By David Gushee
I have to admit that I don’t remember the make or model of the car. But I do remember that it promised 15 whole miles per gallon in the city, and 23 on the highway. What I was most struck by was that it calculated average annual fuel costs with gas priced at $2.80 a gallon. And this was a new car. Was it so recently that gas actually cost $2.80 a gallon? Oh, the good old days!
For those who wondered just what it would take for Americans to change their conspicuous consumption of gasoline, the answer seems to be a price of $4 per gallon. From the four corners of society, the news is in — $4 per gallon demands a lifestyle transformation for all but the richest Americans.
News stories abound with the details: More and more people are unable to fill their tanks when they go to the gas station. Trying to scrape by until the next paycheck, many are running out of gas, their old cars and trucks abandoned by the side of the road. For the first time since the 1970s, gasoline is regularly being siphoned out of cars by thieves. (Remember gas cap locks? They’re back.) The poorest are spending as much as 15 percent of their take-home pay on gasoline and are facing choices of gas vs. meat and gas vs. health care. Some employers are sending cars around to pick up their workers who cannot afford to drive to work.
General Motors is looking to sell off its Hummer unit. No one wants Hummers, that ultimate symbol of conspicuous consumption. SUV sales are plummeting. On the other hand, dealers cannot keep the hybrid Prius in stock. There is a two-month wait to buy a Prius in many locations. GM is rushing to bring the Volt, an electric-powered car, to market by 2010. The use of mass transit is up considerably.
Long-term trends in housing will be affected. In Atlanta, for example, where “the good life” has long been understood to mean a move to the northern suburbs accompanied by a grinding 20-mile commute one way, the combination of gas costs and traffic nightmares demands reconsideration. Some predict the partial or wholesale abandonment of certain exurban neighborhoods, with their long commutes, and McMansions, too expensive to maintain. Combined with the problems in the housing market and the rise in foreclosures, in some areas this suburban/exurban collapse is already happening.
What are we to make of all this? Should we be looking for politicians who will promise an end to the pain? What does this mean for stewardship and the life of the church?
One disappointing lesson is that the market often affects behavior a whole lot better than moral suasion. For decades, a number of church leaders and environmental activists have been calling Christians and other Americans to a simpler lifestyle. But with gas at $2 a gallon, few cared. People adjusted their “inner attitudes” while driving their Hummers to church. Now smaller cars, less driving, working from home, and mass transit look a whole lot more compelling.
The government does have a role to play. It would have been rational government policy to require higher fuel efficiency standards even when gas was $2. And there are things that government can do now to both ease the burden on the most desperately affected and aid the transition to a radical transformation in our national energy use. But still, nothing focuses the mind like paying $75 to fill up your car with gas. Some are suggesting that the best thing government can do to change American habits is to ensure that gas never goes below $4 a gallon again.
Churches and families will get those energy audits, build greener buildings, buy more fuel-efficient vehicles, and stay closer to home. The pleasures of a quiet evening around the dinner table or the fellowship hall will be rediscovered. People will turn off lights and stop cooling their buildings to the freezing point in the summer.
It would have been nice if a hundred earnest books and a thousand sermons had triggered these behavioral changes. Necessity seems to work better. I guess human beings really are sinners.