Save the Dinosaurs!

anatosau

Is the saying still true, “What’s good for General Motors is good for America”?

Now that the car companies are asking for us to bail them out, like we did the Wall Street high rollers, it could be a good opportunity to retool our transportation system.

In the 1950s president Eisenhower made a momentous decision.  In the name of national security, he used the power of imminent domain to nationalize thousands of miles of farm land and build the Interstate Highway system.  The national security interest was the transportation of troops.

This experiment in socialized transportation was a huge success.  It turned out to be a great subsidy to the automobile industry.  The auto companies thrived, suburbs sprouted, boosting the construction industry–and the middle class emerged realizing the American dream for a whole generation.  These programs of governments subsidies and centralized planning produced a level of prosperity no one could have imagined.  There was only one problem.  It relied on an unlimited supply of cheap petroleum–and fifty years ago, who could have imagined that the supply of fossil fuel was limited?

Our dependence on automobiles–and therefore on oil from unstable countries–has produced a national security nightmare.

Don’t let the temporary cheap gas prices fool you.  As soon as the world economy begins to recover, oil will resume its ascent to $200.00 per barrel.  The reason is simple.  There are ten times as many people in China and India as there are in the US; and they all want to drive cars like we do.  And who can blame them?  The problem is, that there is not enough oil in the world to supply them and us.

We could use this opportunity to retool the factories in Detroit, Ohio, Kansas City, and other places to produce mass transportation: high speed train cars, clean bio-diesel hybrid buses, trolley cars, bicycle lanes.  We could improve our health, simplify our lives, clean up our air, and revitalize our economies.

Or we could try to save the automobile–the dinosaur of our age.

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The Free Market Is Working

I admit, I’m reluctant to call it a free market when one of the parties is a Cartel. By definition a Cartel is a small organization of suppliers whose reason for existence is to manipulate prices by controlling the supply. I am also reluctant to call the market free when government policies subsidize oil companies and the manufacture of SUV’s–not to mention the fact that government policies subsidize highways rather than mass transit.

But I will admit, no one is taking a gun, putting it to my head, and forcing me to buy gasoline, so there is some freedom for the law of supply and demand to operate.

And, it’s working. We as a nation are driving less. Highway deaths are down. Presumably we are also walking more, or engaging in conversation with our neighbors and families; so it all has to be good. The market has forced us to do some things we needed to do anyway. And, miracle of miracles–the price at the pump is going down (more here).

So why are the champions of free markets whining? Why are they calling on the government to do something? Why aren’t they saying, “Trust the invisible hand of the market–it will take us where we need to be”?

Beside expensive gasoline, there is another problem with our dependence on automobiles. Our infrastructure is crumbling. The past week saw the anniversary of the bridge collapse in Minnesota. It turns out that on average, our bridges are built to last 50 years–and they are about 43-47 years old. Yikes!

It is going to take about 180 billion dollars to fix all those bridges, according to CBS. One problem is that since we are starting to use less gasoline, there is less gas-tax money available for highway and bridge projects. So, someone is going to have to find a way to pay for new bridges.

A higher gas tax might give us the additional shock needed to further reduce our consumption. The long-term result would be that the price of oil would drop further and the tax would be absorbed. But few politicians have the political will to support any kind of new tax.

Or maybe we should follow the “free market” idea all the way. The nation’s bridges could be privatized and sold to the highest bidder, who could then recoup their investment in the form of tolls.

The alternative is to admit that the free market can’t do everything; there is a place for some public projects. But then, if we admit transportation is a public need, maybe we could rethink the kind of public transportation we subsidize.

Meanwhile, some Christians are calling on God to intervene. They are starting a pray at the pumps movement. I guess that’s not wrong, since we are taught to “cast all our cares on him.” Since most of us have to fill up the tank to get to work and earn our daily bread–we could even add an addendum to the Lord’s prayer,

“Give us this day our daily bread, and the gasoline wherewith to drive to the place of earning thereof.”

Or maybe we should pray for the discipline to shake off our dependence on cars.

(Related article in Time)

What an Addict Needs

Shift ItTwo years ago our president admitted that we are addicted to oil. Now that gasoline is headed to $5.00 per gallon many of us are suffering from the symptoms of this addiction.

What is the solution?

There are many saying we need to open up a new vein.

Newt Gingrich, explaining why we need to drill in environmentally sensitive areas gasped in horror–

“They want us to drive small cars . . .”

“They” referring to Jimmy Carter sympathizers who think the solution is to waste less and conserve more. (Why is it that conservatives are so frightened of the word “conserve”?)

