Even if Fidelity Mutual can still provide you a safe path to the future (complete with a handy green carpet), we have greatly moved beyond happiness as a consumer experience. In this mini-epoch of steep job losses and failing automakers, real piracy on the open seas plus the metaphorical version à la Goldman Sachs, contentment has taken the form of a merely less-fraught path. This subtle shift might seem to have left environmental concerns in a quaint corner for calmer times, but just because we choose not to see them doesn’t mean they’re not there.
While we remain in an unsteady holding pattern regarding, for example, our transportation needs going forward, the various constituent parts are moving, if meekly, to protect their interests. The car makers into the arms of government receivership, likely not to come out the other side; and the oil companies, on a Draconian sweep to consolidate profits, at the speed of declining margins to reduce their exposure to overleveraged bets on new exploration and discovery. They are openly choosing crisis, to reduce investments in the long-term viability of their own product, in the stead of losing money. We should take note of the master at work.
Remember Drill, baby drill? One year ago the price of gas was zooming ever skyward, so much so that the issue provided all manner of dissonant demagoguery for the presidential campaigns. Despite the opportunity, the crisis and everything it represented slipped the bounds of becoming a real issue. But time marches on. Collapsing prices and declining credit markets today have ushered us to the brink of a new kind of oil supply crisis: despite what the BP ads say, investment in new fuel technologies and drilling rigs have been trimmed to a trickle. Electric cars and biofuels remain a fancy frill on our prom dress of steady demand. While the oil industry sounds the alarm on investment with both eyes on stabilizing the price, we and all of our distance-challenged endeavors – from suburban errands to Wal*mart’s rolling supply chain – continue to edge closer toward a perilous tipping point.
So, who’s watching who? Our great tendency to take our signals from corporate behavior is itself built upon a structural impasse; deciding not to decide, while perhaps an attractive luxury in some sense, is not an actual option in the corporate world. Our reacting to reactionary movements so skew and compound the parameters of economic and political debate with absurdities as to render them into indecipherable parables. It requires no charge of nefarious motive to see how this would be fundamentally unworkable. The oil industry doesn’t want to rule the world; they merely desire handsome profits. Much to their chagrin, we’ve morphed energy extraction into a society-shaping activity – a mission for which it is vastly under-endowed. The oil companies are leading this parade and we seem content to stand and wave at the Mickey Mouse float.
If the health of the oil industry is our top priority, we should sit back and, as unfit for the job as it is, continue to chart our course for the future by theirs. If however, we reserve a higher value for the health of the environment, of people and animals living in that environment, and bear any sort of non-ill will toward land, sea and air, we should by rights give the poor companies a break and take the reins of this project for a while.
In order to do this, we need to do little more than see them as just another entity in need of protection and proper planning in a land of fugitive unknowns. Just as was in evidence last summer, the price of gas is going to climb again soon. This time it will be led by a different sort of crisis briefly alluded to above; but one way or another, the price will skyrocket again and cause all sorts of chaos for which we seem to be deliberately not preparing.
So, instead of waiting to be caught unawares (!), of finding ourselves again at the mercy of the profit-minded oil companies and demanding that someone do something then, perhaps we should take a different tack… and do something now. First we should remember the first rule of corporate behavior: there are no rules in any of this doing; we are supposed to be making it up. Creativity is good for the soul and will be greatly rewarded.
In order to properly allow the oil companies, the car companies, governments, home builders, road builders and road users to make contingency plans, we should plan to raise the price of gas intentionally, ourselves, through a targeted tax. A date two-and-a-half years or so down the road, when we know it is coming, should give most everyone ample opportunity to plan for the increase. We might even turn some of the car/road builders into train builders; new developments might begin to conform to existing mass transit routes. Who knows? This is not a wish list; remember, it is only and just a measure to lead the parade.
Companies, such as we revere them, do not like unknowns, so we would take away a big one. Knowing the status of the extra cash from the price increase will also change the perception of it. Whose is it and more importantly, what will we have done to society? The imposition of a significant gas tax targeting who uses gasoline and for what will empower us toward even greater ventures even before it takes effect. And that’s the point. That’s what we’ve been using corporations for all along, to show us what we can do. We should admit we’ve grown a bit bored with the results, as they have of amusing us. Maybe we should give them a break for once, while this tone of coincidence is in the air. As the canned voice on MARTA should have been saying all along, “The doors are fixin’ to close.”
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