Post Date: 06/21/2008

Gas Prices

The average price of regular gasoline is now above $4.00 a gallon in the United States. It has been way above this level in Europe for years. One difference is that the European prices contain a lot more federal tax that is used to provide social services, whereas prices in the USA contain a lot more profit margin for producers. How did this come to be and what can be done about it?,p> Scientists have been warning us about the coming energy and pollution crisis for years, even decades. In the “first world” we consume energy and create waste at a profligate rate. The Earth is warming and energy prices are rising. It is all connected. Who is to blame? Frank A. Verrastro, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington recently said, “Everybody’s got their preferred culprits. Nobody wants to look in the mirror.” (Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2008.) Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Blame falls on Democrats, Republicans, President Bush, greedy officers of oil companies, financial speculators, OPEC, the Saudi’s in particular, America’s consumers, our automobile manufacturers, the rising middle classes in China and India, and on and on. In short, we humans all over the globe are to blame. What should we do? Give drivers an 18 cent per gallon tax holiday until election day in November, drill for more oil off our coasts, sue OPEC under the Sherman Anti-trust Act, throw the Democrats out of Congress, throw the Republicans out of Congress and the White House, build more gas-efficient cars, electric cars, hydrogen-fueled cars, use corn to make ethanol as a fuel additive, mine Canadian oil shale, and so on.

Gas prices are a symptom, not the disease. The disease is rather simple to state but hard to treat because the treatment will cause pain for all high-living consumers. But not to treat will be more painful, and soon. We are in thrall to oil and those who control its production, refinement, and distribution. Even President Bush recognizes this. We need to break our chains. Breaking free will hurt. Yet, just as scientists have been warning us of this coming calamity for decades, they have also been providing the solutions at the same time. They are: birth control, balanced energy production, and conservation.

Birth control seems to take care of itself when people, particularly women are educated. Having ten kids in most countries condemns the whole brood to another generation of under-education, under-employment, poor health care, and a short life. Most of the countries in Africa illustrate this. Closer to home, the same problem confronts Mexico, and by extension, us here in the USA. The “guest worker” problem, which has its parallels in Europe, with waves of Muslims coming to look for jobs, is largely a problem of birth control, or its lack. Women who are college educated and who have career goals just don’t have that many kids. In fact, the opposite problem may occur: having less than 2.1 children per family, the current replacement rate. The Earth would probably benefit from a reduction of human population. It would be nice to do it by birth control instead of the traditional war, disease, and starvation.

Balanced energy production is not an engineering problem. It is political. We know how to collect and distribute solar energy into our electricity supply. We have had functioning solar water heaters for decades. We know how to use wind energy to generate electricity. We know how to build safe nuclear power generators. France generates about 70% of its electricity through nuclear power. We know how to generate hydroelectric power. We know how to “scrub” the emissions out of the smokestacks of oil and coal-powered energy plants. We know how to capture geothermal power. The broader application of all these technologies is therefore a political, not scientific or engineering problem. Apparently, as long as we have enough oil to pump out of the ground, we are going to move at a snail’s pace to fully exploit these other sources of energy. Well, the time is here. Scientists have been warning us for decades that the supply of fossil fuels would not be able keep up with demand forever. China and India together have over 2.2 billion people. The USA has only 300 million. They outnumber us seven to one and their societies are beginning to demand a life style like ours. This doesn’t just imply that the price of gasoline will go up seven times more than it is now ($30 per gallon) but that there won’t be enough gasoline to be had at any price. When? In the lifetime of all our high-school and college students today. Maybe in the lifetime of those of us who are just retiring on fixed incomes.

We have not been giving enough thought to conservation. When Bush and Cheney took over the Presidency in 2001, Cheney was asked about our coming energy policy. He emphasized production and relegated conservation to an individual virtue, not something that the Administration would emphasize. Western, post industrial revolution societies have historically regarded the Earth as a mother with inexhaustible resources. But, now, today, the Earth is getting tired and running a temperature. Global warming due to greenhouse gases that humans produce is a real phenomenon. It is a shame that the analysis of this problem divides along liberal and conservative lines. Briefly, the conservatives are wrong. We need to lower our carbon emission “footprints.” Hybrid cars, electric cars, and hydrogen cars all do this. Or do they? Hydrogen is very expensive to produce. The energy to do so now is derived from guess what? Oil. The same is true for electric cars today. Most of the energy to produce electricity is from coal or oil-fired plants. Electric cars running from energy generated by solar power would be essentially pollution-free. But here, we do need development in the form of better batteries and fuel cells. And, all this discussion of more efficient cars leaves out a major solution to more efficient travel: mass transit. We need to have more and better buses and more widely distributed rail lines and subways. Car pooling is a very simple way to help.

How can we start doing not some, but all of these things? Here is where the government is really needed. Big projects need big entities to accomplish them. The market will work too slowly and will create many painful shortages that can be avoided by intelligent, collective action. The market is a fight for profits. The good of the people is not a significant motivating factor. The people need to take these problems seriously and vote for leaders who can see the big picture and who do not walk hand in hand with the oil producers. Right now we really do have the government that we deserve. How can the people be sufficiently motivated to make the changes that are necessary for our own well-being? Do not lower the price of gasoline.
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