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Limit our oil consumption: drive less

The gusher far beneath the gulf is spouting a message that the era of easy oil is over, or they wouldn't be drilling that deep. But there's a response we can have other than just complaining about blackened pelicans, ruined shrimp, and tar ball beaches.

Since the U.S. reached the peak of domestic oil production around 1970, our Presidents have routinely declared, starting with the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979, that we should restore "energy independence." But if we've reached the peak of global oil production about now, the live feed from the robot sub warns us that the issue is not the phantasmagoria of energy independence, but the prospect of a reduced global supply.

Can we find a response to the peak of global oil production (and to increasing demand from Asia) other than economic depression in the U.S.?

The obvious response is to decrease demand not in panic, anger, and resignation when it becomes inescapable but to do it now, voluntarily. If our political system were functional, we might wait for Congress to mandate a much higher fleet efficiency measured in miles per gallon, or to award subsidies to highly efficient vehicles, or to impose a substantial carbon tax on all fossil fuels that release CO2 into the atmosphere, or to back reliable and attractive public transit, or to restore a lower speed limit that would again drastically increase mpg.

But none of these steps are being taken, perhaps in part because fossil fuel suppliers, having a huge cash flow, are generous in making campaign contributions and in hiring lobbyists, many of whom are fresh from agencies that are intended to regulate the fossil fuel companies and from Congressional offices. This system may subvert democracy, but it's the distressing system we have let evolve.

Is there anything we can do to cut the demand for gasoline? If so (holding other factors constant) The price would drop; and in any case we'd be consuming less, so the household cost would fall.

We can take a hint from the success of the victory gardens that sprouted during the second world war. Food was needed not only by people in the U.S., but also by our soldiers overseas and by allies. Individual families stuck seeds in the ground, watered them, and according to a history of the effort, produced 40 percent of the necessary produce. (Even with men gone, farms turned out the rest.)

Apart from bio-diesel made from the limited supply of used cooking oil, we can't make or grow our fuel in backyards, but we can cut our use. Can there be a popular movement to steward the earth by reducing our consumption of gasoline, by using fewer gallons?

Of course, we all have our needs for transportation, whether to commute to work, for example, to shop, to get out for dates, to take the kids the school, to go on vacations. But can most of us cut use by something like 10 percent?

Gas purchases are easy to keep track of. We get receipts that show the gallons bought. In a voluntary system, if our present use is 20 gallons per some unit of time, and we pledge to cut two, how can we make do with 18?

The trick, of course, is to make this a popular movement, not restricted to the tiny fringe of folks who readily acknowledge the need. Here's an analogy. In the 1980s, the Ark Foundation supported a program that brought Soviets to this country and took them to several communities. They stayed in homes, munched their way through backyard barbecues, observed city council meetings, taught geography lessons in school, met local congress people, visited small businesses. By design their hosts in the U.S. were centrist folks, not peaceniks. The program was called "Soviets, Meet Middle America."

In cutting gas consumption, a campaign can touch many groups. It might appeal, for example, to evangelicals who want to help "steward" the earth, to businesspeople who know about the law of supply and demand, to mothers who do a lot of the driving and who want to set a good example for their kids, to "progressives" who are concerned about global warming, to all of us who realize that exercise can happen not only in gyms but on the sidewalk or in the bike lane.

What is essential in our use of gasoline? How can people cooperate in getting around? In the long-run, how can we arrange our lives to have to travel shorter distances?

The "350" campaign got that number into a lot of heads: the parts per million of CO2 that existed when modern civilization arose. But how can we get there? What can a person do who is not a powerful official?

Apart from power plants fueled by coal or natural gas, vehicles are a big source of CO2. We can fantasize about cars powered by hydrogen or electricity, but how would the electricity be generated to obtain the hydrogen or recharge the cars? Restricting our attention for the moment only to the personal vehicles that we actually have, we can reduce greenhouse gases most effectively by reducing our total use of gasoline.

Some people need more gasoline than others. For example, they live far way from places they have to go. A voluntary program will not ration gas, giving everybody the same amount, but just invite us to buy 10 percent fewer gallons per month than whatever we were using. (Some people could easily cut by a larger percentage.)

In the event that this becomes a popular movement, the reduction in demand will quickly be reflected in the total national consumption. Meanwhile, people will be saving money, working out new patterns of cooperation with neighbors and friends, and becoming a constituency for savings, for serious energy reductions.

Most projections of gasoline use show an upward slant. Why? We each have the power to cut according to our own values and basic needs. This will replace the powerlessness many of us feel with a very strong signal that it's cool to save and that you're not the only one: you are part of a massive movement.

How else can we seize the initiative from captive politicians, save money, and move toward solutions to global problems that otherwise seem overwhelming? Modest cuts are a first step, not a final answer, but they will be definite, quick, and measurable.

Imagine bumper stickers that say "10 percent fewer gallons," first a scattering of the stickers, then more. This will send a message to the oil sheiks and the fossil fuel companies.

Will there be cheating, in the sense of claiming a reduction that a person doesn't quite manage? Of course, as any dieter knows. But at least there will be a goal, publicly announced. The graph of gasoline use will be heading down, not up.

This will also reestablish some modest connection between the soldiers who are going "into harm's way" and the rest of us who were told, after 9/11, to make our contribution by shopping.

Instead of trying to cut the gallons we use, we can start the other way and ask what's most essential (and how we can cooperate). When my dad retired and my parents were packing to move to a smaller house in another part of the country, mom deputized me to help my dad pack his books. Much of his library, she said, could be weeded out. When I tried, my dad resisted each item, explaining, for example, why a 1930s engineering book "could come in useful" in retirement.

I got frustrated until proposing a game. My parents had taken me, as a child, to the studio audience for a radio show called "Let's Pretend." I suggested to my dad that we pretend his study was a shop whose owner, in a burst of generosity, had said we could take up to a third of the items, absolutely free, if we did it in the next hour. Bless his heart, my dad smiled, spent 60 minutes grabbing the most necessary items, threw them in boxes, and went down to lunch. In a similar spirit, we can each list the uses of gasoline that are, if not free, most essential to us, going up to 90 percent of the present uses.

Trends set a mood. If we are becoming gradually more profligate, we expect that sort of future. And if we are becoming more gallon-conscious, we can achieve a smaller "demand."

Then if global production of oil declines, because existing wells are yielding less and not being replaced by the requisite number of new wells, we'd be ahead of the curve; and meanwhile we'd be reducing the carbon load in the atmosphere.

Driving less would have other advantages. Imagine roads with 10 percent less traffic; imagine accident reports that are 10 percent lower; imagine having to take the car in for service 10 percent less often.

Like many useful ideas, this has occurred to lots of people, and to the extent that it succeeds, will come to seem normal. Moreover, it can be sponsored by many different groups, adapted to various constituencies. It cuts across party, income level, education, ethnic group: you name it. And the pioneers will be saving money, the sooner they get started.

Editorial Notes: Sounds like Craig's efforts should link up with those campaigns that Brian Kaller pointed out that are already on the ground in the US, such as the Drive Easy one? -KS

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