The trouble with normal is, it always gets worse. -- Bruce Cockburn
One of the signs of increasing curmudgeonhood is that you start crabbing about the kids in your neighborhood. The object of my irritation these days is a boy, maybe nine or ten, who spends great amounts of time on a gasoline-powered scooter -- you know, those conveyances we used to push with one foot -- that he drives in little figure-eights on the road next to my house.
This is just so wrong.
First of all -- back when I was his age, when glaciers covered the hemisphere and wooly mammoths roamed the tundra (well, maybe not that long ago), I actually moved my body during playtime. Now, I was not athletic; I was a chubby little, or I guess chubby big, Weeble-shaped child. Yet as soon as spring thaw hit I was out there every day, crawling under and over fences, fishing for tadpoles, haunting the pastures and marshes of our property; doing kid things that involved physical activity.
This boy, by contrast -- part of the generation slated to become the most obese ever -- just stands there and goes around in circles. I have a dark fantasy of someday confiscating his scooter, throwing a handful of sand in the gas tank, and telling him to use it the way scooters were meant to be used. "Ya mean I gotta use my foot? But that's haaaaaaard!"
But the gas scooter is just a Dingsymbol of something much bigger: Our society's twin addictions, both to petroleum and to amusing/acquiring ourselves to death. I am sure that when this kid goes back home, he goes home to a garage filled with gasoline-powered toys -- four-wheelers and snowmobiles and locomotive-sized SUVs. I suspect he lives in one of the newer McMansions that keep getting built around the lake -- huge houses big enough for two families, whose monthly energy bills I can only imagine.
The new thing in our neighborhood is golf carts. The neighbors use these to drive a few hundred yards down the road to their friends' houses. Because whatever we do, we mustn't walk, ever. I'm not talking about elderly folk with bad hips; I'm talking people my age and younger. And this fad began the last time gas prices spiked; it's as if people said, "Hmmm...gas is above $3 a gallon and climbing; whatever shall should we do? Oh -- we know -- we'll buy another gas-powered vehicle!"
I have to admit that part of me applauds the current oil crisis, because I want it to be the thing that finally starts weaning us all off the petroleum teat; that finally kicks the captains of industry in the butt and gets them serious about developing and promoting alternative forms of energy; that reduces our involvement with and dependence upon oil-producing countries; that makes people start rethinking their value systems and lifestyles. There are faint glimmerings of progress in this regard; I just heard about two new ethanol plants being planned in my economically sub-moribund state, which is good news considering that we now rank 48th in terms of job creation. But, as the saying goes, first you have to recognize that you have a problem. And I just don't think we're there yet as a nation.
And the thing is -- until we do, until we hit absolute rock bottom and admit that things have to change, it's the poorest, most vulnerable people in society who are going to be hurt the worst in the energy paradigm shift. I work with people on limited incomes, who in many cases were barely scraping by before the oil prices began to rise. Our agency utilizes volunteer drivers to help bring clients meals and to take them to medical appointments. Many of the volunteers are retirees on limited incomes, and some of them are not going to be able to afford to help us much longer; if we don't have enough volunteers, our ability to deliver services is going to be severely curtailed. We have clients who have dropped our services, even though we provide them on a donation basis, because they have no more money to donate, and they're too proud to not contribute something -- for them it may be a choice of giving money to us or paying a utility bill so their power won't be shut off. Think of the working poor -- young families with a lot of expenses, with parents shuffling between multiple low-paying jobs -- and, in rural areas like this, that means doing a lot of driving, often to other cities; what happens to these households if energy prices continue to rise?
And in the midst of my internal jeremiad, I have to stop and think about my own more foolish consumption habits. The other weekend I almost found myself making a 45-mile trip to my food cooperative, for the second time in a month, to pick up sale items I'd forgotten the first time -- stuff like fair trade coffee and recycled paper towels. And because I was twitchy and wanted to take a drive somewhere. What's wrong with that picture? D'oh!
So when I see the gas-powered scooter, I start thinking about all this other stuff, and about how things are likely going to get much worse before they get any better. Until then, God help us.