7.02.2008

EASIER SAID THAN DONE, BUT STILL WORTH DOING

A refreshingly honest look at how difficult and yet necessary it will be to adjust our nation's transportation system to become less auto-dependent: "$9 Gasoline Will Make You Love Public Transportation."

(The author's name sounded familiar, and then I realized he wrote a guide to muni bonds that I had to buy for one of my grad school classes and ended up really enjoying - yeah, an interesting book on public finance! The foreword was written by none other than Michael Bloomberg, so that helped.)

Right now, we Americans are making decisions on the margins as we adjust to higher gas prices. But we may need to - some say we have to, there is no other way that doesn't involve environmental apocalypse - change the very way our mobility and our commerce are structured. The sooner we accept that we need to do that, and the sooner we acknowledge that it will be painful and pricey to do that, the more likely it is we will make the transition, rather than wishing that all we need is for our politicians to figure out a way to lower our gas prices.

Talk about a market disruption, though: everything, from the prevalence of plastic bags to the ways our regions are laid out, is based on the cheap oil that Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush II secured for us. In the same way that electricity, the railroads, and the Internet fundamentally changed the game, so will we likely need to fundamentally change the ways we get around and the ways we do business. Certainly, that's not going to happen overnight, but neither is it going to happen by making behavioral changes on the margins, and it's certainly not going to happen if we demand that our elected officials do whatever it takes to lower the price of gas.

Far from doom and gloom, though, this could make for an incredibly good and prosperous future. An economy and society built on cheap oil is not a sustainable one, no matter how you interpret warnings about global warming, so better to make the painful corrections than to obliviously putter along the path to meltdown. This sort of crisis point is exactly the kind of moment in which innovation flourishes, so expect to see some brilliant entrepreneurship emerging from both likely and unlikely sources. And families that are pinched the most by high energy prices are the very ones that will benefit the most from being moved out of existing consumption patterns, and from shifts in the things that get taxed and the things that get subsidized.

All in all, easier said than done. But no less urgent that it get done.
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