Two-fifty a gallon? Bring it on. Let’s see gas hit $3 a gallon nationwide, perhaps even $4. Then we’d wake up. Drivers might start considering what “fuel economy” actually means, or at least hesitate before buying another gas-guzzling, leather-upholstered tank. Keep it up for a while, and we might rethink the way we develop our cities — significant fuel conservation is made far more difficult by our present sprawl-ridden society that requires we drive 10 minutes to the grocery store, 20 minutes to the gym and 45 minutes to work.
Like everyone else, I cringed the other day when I half-filled my gas tank (it’s not as expensive if you don’t buy as much). Although I now hesitate before embarking on lengthy road trips, I certainly still drive — gas doesn’t cost that much yet.
Even with gas prices up dramatically, other nations still pay far more. Back in May of 2004, according to CNN, British citizens were paying some $5.64 a gallon. And Norway, Germany, Korea, Turkey — all well above $4. But we’re not paying less than all countries, at least not in absolute terms. Gas was around $1.50 a gallon in Russia and China at a time when U.S. prices were nudging $2, but U.S. incomes are quite a good deal higher than those in other parts of the world.
For comparative purposes, I calculated a rough and oversimplified estimate of how long an average worker (earning the annual gross domestic product per capita with 40-hour weeks, 50 weeks a year, if you’re feeling picky) would need to clock in to buy a gallon of gas. In the United States: just under 6 minutes. In Russia and China: 18 minutes and 32 minutes, respectively. In Britain: 23 minutes. Personal favorites were Turkey (79 minutes) and Cambodia (154 minutes). Looking at it a bit differently, if we worked as long as Russians do to buy gas, we’d have to pay almost $6 a gallon. For Cambodians, over $50.
In short, Cambodians don’t drive a lot, and we pay way too little for our gas.
Despite this clear global discrepancy, it can be difficult to look past the hit our wallets are taking and recognize the greater good that higher gas prices promote. But once we get beyond that, it’s hard to pick just one angle in arguing why gas should cost more. There’s Thomas Friedman’s recent call to treat oil as a national security issue. We can talk about terrorism, foreign oil dependence and even the oil crisis of the 1970s as reasons why using less oil would have very practical benefits. Current gas prices reflect some pretty generous oil subsidies and do little to account for the environmental costs of the average 17,000 miles each of us drives annually. Keeping in mind that automobiles account for two-fifths of our petroleum use, it isn’t too hard to see that cuts in fuel consumption would translate very nicely to reductions in the 20 billion barrels of oil a day we shamelessly consume.
The existence of sports utility vehicles seems like sufficient evidence in itself that, yes, we use too much gas. Unless you have a specific need to haul around an apartment’s worth of furniture or your five children while sloshing down muddy dirt roads, you have no right to complain when you shell out $50 at the pump.
Looking long-term, there is enormous potential in pricey gas. Imagine the new jobs created by developing new fuel sources and improving current efficiency, the closer-knit, more centralized communities we would build, the emergence of bus and rail networks that put SMART and Amtrak to shame. Even if higher gas prices won’t save the world, they certainly hold some promise.
So far, the U.S. economy keeps growing while oil prices beat their own records. Higher oil prices might be temporarily painful, but ultimately they will be the only thing that forces industries to find new ways to fuel their production. Accounting for inflation, even current gas prices haven’t surpassed levels of the early 1980s, when a gallon of gas topped out at an inflation-adjusted $3.10 and consumers, as a consequence, really cared about fuel efficiency. It could take a lot of time, money and effort to significantly reduce our gasoline consumption, but nothing will accelerate innovation and change like angry consumers. For now, nothing will change until Americans feel the strong motivation that only higher gas prices can induce, and our current $2.50 a gallon simply isn’t high enough.