breed of efficient
cars, to provide options available in Europe where my friend's
Citroen, fueled by diesel, gets sixty miles to the gallon.
All of this is, I am afraid, reflective of the difficulty
Americans and, indeed, the whole world, has in making long
range plans before the knell of the doomsday bell.
It is my sincere hope that we will, like my old friend Tom,
have the luck to be able to coast into the filling station
because without that luck we'll be stuck on the side of the
highway, thumbing for a ride.