Thursday, September 01, 2005

Soapbox alert

One of my gifts to the s.o. for his recent birthday was three copies of Nature Magazine from January, February, and March 1944. I found them at a local flea market mall. They're a little bit like a proto-Ranger Rick, only aimed at adults. There are lots of articles on astronomy, photographing animals at night, victory gardens, etc.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, these magazines have got me thinking about the national character of the United States. Our culture has changed drastically. We say we're patriotic, but we've completely lost our ability to sacrifice for the greater good. All we are is jingoistic, I'm afraid. All talk and no walk.

"Why shouldn't I buy it? I've got the money!" asks a woman in an ad in the front of the January 1944 issue. The ad explains that because of war shortages, it was important for people to avoid spending money on anything that wasn't an absolute necessity. If they bought everything on the market, prices would skyrocket. "Save it! Put it in the bank! Put it in life insurance! Pay off old debts and don't make new ones. Buy and hold war bonds," advises the advertisement. And then it lets loose with the slogan:

Use it up...
Wear it out...
Make it do...
Or do without...

In the March issue, there's an ad from the Minnesota Tourist Bureau, suggesting that the best kind of patriotic vacation is "staying put" at a cabin in Minnesota. It doesn't ask anyone not to take a week or two off--they need to be well rested for the war effort, after all--just to avoid using up more resources than necessary.

Sounds rather foreign, doesn't it?

This brings me to a piece of information I gleaned this morning from the August 29 Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Metro Atlanta drivers are facing the possibility of paying considerably more than $3 a gallon for gas by Labor Day — if they can get it at all. The two pipelines that bring gasoline and jet fuel to the region are down — powerless to pump as Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on electrical infrastructure.

The metro Atlanta region generally has about a 10-day supply of gasoline in inventory, said BP spokesman Michael Kumpf. The pipelines have been down for two days.

Okay, fine. What that says to me is that we should conserve gas and avoid creating a panic at the pumps.

Not happening.

Last night, still blissfully unaware that there was a major issue with gasoline, we drove into Atlanta to meet friends and family at an Atlanta Braves game. On the way, we started to see ill omens. In Union Point (our closest town with any gas stations) Unleaded Regular was $2.69.9, except that one station had already run out of Unleaded Regular.

By the time we got to Covington (halfway to Atlanta) and stopped to pick up some bottled water for the game, the lowest Regular price was $2.99.9, and there were lines of cars, trucks, and SUVs queued into the streets. One station had a lower price for Regular, but the only gas remaining was Super Premium at $3.09.9. People were pacing around in the parking lot, shouting on their cell phones. "You better get down here!"

The s.o.'s dad and brother revealed that in their town in west Georgia, the price of gas had risen a dollar inside of one hour.

Here's where I did my part to make a bad situation worse. On the way home I realized I didn't have as much gas in the car as I'd hoped, and I popped into a station to add a little to the tank. All that was left was Super Premium at $3.19.9. I bought three gallons.

I'm not suggesting that there's anything wrong with the prices themselves. For too long, Americans have paid far too little for gasoline. In the long run, this situation may help correct our prices so that they better reflect the true costs of fossil fuels. But right now prices are caroming out of control because of the panic at the pumps. People are acting irrationally and selfishly.

I should add that I'm not terribly impressed with the gas stations for taking this opportunity to price-gouge.

I guess the major cultural difference that's come about in the last 60 years is that our country's financial plan (such as it is) is based on ever-increasing consumption. If we're not spending, we're not doing our duty to keep the economy afloat. The problem is, it's unsustainable and it depends on the availability of infinite resources.

As a country, we are a giant shrieking Baby-Huey type spoiled brat. We don't believe that the rules apply to us or that we should be asked to make sacrifices. Everyone lives by the motto "Me First." One of my fears as the Gulf Coast tries to rescue the survivors, count the dead, and rebuild crucial infrastructure, is that the relief efforts will be hampered by gawkers--people who believe that they are more important than any of their fellow citizens and that therefore they have the right to enter the disaster area and get in the way.

Meanwhile, looting in New Orleans continues unabated. I would have hoped that people would share the meager resources that remain, but perhaps the citizens of the hardest-hit areas are beginning to realize that the Federal government--which, by the way, has repeatedly cut crucial funding for levee repair despite the city's pleas for more infrastructure money--cannot be counted on to do the right thing. In a situation like that, all I can think to do is PANIC.

As for us, now that we know what's going on, I think we'll be staying at home for a while.