Addiction to oil: Mother Nature versus the Hummer

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Take your pick: global warming, smog and fouled waters, the gobbling of oil at rates faster than it can be replaced, rising gas prices. No matter how you see oil as a primary energy resource, one thing is certain: it has problems. As the 21st century opens, the days of plentiful, cheap oil are closing.

What makes this so troubling is that politicians in the U.S., the country key to global solutions, don’t have any, and refuse to address the serious consequences of U.S. oil consumption. So the earth heats up and business continues as usual.

Is the public to blame for gas-guzzling as a way of life? And are rising fuel costs something consumers must simply accept?

Some pundits view it that way. An article in the New Yorker recently suggested Americans must realize “cheap oil is not a birthright.” And Robert Ebel, a director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., claimed, “American consumers may not like high gas prices, but there’s nothing in the short term that the White House can do.”

But poor and rich are not equally bearing the brunt of oil woes. And contrary to Ebel’s position, the Union of Concerned Scientists asserts that existing technology can substantially curb pollution, reduce greenhouse gases, and conserve gas.

If Enron taught us anything, it is that the question of energy — how it is used and who controls it — is one that working people have a profound stake in.

A planet in trouble. The environmental consequences of rampant oil consumption are grave.

One result is polluted air and water, which take an ever rising toll on human, animal, and plant life. One recent study showed that diesel-belching ships at the California ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are causing cancer in one out of every 100,000 people who live nearby. Smokestack soot also causes asthma and other respiratory ailments.

But this is just the beginning of the harm that emissions of carbon dioxide cause. This greenhouse gas, which traps heat close to earth’s surface, is the main cause of global warming, posing a danger to the entire planet. And the U.S. is the top contributor, producing 26 percent of all carbon dioxide with just 4-5 percent of the world’s population.

In Europe, recent spikes in carbon dioxide levels have some scientists worried that the earth’s ability to absorb the gas is breaking down and that global warming may be turning into a runaway phenomenon.

Already, melting glaciers, heat waves, rising sea levels and drought are causing hardship for many, and threatening entire species and island nations, like Tuvalu in the South Pacific, with extinction. Hurting most are the poorest countries with the fewest resources.

Yet the U.S. Congress refused to ratify even the Kyoto Protocol, a weak treaty that falls far short of what is needed. George W. Bush only recently acknowledged that global warming even exists, and still plans to do nothing about it.

The oil pushers. Instead, both major parties have handed the writing of U.S. energy policy to auto and oil CEOs, who use this license to force consumers into dependence on oil.

In the 1970s, when the environmental and social justice movements were robust and militant, heavy pressure on both Democrat and Republican administrations dramatically improved fuel emissions. But over the last 20 years, progress has stalled and even reversed, despite technological advances.

Instead of encouraging gas conservation, U.S. law rewards guzzling. Business owners can get huge tax breaks for buying Hummers and SUVs. Similarly, the amount taxpayers can deduct for parking expenses has risen over the last year, but remained flat for transit costs.

Emission standards for SUVs and light trucks remain ridiculously low. And auto producers push these big vehicles in nonstop ads because they are far more profitable than cars.

Politicians boast about public/private partnerships that pump government dollars into research of fuel alternatives, from biodiesel to hydrogen fuel cells. But auto and energy corporations refuse to make the alternatives widely available. Ford plans to manufacture only 20,000 gas-electric hybrid SUVs in a year, despite high demand.

Transit under attack. And why should Ford or Shell change when they are profiting so handsomely from the sales of extravagant vehicles and the gas that fills their tanks? So what if the lower classes are condemned by ridiculous gas prices to park their cars and stay home, or to take the bus — if it ever arrives!

And therein lies yet another way the oil and auto corporations keep us over a barrel. Though the problem is rarely discussed, even in environmental circles, public transit is kept as an inferior, undesirable option. Stingy funding ensures that it remains unreliable, crowded, and totally inadequate.

In rural areas, or in cities after rush hour, public transit is rare, if it exists at all. And now, when it is essential to give people transportation alternatives, governments are doing the opposite.

In Illinois, the Chicago Transit Authority threatens to lay off 1,000 operators and to cut 24-hour subway service to the city’s south side for the first time in 100 years.

In Philadelphia, New York, and other major cities, officials are looking at fare hikes and service cuts to accommodate shrinking budgets.

The clock is ticking. In the 1980s, the image of a clock approaching midnight illustrated the urgency of stopping the nuclear arms race. Today, that clock could just as easily represent time running out for the planet’s energy troubles.

Some environmentalists actually applaud higher gas prices, hoping that they will compel individual consumers to ditch their cars. But this is punishing the victims. To free people from the car trap, social remedies are required.

A sane, future-protecting U.S. energy policy would mandate strict standards for the auto industry. An even more crucial step would be a massive infusion of money for public transit to make it rapid, reliable, clean, and convenient. And, in addition to boosting funding to create better systems, government should improve existing transit, such as by expanding multiple-passenger and transit-only lanes and installing smart traffic signals that give priority to buses. Transit should be free, like education, and should serve rural and suburban areas while providing frequent service 24/7 in cities.

These moves are environmentally necessary. Moreover, they would end the second-class citizenship of millions of people who are transit-dependent: young folks, seniors, people with disabilities, the poor, and many others who, for various reasons, don’t have the “choice” of a private vehicle.

Transit-friendly urban planning and mass education to promote energy conservation are also part of the answer.

Yet even such basic measures won’t see the light of day without a fight. Fuel economy eats into the bankrolls of oil and auto barons. Funding transit would mean a wholesale change in social priorities and spending, away from waging war and guaranteeing corporate profits.

During the industrial revolution of the 1800s, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels foresaw the inevitable clash between nature and capitalism.

In the book Marx and Engels on Ecology, Howard L. Parsons draws on their work to motivate how change must, and can, come about. First is understanding who is primarily responsible for the problem: “When the capitalist is confronted with a long-run choice rather than a particular choice, between profit and environmental pollution, he must in all logic choose profit.”

Next is understanding who must fix the problem. Parsons writes that the working class alone “possesses the potential power for a revolutionary transformation of the system. In the long run it is the people who must assume the ultimate responsibility if exploitation of man and nature is to be progressively reduced and eventually eliminated.”

That comprehensive fight must begin now, for nothing less than the fate of the planet — and, consequently, humanity — hangs in the balance.

Linda Averill, a Seattle bus driver with Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 587, can be contacted at fs-staff@igc.org.

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