One summer back in the early 1970s I spent a couple of months with my family in Europe. When I returned back to the states, the very first thing that struck me was how large American cars were. I mean, it was striking. After several weeks seeing nothing but tiny European roadsters, the contrast was overwhelming. Imagine someone raised on 1950s television sets suddenly appearing on the showroom floor at Circuit City in 2008. That's what it was like.
By the end of the 70s, of course, everything had changed. The first oil crunch hit and then the second, gas prices shot above (gulp) one dollar a gallon and people waited in hour-long lines just to fill their tank. Cars were no longer judged by their metallic flourishes and expansive tailfins but rather by their mileage. Datsuns and Fiats and, eventually, Yugos began to dominate the American highway.
By the 1990s, when the first SUVs began to stare down on us as we navigated the interstate, it became clear that the lessons of the Carter years had been lost. Automakers convinced otherwise sensible people that they needed to cart their children to soccer practice in armored personnel carriers. Those of us old enough to hate disco worried aloud that this new love affair with multi-ton vehicles could someday come back to haunt us. Nobody listened. Instead, suburbanites flocked to buy non-military versions of the Humvee, the four-wheeled behemoth that was a minor star in that brief and glorious reality show known as the Gulf War of 1991.
Usually, I enjoy saying "I told you so". This time, not so much. As gas prices rise toward four dollars per gallon, SUV drivers face the prospect of dropping a cool C-note every time they refuel the monster. This wouldn't be so bad if it weren't occurring simultaneously with rising unemployment and widespread housing foreclosures. All of this is topped off, of course, with a ruinously expensive war that we cannot win. It turns out that we didn't elect the son of George H.W. Bush in 2000; we elected the illegitimate love child of Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter.
I don't understand the oil markets well enough to know exactly what's going on. From what I gather, three factors stand out in the current crisis. First, we've made a mess of one of the biggest oil producing countries in the world (Iraq) and an enemy of another (Venezuela). Second, commodities speculation, based as much on fear and greed as anything else, is driving the price of petroleum to new heights. And perhaps most important, countries such as China and India have created enormous new demand for oil, putting the producing countries and energy corporations in the driver's seat.
As we ride this out, I suppose we can at least try to search for the silver lining that some people insist lurks behind every recessionary cloud. So how about this:
1. Just as the 1970s oil crises drove the giant Oldsmobiles and Buicks from our lives, perhaps the current decade will usher in the demise of the SUV. That would be so good on so many levels. It would, first and foremost, be an environmentalist's dream. It certainly wouldn't solve global warming, but it would move the ball forward. And those of us who drive more sensible sedans would no longer have to share the road with cell-phone yapping yuppies trying to pilot their giant killing machines while simultaneously disciplining six spoiled brats in the back seats.
2. Except in fits and starts, Americans rarely get serious about real public transportation until the alternative is civil insurrection. Four or five dollar gas could, if we are lucky, get us to that point. Not only is mass transit environmentally preferable, it is also an enormous boon to the lives of poor people, a group that has, sadly, been increasing significantly during the Bush years.
3. This could force all the bitter and nasty debate over illegal immigration into remission. As transportation costs rise, the price of food will naturally follow. As that happens, it will become politically impossible to crack down on migrant farm workers without pushing already high prices through the roof. Bigotry is one thing, but self interest trumps all. You heard it here first: if oil reaches $200 a barrel, Lou Dobbs will be unemployable and reduced to carrying signs and ranting about "illegal aliens" in front of soup kitchens and bus stations.
4. Maybe, just maybe, we'll finally get serious about alternative fuel sources. Everyone knew that this would happen after the crises of the 1970s, but of course it didn't, at least not to any appreciable degree. But maybe it would happen this time.
5. NASCAR! How about an executive order canceling the next five seasons of auto racing? How awesome would that be? I'm just kidding. I think.
Anyway, this is my week for optimism (enjoy it while it lasts), so let's get out there and spread the word. Four dollar gas is our friend. As long as we don't, you know, eat, travel, or heat our homes during the winter.