Tuesday, February 17, 2015

WHAT COMES TOO CHEAP

“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly;” said the American Revolutionary Thomas Paine. “It is dearness only that gives everything its value.”

Much of what America has accomplished in the last two centuries is indebted to that understanding--whether we’re talking about the cost of liberty, or the impetus for our celebrated Yankee thrift. Alas, as great a nation as we remain today, we’re clearly losing sight of Paine’s premise. 

In the face of better alternatives, the fossil fuel-
powered automobile is overdue for oblivion.
For much of its existence, America has been blessed with cheap and plentiful resources, many of which have come at the expense of our global neighbors. In the last hundred years, however, no single resource has shaped the nation as profoundly as our easy access to cheap oil. It’s led to the primacy of personal cars, which in turn has radically affected the design of American cities during the course of the twentieth century. 

Under the relentless growth of automobile ownership, America’s infrastructure geared itself almost exclusively to internal-combustion vehicles. Slowly but inexorably, we abandoned public transportation in favor of  building freeways to ever more distant suburbs. In response, businesses fled dense city centers for suburban sites where they could provide “cheap” parking. Meanwhile, American homes sprouted two, then three or even four garages, which became the dominant architectural emblem of postwar housing. 

An unintended consequence of cheap petroleum.
Somewhere along the line, though, automobiles became not so much desirable as simply indispensable. We now find ourselves trapped in this ironic cycle: Since virtually the whole nation has been built to suit cars, cars are now practically the only way we can get around. Our homes are strung along miles and miles of automobile-choked highways--sometimes so far from our jobs that we drive for hours just to get to work each day. Even our economic health is inextricably tied to the business of building more cars, giving a sclerotic government and a technologically moribund auto industry even less stomach for intelligent change.

Yet our world is now forever different from the one that came before--due in no small part to American ingenuity. Brought closer by the miracle of global connectivity, and simultaneously haunted by the specter of diminishing resources, it’s now a place in which all peoples feel entitled to participate. We can no longer ignore that what comes cheaply to us often exacts a heavy price from someone else.

The Chevrolet Volt: Better way too late
than never.
Thomas Paine could hardly have anticipated such a state of affairs, yet his observation is all the more trenchant today. Gasoline prices have sunk to record lows  in the past year, but in the long run, it’s no cause for celebration. It’s the availability of cheap fossil fuels that’s made us Yanks uncharacteristically slow to develop motive power more intelligent than the internal combustion engine. By any measure--whether of politics, depletion, pollution, or economics--it’s been clear for decades that our petroluem-based society is unsustainable. Yet only in the past decade have we made any real progress at finding better alternatives to vehicles powered by fossil fuels. 

While low oil prices may seem like a blessing, in the long run they serve only to reinforce our addiction to a dead-end fuel source. Perhaps, as Paine foresaw over two hundred years ago, the blessings we enjoy aren’t yet quite dear enough.

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