Others say we can find a synthetic substitute; we can make oil out of soybeans or ethanol out of corn.

Maybe the problem is not that we are addicted to oil

We are addicted to cars.

I just returned from Europe, where the price of oil was the equivalent of 8 or 9 dollars per gallon–it’s probably over $10.00 now that oil is approaching $150.00 per barrel.

The Europeans love to drive as much as we do. But they also drive more efficient cars, and they balance their use of cars and public transportation. They will walk or take the bus to work Monday through Friday and save their cars for a weekend road trip or special outing.

A simple short-term solution is to use alternatives when you can.

Walk, ride a bike, car pool, avoid unnecessary trips, have fun at home. Use your car when you need to use it; when it’s time to trade, buy a more efficient car.

What does this have to do with faith?

People of faith should ask themselves two questions:

1. Am I being a good steward? I as an individual didn’t make the policy choices that got us where we are. But the daily choices I make now do affect other people. They also affect me. If I drive when I could walk or bike, I’m hurting my health.

2. Is my car an idol? Do I find my identity in my automobile? Is it a status symbol or a tool?

The Europeans love their cars, but they know there have to be alternatives. In London they are encouraging people to ride bikes. In Lithuania you can ride from Russian territory to Latvia on cycling paths that run through beautiful forests and along the coast.

My American friends noticed how slim the Europeans typically are. Part of the reason is because they walk so much.

Winning the Cold War

Putin

Ronald Reagan won the cold war against the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union by forcing that empire into bankruptcy. There were other forces at work, not least the force of prayer, but I want to focus on the economic facts. First a little history:

In 1973 OPEC put an oil embargo on the US which resulted in an energy crisis. The price of gasoline shot up to 65 cents a gallon, more than double what we were used to paying. Richard Nixon was too preoccupied with his own political survival to do much about it.

But beginning in 1976 Jimmy Carter did. He went on TV wearing a sweater as a symbolic gesture, and he put solar collectors on top of the white house. We started driving smaller cars, we started car pooling, building earth contact homes with wood stoves for heat–we started doing lots of things to conserve energy. We even learned to drive 55 mph on the highways (although everyone hated it).

And something amazing happened. We showed OPEC we could do without them (in the same way we showed England, 200 years earlier, we could do without their tea). The price of oil plummeted. It went so low that a lot of oil men (including many in Texas) lost their fortunes.

Then we got complacent. Ronald Reagan removed those “ugly” solar collectors from the white house. Eventually the 55 mph speed limit was repealed, and Detroit found their cash cow in the SUV.

Meanwhile, back in the 80s, the Soviet Union had gotten bogged down in a costly war in Afghanistan, and Reagan ratcheted up the arms race. It seemed like a dangerous escalation at the time. Jonathan Schell had to write The Fate of the Earth to explain why the total annihilation of all life on the earth would be a bad thing. But Reagan’s plan must have worked–we are still here to talk about it. (More on Jonathan Schell here.)

The Soviet Union went broke. They couldn’t keep up. We outspent them. They tried a few modest reforms, hoping that a little openness and a light taste of freedom might stimulate some economic growth. But a little freedom is hard to contain–and the rest is history.

Where are we now? We are in a multi-trillion dollar war in Iraq that is sucking the national economy into a recession–some are even beginning to whisper the D-word. It may have been a noble experiment, this venture to bring democratic enlightenment to the middle east, but evidently we can’t afford it.

Could some of it be waste? Maybe. I think the small college where I teach could use the $132,000.00 per month that is being spent on “runway snow removal” for the airport in Baghdad. I’ve never been there myself, but surely there must be at least a couple months a year when it doesn’t snow in Baghdad. (On the cost of the war, click here.)

But those smart bombs are expensive, as are the private contractors–Blackwater employees are paid up to ten times the salary of U.S. military personnel–but we have to showed those Iraqi’s how free enterprise works.

Meanwhile back at the Kremlin: it turns out democracy and freedom weren’t so hot after all. The Russians love Putin (whose method of solving a hostage crisis is to kill the hostages), and they are no doubt comforted to know that even though he is no longer president, he will be pulling strings from behind the scenes.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, there was a little talk of some kind of Marshal Plan for the former Soviet Union, but no checks were ever written.

But we did find another way to help them. Russia is swimming in oil, and our insatiable thirst along with the, uh, instability in the Persian Gulf, is keeping oil above $100.00 per barrel, and we are getting used to the idea of paying $4.00 per gallon.

So, here we are making Putin’s empire rich and bankrupting ourselves. It’s like someone had taken a videotape of history, and starting around 1991, put it on rewind.

