As gas crept up two or three years ago, all you heard was more complaining, but not a lot of changes in behavior, even at the margins. I wondered at the time what the pain point was for Americans. Answer, apparently: $4 a gallon.

Here we are starting to see some short-term and medium-term responses. Anecdotally, bike racks and rail lines are filling up, SUV sales are down, and Vespers are cool again. Short-term and medium-term responses are somewhat easy to put into motion: we can bundle our car-oriented errands, change how we get to work, and even buy a different type of vehicle the next time we make that big purchase.

What will be interesting to see play out is the existence and scale of any long-term change that rising gas prices and increased awareness of environmental issues will bring. Will we see less far-flung suburban developments, as people factor a $20 a day commute into the cost of living there? Will Phoenix and Las Vegas cool off in terms of population growth, as residents are forced to pay the true price of making oases in the middle of deserts? Will people unclench and allow density in their neighborhoods, even if it means that “those people” will move in and use the same supermarkets and parks and schools?

It’s relatively easy, even trendy, to substitute plastic bags for burlap sacks, and to ride the rails into work instead of firing up the two-ton steel box. But the American psyche’s need for space, its preference for resort locations, and its disdain for associating with riff-raff, will make the long-term changes the hardest to make.

Worryingly, those are the changes that will really make a difference for our nation and for our planet. Let’s hope we can make them.
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