Friday, June 24, 2011

Why I Think Lowering Gas Prices is a Bad Idea and My Challenge to You

I know this won't be a popular opinion in general, and that's totally fine with me (as always), but here's my opinion anyway: lowering the price of gas is a bad idea for everyone. 

Don't get me wrong: I don't WANT to pay more money for gas.  Not one bit. In fact, when I go to buy gas, my wallet is very unhappy.  I'm not happy about paying more. It sucks.  But the fact is, the fuel problem the world is facing is not about me.  It's much, much bigger than me.  Believe it or not, it's bigger than you, too.

I know, I know, you have reasons for thinking it's great idea to lower gas prices. You want or "need" gas to be cheaper. In fact, here are your reasons:

- "I have no choice but to drive to where I work. I can't afford to live where my job is. I have no choice but to drive. Driving is not a choice for me. If gas prices are too high I can't afford to work or to live and I will end up homeless."
- "I don't have good transit service where I live. I have to drive."
- "The place I live is set up for driving, without driving, I will be stuck where I am and not be able to get food or to medical attention."
- "Because of the lack of urban planning I live in a place where driving is required. This is through no fault of mine so the government should subsidize the fuel prices."
- "I would literally never see my friends/family/partner if it weren't for driving a car."
- "I have [insert sickness, condition, disability here]. I need to drive!"
- "I have [x amount] children!  I can't possibly spend my whole day transiting around with them, getting groceries, etc.  It's unreasonable/dangerous/stressful/tiring."

Let me just say, I am sympathetic with all of the above reasons. Those reasons are all 100% valid. In fact, at least half if not all of those reasons apply to me or have applied to me at one point in my life. The reason we have all those excuses/reasons/whatever is because North America is set up for people to rely on a system of highways and roads that are used by personal vehicles, trucks, etc. That's a fact! It's a fact and it sucks, because if fuel were to run out today, most of us would be royally screwed as a result.  True story!

So while all the above reasons are great, here's another fact for you: oil is finite. As in, it's not unlimited. There is x amount of oil and once it's gone, it's gone. Once it's gone, we are out of luck. There is nothing we can do to magically bring it back. Once gone, forever gone.  You may or may not remember this from your high school or University economics class but there is a concept called the Law of Supply and Demand

The four basic laws of supply and demand are:[1]
  1. If demand increases and supply remains unchanged, then it leads to higher equilibrium price and quantity.
  2. If demand decreases and supply remains unchanged, then it leads to lower equilibrium price and quantity.
  3. If supply increases and demand remains unchanged, then it leads to lower equilibrium price and higher quantity.
  4. If supply decreases and demand remains unchanged, then it leads to higher price and lower quantity.
Have another look at number 4 above, where supply decreases and demand remains unchanged:  note how it leads to higher price and lower quantity?  This is where we are with gas, except in this case, there's no opportunity to make more to meet the demand.  There's no method whatsoever to increase the supply.  None. Zip. Nada.  Even if we were to take over every country on the entire planet and take all of their oil, we would STILL run out. When we run out, it's not just a trip to the mall we won't be able to indulge in; it's everything!  We won't be able to get food to us, we won't be able to build things, we will be left almost entirely in ruin.  Life as we know it will cease to exist. 

This is the reason why I think it's absolutely, 100% ridiculous to lower or subsidize the price of any commodity or product when it's impossible to increase the amount of supply.  Why should the price be lower so that people can make the supply go down even faster, with absolutely no real plan in place on what to do when it's gone for good?

This is where you get defensive, pissed off that I've even brought this topic up, and remind me of all the reasons above why you need to use your car.  That's fine.  Be mad, be pissed, be annoyed. But don't direct that energy to me; direct it to the people in charge of urban planning in your area, be mad at the people before us for setting our communities up this way, be mad at an economic and social system that has become entirely dependent on cars without any foresight whatsoever as to what will happen when there's no more gas. Most of all, be angry that the wool is constantly being pulled over your eyes by governments and corporations that don't want us to even think about this.  Trust me, when the oil runs out, there will be hoards of it for the wealthy or powerful, and unless you are actually a truly temporarily embarrassed millionaire, that won't include you.  Even then, the richest and most powerful people in the world won't be able to make fuel reappear once it's gone. 

So what the hell do we do about this?  For starters, take a few minutes right now to think of the last 5 trips you've taken in your car.  Then we can ask ourselves if we really needed to take those trips.  I'll play this game with you:

- This week we drove to North Vancouver to pick up a computer for our friend.
- 3 weeks ago we drove  to the Squamish area to go camping.
- 6 weeks ago we drove to IKEA.
- 8 weeks ago we drove to Lander to see my aunt.
- In February Morgan drove to the YVR airport to pick Aias and I up after returning from NH from a funeral.

