24 March 2011

We Have Met the Enemy...

I wrote this piece back in 2006, when the first MySpace boycott of gasoline was proposed. Now, a Facebook page has sprung up advocating a one-day boycott (scheduled for 31 March). Facebook may boast a significantly larger user base, but the numbers and the ideas in this piece still hold up.


I spend a lot of time on the Internet, surfing the crashing waves of human knowledge; navigating a fragile Kon-Tiki of common sense on an ocean of madness, if you like. In my travels, I come across many weird and wild Internet schemes, untruths, mistakes, hoaxes, and myths. Recently, when I received a notice from a friend advising me of a gasoline boycott scheduled for Monday, May 15, I stopped to think about it for a few moments.

According to the bulletin, all members of MySpace.com are to refrain from filling their gas tanks for one day in an effort to force oil companies to lower the price of gasoline. The well intentioned bulletin states that there are more than 72 million MySpace users, and advises that if each one of those users was to refrain from filling their tank, at an average cost of $30, this boycott would cost The Very Big Corporation of America (aka Big Oil) more than $2.1 billion. Yes, that’s $2.1 billion, with a B.

Gentle Readers, I am sorry to say that this one day boycott, quite simply, will not work. The price of gasoline will not come down by even a penny.

“Why not,” you ask? The short answer is – many of the people who are going to boycott buying gasoline on May 15 will simply buy it in the days preceding or following it. Big Oil won’t be selling any less gasoline; they’ll just be selling it on different days. This will cause nary a skipped heartbeat in the boardrooms of Big Oil.

These companies endure one day drop-offs each holiday. How much gas do you think is sold in the United States on Christmas Day? Easter? Thanksgiving Day? But, have you ever tried to get gas during the rush hour on Christmas Eve? Or on the day after Christmas, when everyone is driving home from Grandma’s house?

Two more small points – a MySpace profile does not necessarily equal a driver. Members can be as young as 14 years old, and some members have multiple profiles. 72 million profiles does not equal 72 million drivers.

There is, however, a longer answer, a bigger picture. Over the long run, the price of gasoline – and other petroleum products – will continue to climb. This is due to the basic economic law of supply and demand. Very simply, as Pogo says, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

The United States is the biggest consumer of oil in the world. We have approximately five percent of the world’s population (roughly 300 million of six billion), yet we use 25 percent of the world’s petroleum.

It is not hard to see why. Just try driving across the George Washington Bridge during rush hour. While you’re creeping along at five miles per hour, or backed-up waiting to pay the toll, look around you and count how many cars have only one occupant. Then look at the cars themselves. How many of these one occupant vehicles are SUVs, Pick-up trucks, Mini-vans, or Hummers?

Americans continue to believe that bigger is better, even if they have no need for that bigger. Take, for example, the 2006 Hummer H1 Alpha. According to Autobytel.com, the H1 Alpha gets an estimated 11 or 12 miles per gallon, and that’s combined city and highway mileage.

Twenty years ago, I owned a 1978 Chevrolet Caprice Classic that got 12 miles per gallon…but only on the highway. Of course, back then I could stop at my local Shell station and get a gallon of Super for 90 cents.

Is this the farthest we’ve advanced in MPG technology? According to writer Gregg Easterbrook, the “real-world” MPG of American cars has risen minimally since my Caprice rolled off the assembly line. His article “Turn On,” appeared on The New Republic Online in October, 2004.

Easterbrook writes:
Official overall mileage of new U.S. vehicles rose from about 14 MPG in the late '70s to a peak of 22 MPG in 1987 and has since declined to 21 MPG. These figures, however, are based on unrealistic tests in which cars are accelerated gently and are never driven above the speed limit. The real-world overall mileage of new vehicles is probably 20 percent lower: a pathetic 17 MPG.

By applying Easterbrook’s “real-world” driving standards (subtracting 20 percent) to the 14 MPG given as official for the late ‘70s, you end up with 11.2 MPG. This means that overall “real-world” MPG for American cars rose by less than 6 MPG in the last thirty years. One would almost believe that the same people who run the biggest oil companies in the world also run Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler.

The United States is not alone in its auto-mania. According to a recent NBC Nightly News report, there will be 75 million new automobiles on the roads of China in the next five years. That’s an additional 75 million motors burning gasoline, and using oil and other lubricants. Another recent report tells of gas rationing in Iran. Obviously, even the oil producing countries are having problems.

As economies around the world grow, more and more automobiles will appear, requiring more and more gasoline. And higher demand will lead to higher prices. This is especially true when you consider the recent reports that the ability of OPEC nations to produce oil has nearly reached its limit. The oil simply cannot be taken from the ground fast enough to supply the world’s thirst for it.

While gasoline is the most obvious use for oil, it is by no means the only use, and possibly not even the most important use. Plastic is a major petroleum product. Can you imagine living a day of your life without plastic? You’d have to get a rooster to wake you, instead of your digital alarm clock. Try hitting his snooze button!

You’d get in the shower (through the glass door, no plastic shower curtain); you’d have no radio to sing along with while you lather, rinse, and repeat with shampoo packaged in something other than plastic. Your plastic toothbrush, your razor, your mouthwash bottle, and glide-on deodorant? All gone. In addition, there would be no plastic milk jug in your refrigerator, and no foam cup for your Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Get the point?

