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Monday, June 09, 2008

Changes in the American Dream

Gasoline prices reached a national average of $4 a gallon for the first time over the weekend according to a story in The New York Times. That's a lot for America but actually pretty cheap for standards in Spain and the rest of Europe. The problem is that a lot of the American lifestyle over the past half-century or more has been predicated on the idea of cheap gas. Americans have been foolishly buying enormous vehicles for the past decade without ever considering what would happen if the price of gas were to suddenly double, and it has suddenly doubled—and then some. Unwise choices have also been made in the area of housing.

Since the end of WWII Americans have been abandoning the cities to live in single family homes in the suburbs. Many people commute very large distances every day to reach their jobs so that they can enjoy the American dream of a single family home with a huge yard. With gas at $4 a gallon this whole house of cards is beginning to crash. People are finding it difficult to fill the tans of their gas-guzzlers, commuting is eating away at paychecks, and even mowing the lawn with a gas mower is beginning to sting pocket books.

I think that higher gas prices are the best thing that could happen to America. There's no other way to convince people to make sane decisions about where they live and what they drive. Higher fuel prices will force people to live closer to where they work and shop, it may even convince them to use a bicycle for transportation. What a hippie idea that is! Unfortunately, we should have allowed ourselves the luxury to gradually tax gas prices until they had reached current levels. We could have used the windfall from fuel taxes to build public transport and to create the necessary infrastructure for a more dense population environment. Right now we are just pissing all of our money away to the oil companies and OPEC. I suppose this is part of the Bush strategy of defeating our enemies by making them sinfully wealthy. Think about how rich Iran is becoming every time you fill up.

For a good part of my adult life I have chosen to live a fairly urban life, or one in which a bicycle is a logical mode of transportation. I don't own a car here in Spain and don't plan on it any time soon. My bike, the metro, and trains are all I need to get from A to B—not to mention walking. When I lived in Seattle I had a car but used it mainly for recreation. I would have preferred to take a train to visit the mountains near Seattle but train service is rather spotty there. Then and now I am not too concerned with high fuel prices. If you are commuting 20-30 miles a day I would imagine that you fuel bills are eating you alive. As with the mortgage crisis, I'm sure that conservatives in America are now blaming poor people for the poor decisions they have made in what they drive and where they live. I would say that they were just following orders.

Allowing Americans to come to informed decisions on matters effecting their well-being is not really part of the play book in the era of advertising. If this were true people would never buy anything they don't want or don't need. Where would America be if that were true? The entire retail house of cards would come tumbling down if everyone made wise purchasing decisions. Hell, folks might even start saving money if they'd stop buying crappy exercise equipment that they never use.

Had our government done something to encourage to people to buy sensible vehicles and to live in environmentally responsible cities we could have avoided the blackmailing being done by Exxon and OPEC. We can thank the conservatives for allowing this problem to be completely ignored in America. Ronald Reagan axed all of Jimmy Carter's plans to develop alternate energy forms. You can look it up. If we had continued along this path since 1979 we would probably be in a lot better position to deal with higher oil prices, instead we are bleeding from every orifice. Over the years conservatives have done a great job of making profane words like conservation and environmentalism. They laugh at global warming, one of the biggest threats to the human race. They deny the findings of a consensus of the world's scientists on this matter. Conservatives have fought against mass transit initiatives everywhere they pop up. Consequently, most American cities have pretty poor mass transit, if any at all. The chickens are coming home to roost as we hand over out national wealth for OPEC.

Fuel prices are causing problems here in Spain but they paid a lot for gas for a long time. Their lifestyle is already pretty stingy when it comes to energy consumption. I don't know anyone who actually owns a clothes dryer or an SUV. Most people here drive cars that make the new Mini Coopers look like stretch limos, walk everywhere, hang dry clothes, recycle everything, and basically live a pretty green lifestyle dictated by economic factors. Americans are going to be forced to swallow a pill all at once that Europeans have been chewing slowly for decades. I would say “better late than never” but there never was gong to be a “never” in this scenario. We all should have known this day was coming. It's fucking here, folks, and it's not leaving. Gas prices will never return to $1.50 a gallon. Get used to it. Trade in your V8 SUV for a compact...or a bike.

We need to invent a new and improved American dream. Instead of the house in the suburbs with a picket fence we'll trade it for a city apartment within walking distance of restaurants and museums. Instead a huge car we'll start taking the bus. I've been living this way for a long time and I can tell you that it's a great way to live.

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