Not very frequent right? Well, it's sort of cheating for me.  I live in a huge city.  I literally could walk every single place I need to go, and if I'm feeling particularly lazy, I could take one of a dozen or so busses that drive by my condo in any given hour.  Now five years ago if you had asked me the same question when I was living in Coquitlam (a suburb of sorts), my answers would have looked something like this:

- This morning I drove to Subway to get a breakfast sandwich.
- This morning I drive to the mall to shop.
- This afternoon I drove to the gym to work out.
- This afternoon I drove to Blockbuster to return a movie.
- This afternoon I drove to class and back.

I lived in the suburbs and I had stuff I wanted to do. I didn't need to do those things, sure, but I did them and I used the car.  I had a car. I paid for insurance.  I was going to drive my freaking car. Had I tried to do all that stuff via bus, it would have taken my whole day to do half of those things.   In both cases, I could reasonably have transited in almost all of those situations. Why didn't I? Convenience.  It's that simple; pure 100% unadulterated convenience.  And why not? It was my perogative to drive, so I did.  At the same time, what is the long term cost of this convenience?  Looking at my two lists, I see examples of where I could have transited but chose not to.  Imagine if every day, people looked at their plans to drive somewhere that day, and asked themselves if they really need to?  I have far more respect for a person who drives twenty times a week because they absolutely have to than for someone two drives twice a week but purely for funsies.  At the same time, maybe the point is moot anyway.  No matter what your reasons are for driving it all boils down to the fact I keep repeating: OIL = FINITE.  When commodities are finite, you have to pay accordingly, regardless of your reasons for needing to consume them. 

Look, I'm not suggesting that anyone is a bad person or selfish for using their personal vehicle.  You can't help it, and that's the truth.  If you personally have any of the reasons I listed above for driving, I don't blame you for it.  I also don't blame you for feeling like gas prices should be lowered because why should driving be only for the rich? There are a lot of things we can't personally change about society, at least not overnight, and we do have to get by and live our day-to-day lives. In many cases, these day-to-day lives rely on vehicles.  Fair enough.  However, here's a challenge for you.

I challenge you to hold yourself accountable for the gas you use and to use it responsibly.   If you need help with this, use the questions below to guide you.

1. Ask yourself where you are going; is it somewhere you need to go or somewhere you want to go?  How will going or not going impact your overall quality of life (for example, if it's going to see family, it's totally worth the money for gas in my opinion!)?
2. Ask yourself if there is any other way of getting there (bike, public transit, etc)?
3. Ask yourself if there is a closer or more accessible location you could travel to as an alternative?
4. Ask yourself if there is any way you can arrange to carpool with others or combine multiple tasks into one trip to make better use of your fuel?
5. Ask yourself if you can handle doing without the trip at all?
6. Ask yourself if the fuel you are using would be worth using if it was double the price?

There's no need to feel guilty about using your car, especially if you really can't help it, but just be aware of how often you are using it and what you are using it for.   Even if you cut down your gas usage by as little as 25%, that's more gas remaining and more money in your pocket no matter how much gas costs at any given time. 

Maybe by encouraging many people to hold themselves accountable and to be conscious of their fuel usage, we can (at best) delay how long it takes for the gas to run dry.  Maybe an extra year or two will be the difference between finding an alternative solution and implementing it, or not.  I can't change the reasons you have for driving, nor can I change the current state of our completely oil dependent society.  All I can do is what I have the power to do.  I recognize that people need to drive, and I recognize that people also WANT to drive.  I'm not actually even suggesting that anyone should have to lower the amount of gas they use, I just truly think that people need to be willing to pay for it.  The fact is, if you need or want to drive, you are going to have to cough up the cash to do it because lowering the price of gas makes zero sense from a theoretical, logistical, or economic* standpoint.  You can argue in circles until you are blue in the face but it all comes down to the fact that once the oil is gone, IT'S GONE.  What I would personally like to see is more car-pooling, more transit being available in suburban areas, more affordable public transit options for places that already have awesome transit systems in place, and more options put in place for people who have the reasons listed above for driving.  Let's try and focus on those points instead of lowering the gas prices. In fact, let's raise the gas prices so that people will be more careful and considerate when it comes to using gas, and let's take the extra money and put it toward more sustainable long term transit options. 

The bottom line here is this: at the time being, it's your right to drive wherever you want and to use as much gas as you want.  At the same time, we have to be willing to pay for it, because soon enough we will all be paying for it anyway.  In many ways, we already are.  The next time I choose to get in my car to drive an hour away to my aunt's in Abbottsford, for example, I'll be happy to do it.  It's worth it to me to see my family.  I will go to the gas station, I'll roll my eyes at the gas prices, and I'll fill up my tank.  On a personal level I'll be annoyed that I'm paying so much, but on an intellectual level I'll understand why I have to.

*There are lots of good arguments that suggest that if people use less fuel, they'll buy less "stuff" and it will harm the economy. Fair enough. However, the fact still remains that once the fuel is gone, IT'S GONE. I obviously can't emphasize this enough.  I think this just means that urban planners need to find ways to ensure people have access to the things they need or want to buy without having to depend on personal vehicles.  

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