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.