I was 13 years old and raking leaves in the front yard with my father on a Sunday afternoon in late October. A man who looked to have started his day dressed for church trudged down the sidewalk with a sport coat draped over his arm, his collar open, necktie pulled loose and one tail of his shirt hung over his belt. He stopped and asked, “Do you know anywhere in this town I can get gas, even just a couple gallons to get me to my next stop?”
My dad’s shoulders slumped. He was having an internal struggle with competing motives–one selfish, one altruistic. He’d been hoarding gasoline in 5-gallon cans in the garage to protect his commute to Kokomo and he’d told no-one he had it–didn’t want others begging in just this sort of situation. But he would not leave this wayward salesman stranded. There was not a single gas station open in our town, and besides, gas was scarce. “I’ll sell you 5 gallons,” my dad said. “Aww, Jeezus! Thank you,” the man said. They muscled a gas can into my dad’s trunk and drove off to wherever the salesman’s car and its empty tank had coasted.
When you’re raised in a country where folks feel entitled to gluttony and gross consumption–so much so that you didn’t even recognize it as a problem until a moment of depravation, you remember the scarcity. But in the years since, I’ve often felt like I was the only one who remembered.
Weeks earlier, Middle Eastern oil producing countries (OPEC) had declared an embargo on oil sales to the U.S., and there we were with our pants down, everyone, and I mean absolutely everyone, driving big gas-guzzling cars. Who was tooled-up for making fuel-efficient cars? Japan. The handful of years ahead would see a painful revolution in the economy around my little town.
The once untouchable American automakers staggered and gasped for air along the ropes like an aging, overweight prizefighter in the ring with a young, smart, chin-jabbing upstart. My father’s and my brother’s jobs relied on the auto industry, as did a close aunt’s and uncle’s. Our town had a fire truck and piston ring factory, and those close relatives drove to Kokomo everyday working for Chrysler and Delco.
Some people blamed the government. Others blamed auto company bigwigs. Some blamed the unions. Nobody blamed themselves.
Because of that oil crisis and another 6 years later, the decade ahead was marked by economic, employment, financial, and daily living upheaval across the country. Everyone began driving smaller cars, dropping their ceilings and lowering the thermostat to save energy, moving closing to work to shorten their commute and taking vacations closer to home.
In my first year of college I wrote a poem for an English class. I still recall some of the lines:
If I die on foreign soil,
Will you remember me?
If I die for foreign oil,
Will you drive a mile for me?
But Reagan got elected and loved on oil producers and murderous dictators in the Middle East. In the years ahead when things got hot in Iran or Iraq, our navy reflagged oil tankers and escorted them through the Persian Gulf at the cost of tens of billions of tax dollars, masking the true cost of oil. It showed up in our taxes, but not at the pump.
And that useful time Americans spent in oil-rehab in the late ‘70s–that time spent learning to conserve and save money and clean our environment was squandered. We went back to big cars and our gluttonous habits like a heroin addict fresh from the Betty Ford Center, yet once again with a needle in his arm – the pusher soothing us that we had a right to muscle cars and big trucks–even if just for a commute. “C’mon. We’re fuckin’ Americans!”
In the years since, gas prices have soared and collapsed in irregular cycles. During the soaring we buy more fuel-efficient cars and curse the oil companies for their greed and whoever is in the White House for their incompetence. During the collapses we’re in mindless ecstasy, like a food-deprived dieter on a milk shake and french fry binge, and buy extended-cab trucks and urban assault vehicles as if there’ll be no price to pay. We’ve gone to war against dictators and crawled in bed with brutal bastards in countries with oil, claiming it’s for high-minded reasons. But somehow we seldom apply our “high-mindedness” to countries that have no oil.
Even if the average American doesn’t notice, the rest of the world does. It’s why they either blatantly hate our fucking guts, or simply don’t like us, or at best, only mistrust us, much as friends and family of addicts don’t trust them, even when they’re on the wagon. You never know when they’ll go off the rails again and start stealing and betryaing to get their fix.
And here we are again at a pivot point. Our country is producing oil at a 20-year high, natural gas at an all-time high and alternative fuels at an all-time high. The price of oil is in free fall and we just elected a new congress whose campaign funding came in barrels from energy producers.
They, and our impulses, want us to consume.
We’ve made some impressive headway in producing and using energy more wisely – in a way that could start to turn the corner on global warming and keep our current environment healthier. We’ve started to do it in a way that considers the world our kids and grandkids will inherit, as opposed to our usual, selfish, immediate reflex to go back to the way things used to be. A smart person would say of the collapse in oil prices, “I will not be taken in by this temporary reprieve. I will stay the course to a different life, free of these relentless, destructive, booms and busts.”
But what I’ve seen since that warm October day in 1973 leaves me cynical. I am not hopeful. I call myself “The Contrarian” for a reason. I would not be surprised if we leave the wind turbines to rust in the fields, bulldoze the solar panels to make way for bigger parking lots, and turn Prius drivers into the butt of our jokes (if they’re not already), and then buy even bigger, more ridiculous cars. And then of course, when prices go back up because of our staggering overuse, we’ll blame the oil companies and the government.
Couldn’t be our fault.