Next time you fill up your tank, just imagine those icy blue eyes watching.

Small Steps

What can one person do? I don’t have any delusions that I can change the world. What I can do is make small choices every day that allow me to live with my conscience. I can take small steps in the direction of the change I would like to see. I don’t have to be perfect, I don’t have to do everything, I just have to do something.

Due to financial constraints, I don’t have the most fuel-efficient vehicle possible. That’s not all, I have to commute to work. So I do what I can. I walk to the local grocery store, bank, post office, etc. I try to limit my driving, as far as possible to my daily commute to work.

A couple years ago I came up with a plan to cut my commute in half by loading a bike in my car and parking and riding the last half of the way. The first day I tried it, it worked fine. The second day I saw one of my neighbors walking and stopped to give him a ride. We ended up car pooling for the next two years; so I still effectively cut my fuel-consumption per person in half.

Some young people who live under the medieval law of the oil kingdoms are speaking out online. Look at these sites: Improvisations and Saudi Jeans. Maybe they will make a difference.

My daughter sent me a notice of a small step we can all take to do something about poverty:

Hello!

Hi!

I just made a loan to someone in the developing world using a revolutionary new website called Kiva.

You can go to Kiva’s website and lend to someone in the developing world who needs a loan for their business – like raising goats, selling vegetables at market or making bricks. Each loan has a picture of the entrepreneur, a description of their business and how they plan to use the loan so you know exactly how your money is being spent – and you get updates letting you know how the business is going. The best part is, when the entrepreneur pays back their loan you get your money back – and Kiva’s loans are managed by microfinance institutions on the ground who have a lot of experience doing this, so you can trust that your money is being handled responsibly.

I just made a loan to an entrepreneur named Hayom Ayomov in Tajikistan. They still need another $625.00 to complete their loan request of $725.00 (you can loan as little as $25.00!). Help me get this business off the ground by clicking on the link below to make a loan to Hayom Ayomov too:

http://www.kiva.org/app.php?page=businesses&action=about&id=26329&_isc=c4eb211c-f844-102a-bc82-f9ce1a1a31a9

It’s finally easy to actually do something about poverty – using Kiva I know exactly who my money is loaned to and what they’re using it for. And most of all, I know that I’m helping them build a sustainable business that will provide income to feed, clothe, house and educate their family long after my loan is paid back.

Join me in changing the world – one loan at a time.

Thanks!

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What others are saying about www.Kiva.org:’Revolutionising how donors and lenders in the US are connecting with small entrepreneurs in developing countries.’
— BBC

‘If you’ve got 25 bucks, a PC and a PayPal account, you’ve now got the wherewithal to be an international financier.’
— CNN Money

‘Smaller investors can make loans of as little as $25 to specific individual entrepreneurs through a service launched last fall by Kiva.org.’
The Wall Street Journal

‘An inexpensive feel-good investment opportunity…All loaned funds go directly to the applicants, and most loans are repaid in full.’
Entrepreneur Magazine

Walk for Women

In some countries they punish the victim. A woman who was brutally raped by seven men in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to 90 lashes because the crime occurred while she was in the company of a man not related to her. When the woman appealed her sentence, it was increased to 200 lashes because, by speaking out, she had insulted the dignity of the court.

In Nigeria they also punish the victims. A 15 year-old-girl whose step-father attacked her was sentenced to 100 lashes. We might not be surprised that Iran applies Sharia law in the same way.

Under Islamic law rape is very hard to prove–and an unproved charge of rape could result in the death penalty for the accuser. The law requires a victim to prove she resisted. In the United Arab Emirates evidently stabbing an attacker is not proof enough of resistance. A guest-worker from the Philipines was first sentenced to death for murder when she resisted an attack by her employer. But the enlightened and progressive UAE commuted her sentence to a year in prison, a payment of blood money to her attacker’s family, and 100 lashes.

There are numerous other examples of this kind of brutal punishment of victims.

What do these countries have in common?

Oil.

Does that mean every time we fill up our cars, we are supporting the regimes that enforce this kind of law? How many lashes per gallon does your car get?

Just because we can’t do much, doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. My suggestion is that we start a “Walk for Women” movement. If we walk instead of driving any time we can, and let others know why, it will at least call attention to the problem.

My daughter at Mother Earth News recently reminded me that we in the US actually import more oil from Canada than any other country. Well, I’m not suggesting that Canada is oppressive to women. But oil is sold on the open market, and a gallon sold anywhere affects the price everywhere, so in that sense it doesn’t matter where it comes from–every gallon we buy enriches the flogger barons.

Walking for women is one way to engage in flog-free transportation.