Even the electricity we use is generated using oil or coal, and we waste that electricity. We leave lights on when we leave the house. We leave air conditioners on so we have a cool house when we come home. We leave computers, monitors, printers, etc, turned on 24/7. We have VCRs, DVD players, stereos, the aforementioned digital alarm clocks, night lights, and a hundred other devices constantly sucking up power. We even exercise on electronic machines. How many of you run on a treadmill, climb on a Stair-Master, or ride a stationary bike, each with an electronic display?

“Those items use very minimal amounts of energy,” you say? Yes, in your house they do. Now multiply your house by the 100 in your neighborhood, or the 1,000 for your small town, or 100,000, or think about New York City and Los Angeles. All those “minimal amounts” add up, and every gallon of oil used to generate electricity is another gallon added to the demand, thus another gallon adding to the price of oil.

We, as a country, need to reduce our use of oil. This will require sacrifice, and that is not something that Americans like to hear. We relish the freedom of being able to jump in our cars at any time and just take off, and we don’t want to be told that we should cut back. We have lived our lives in the Land of Plenty, but the streets are no longer paved with gold, Gentle Readers, they’ve been covered with a sludge of oil, gasoline, transmission fluid, brake fluid, and anti-freeze leaks from the millions and millions of cars we drive every day.

The answers to why this oil crisis has developed are easy, but the solutions are not. The simplest, and fastest, way to begin saving on the amount of oil we use is mass transit. The benefits of more people using subways and buses are numerous: fewer cars on the road, using less gas and less oil, and emitting less pollution. Car-pooling can provide the same benefits.

The next step should be to increase the minimum MPG requirement for all automobiles sold in the United States. That’s right, all automobiles.

Easterbrook’s article continues:
About 17 million new cars and "light trucks" (SUVs, pickups, and minivans) are sold in the United States each year and driven, on average, about 12,000 miles annually. If the fuel efficiency of 17 million vehicles driven 12,000 miles annually rose by one-third, from a real-world 17 MPG to a real-world 23 MPG, that would save about 200 gallons of gasoline annually per vehicle, or about 3.4 billion gallons of gasoline. Since a barrel of petroleum yields 20 gallons of gasoline, about 170 million barrels of oil would be saved.

With U.S. petroleum demand at 20 million barrels daily, this MPG initiative has saved just about one week's worth of oil. Yes--in the first year, the MPG increase would have little effect…But remember the miracle of compounding! In the second year, with two model-years' worth of vehicles at the higher MPG, 340 million barrels of oil are saved. The next year, the savings is 510 million barrels, the next year 680 million, and so on. In just the fifth year of this initiative, we would need to purchase about 850 million fewer barrels of petroleum--approximately the amount the United States imports each year from the Persian Gulf states.

By reducing the demand – thus increasing the supply – the price of oil will come down. As this savings trickles down through the economy, the price of many non-petroleum products will fall due to reduced transportation costs. This does, of course, assume that we can get the rest of the world to increase their MPG requirements as well. But, regardless of whether the rest of the world follows or not, we need to begin.

Recently, I’ve been seeing commercials on television promoting the use of coal as an alternative to oil. The commercials tell us that coal is cheaper than oil, and that we have a 250 year supply of coal in the ground in the United States. What happens, though, if we dramatically increase our use of coal? How will that cut into the supply? Of course, we also need to consider the pollution aspects of using significantly more coal.

250 years may sound like a long time, but it really isn’t. Oil and coal are going to run out someday, certainly not in our lifetime, or even in our children’s, but the wells and mines will run dry eventually, and we need to think responsibly about future generations.

In addition to lower prices, the reduction or elimination of oil imports from the Persian Gulf provides the added benefit of improving the strategic security of the United States. We will no longer need to base troops or ships throughout the region to insure the free flow of oil. This, in turn, will save even more money, not to mention the lives of soldiers, sailors, and airmen.

We must also increase our use of alternative- and renewable sources of fuel, such as: nuclear power, solar power, wind harnessing, geo-thermal, and hydro-electric power. Additionally, we must increase the amount of recyclable materials we use – especially plastics – and decrease the amount of electricity we use.

I’m simply trying to give you a common sense overview of the situation we all find ourselves in, and a few suggestions on how to start fixing it. You can look at it as saving the planet by cutting pollution and drilling, or you can look at it as a way to save money by spending less for gasoline, but do look at it. Realize that the only way to lower gas prices significantly, and for the long term, is to reduce the amount of oil we use as an individual, as a family, as a nation, and as a planet. We can stop being our own worst enemy – and we must, soon.

09 February 2011

I Fear Sleep for the Dreams That Often Come

A villanelle for Arthur H. Monigold.

I fear sleep for the dreams that often come
In the darkest hours after midnight,
When my mind is defenseless, my heart numb.

Engulfed in blackness, I sense the phantom
Approach, but I cannot flee, cannot fight;
I fear sleep for the dreams that often come.

Powerless, I am once more his victim.
Past trespass will allow no rest tonight,
When my mind is defenseless, my heart numb.

My innocence again becomes flotsam,
Broken by incestuous appetite;
I fear sleep for the dreams that often come.

The shame of my own guilt becomes tiresome
To bear, though memory will still indict
When my mind is defenseless, my heart numb.

To unrestrained emotions I succumb,
While praying these nightmares fade in day's light.
I fear sleep for the dreams that often come
When my mind is defenseless, my heart numb.