Once upon a time two weavers concocted an outrageous plan to sell an emperor a beautiful set of clothes made out of nothing at all. They told the emperor and his court that the special fabric was visible only to those who were “fit for their position” or “not hopelessly stupid.” The emperor couldn’t see his new suit, but praised it anyway. His courtiers repaid the compliments doubly. The charade went on and on until the emperor paraded around town one day. A small child, who knew no better, blurted out: “Why, he’s not wearing anything at all!” Others in the crowd took up the call, but, against all common sense, the emperor, though cringing inside, carried on in his birthday suit.
Recently I’ve been feeling a bit like that kid. For years, I was blind to what now seems so obvious I’m stunned everyone else can’t see it: the trap America has woven for itself out of oil, cars and suburbs.
The first part of the trap is oil itself. Oil is this practically magical substance, made from plankton buried in ancient shallow seas, and transformed by the heat of the Earth into a chemical stew from which bombs, plastics, drugs, and motor fuels can be made. The energy propelling your SUV down the road is literally sunlight that fell on the Earth more than 100 million years ago. Oil concentrates that light to enable the terrifically energy-consuming activity that is driving. For comparison, going from zero to 60 mph and driving for one mile uses almost as much energy as a household air conditioner running for a day and night. You could dry 15 loads of clothes, bake 25 batches of cookies, or watch TV for 166 hours for a comparable amount.
The second part of the trap is that America used to be swimming in oil. Industrialists of John D. Rockefeller’s generation called it the supply problem: There was too much oil. Because Americans of the turn of the century didn’t understand the science of petroleum, they kept being surprised when oil was found in new places. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, then California, Oklahoma, Texas, and eventually Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico all had oil booms. During World War II, the Allies consumed 7 billion barrels of oil to defeat fascism; 6 billion of those barrels came from American wells.
After the war, a combination of domestic production quotes and foreign deals (including the coup that toppled the democratically elected leader of Iran in 1953) kept oil cheap. For 40 years, 1932-1972, the price of oil hovered between $1-$3 per barrel in real terms.
The third part of the trap is that cheap oil and plentiful land made it easy for Americans to spread out. Streetcars started the process of suburbanization, a nickel fare connected a small home with a yard to a job in the city; thus the commute was born.
As GIs returned home from the war, they moved into new suburban houses, laid out in assembly-line fashion along tidy cul-de-sacs. Everyone did well: the farmer taking the “last harvest” of his land near town, the developer who bought the farm and laid out the roads, and the builder who constructed the home. Houses were subsidized by the GI Bill and tax breaks like the cherished mortgage interest deduction. Unsurprisingly, the definition of “near” kept expanding outward to the horizon, facilitated by a new system of federal interstate highways, paid for with taxpayer funds.
By the time I was a kid in the 1970s, the trap was ready to be sprung. Growing up in the suburbs, I took it for granted that Mom and Dad both had cars and eventually I would have one, too. Dad commuted 56 miles per day and thought nothing of it, except when the price of oil spiked. In our backyard my brother and I played football around an old walnut tree, the last remnant of the orchard where our house had been built. The creek behind the house was sunk into a cement ditch to better contain the floods that occasionally came over the banks.
We were all so addicted, but didn’t know it, or perhaps better to say, didn’t acknowledge it. Living in the suburbs meant Dad had to drive to work. Driving to work meant he had to buy gasoline, whatever it cost. For millions of Americans, this cruel logic meant every time there was a disruption in the Middle East, the American economy sank into recession. Recession meant that the Federal Reserve Bank printed more money, which drove inflation, and inflation drove unemployment.
Under the Carter Doctrine, declaring America’s interest in the Middle East, we began supplying weapons to jihadis fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan and negotiating with Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In 1990, Saddam attacked Kuwait. In 2001, a former Afghan freedom-fighter named Osama bin Laden launched an attack on the World Trade Center.
The bad news continues right through the war on terrorism, the Iraq War, the financial collapse, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and the current dysfunction in Washington. America has grown complacent and despondent as a result of our addiction to an economic model that can no longer deliver the goods. Stuck in traffic on the highway, we seem to have lost our way, and worse, our courage.
Fortunately, not all is lost. Having seen oil, cars, and suburbs for what they are, it becomes fairly obvious what we need to do. Many are trying, especially among the young, but this is work that Americans cannot do only as individuals; we need to work as communities, states, and a nation to set ourselves on a new path, to sew a new set of clothes.
Here are the pieces.
First, we need our economy to recognize what’s renewable and what’s not through changing how we tax ourselves.
Second, we need to invest our time and effort to make towns and cities work, so people have jobs in close enough proximity to their homes and schools to kill the automotive commute. Cars can still exist, especially for the truly rural and for vacations, but they can’t be the default choice for local travel for most people.
Third, the default should be walking, bicycling, and riding the streetcar, as your grandparents did. And finally, having electrified transportation and priced fossil fuels and land according to their true costs, we will create the economies of scale necessary to seriously exploit the only energy sources that can be truly relied upon for as long as the sun shines: the sun itself, the wind that blows, and the warm heat of the Earth.
Eric W. Sanderson is the author of “Terra Nova: The New World After Oil, Cars, and Suburbs” (2013; Abrams) and a senior conservation ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York.