Growing up in the Texas oil patch and indeed first working for an oil-field supply company so young that I required my sister’s social security number, I’m an unlikely candidate to attempt to change America’s drive-first attitudes. I was only 20 when my friend and boss got crushed one night on a drilling rig outside of No Trees, Texas in the height of the first Arab oil embargo and I thought I was finished with roughnecking. But then, needing a job, I worked again on drilling rigs in Colorado and Wyoming.
I’m still a driver today, having a beloved old VW van, Brutus, who waits proudly behind my house as a great place to lean my bicycles — my daily vehicles of choice — and a 2001 Prius which nears the end of its battery life with 91,000 miles. Most of the time, however, my cars sit, and sit, and sit; awaiting the moment when my brain calculates that one might be a smarter option for a particular trip. Most times, my choice is my bike because, after having seen my son go off and fight in Iraq, I want to minimize the need to import oil and because I spent 20 years teaching college journalism, broadcasting and communications while watching my students get fatter and fatter.
I know decreasing driving in a culture famed for its “love affair with the automobile” is not easy. And sometimes not cheap. Indeed, when I couldn’t get my suburban-bred wife to chance bicycling along a twisty, high-speed highway, we moved into town so that we could walk to most places and take the bus to many more.
I recognize that the “zero-car movement” is well beyond rational thinking for the vast majority of Americans and, due to my media background, I also recognize that the freakish “no car” lifestyle gains more press than any kind of more realistic, incremental change. Yet, as a policymaker in Perth Australia, once put it: “We’re a small country (in population), making small changes, and that’s how you change the world.” Every short car trip NOT taken is exactly what America needs if we are to escape the imperative to fight in the Middle East, drill for oil a mile under the ocean surface, reverse the growth in greenhouse emissions and battle our national obesity problem.
There is no easy answer as the articles on my web page will show. No one, yet everyone, is to blame for our national default position of key in the ignition to get anywhere, everywhere and — often — nowhere. Our politicians — illustrated by a pro-business president invading an oil-exporting nation partially in hopes of securing a supply and a green president making driving easier by stimulating road repairs and construction while crushing 690,000 usable cars for less than a mile-per-gallon efficiency gain – are not equipped to tell us the most inconvenient of the inconvenient truths. “We have met the enemy and he is us,” as the old Pogo cartoon put it. Mainstream media, desperate for the ad dollars from car companies, are in a similar situation. Like politicians cannot appear to attack their voters, newspapers, magazines and television can’t seem to attack their readers and viewers or, especially, advertisers. Yet, most of the time, in America’s instant gratification culture, the short-term, simplistic and weird gains the attention while the long-term, complex fail to make even the back page.
One of my favorite rejections, indeed, literally told me to “blame the oil companies” and the publisher would be interested. Ah, doesn’t it sound easy? But all Western oil companies combined control only six percent of the world’s conventional oil reserves. I would be blaming Shell, Exxon, etc. for supplying us what we demand.
Instead, I opt to promote effective “transportation demand management,” a worldwide effort which recognizes the most effective, cost efficient and productive method of dealing with oil dependency is to decrease the demand for it. And the demand, let’s finally admit, is primarily caused by filling the gasoline and diesel tanks in our personal vehicles. If we use our cars smarter, we’ll mitigate a host of American issues and prevent our grandchildren from following our children in fighting four wars in the Middle East and we’ll be healthier in the process.
We can change our culture and begin using our cars intelligently rather than habitually if we only start. Twain, as is often the case, puts it best: “Man is the only animal that blushes and the only one that needs to.”
It’s time to quit blushing.