Larry Banman: The more things change, the more they stay the same
July 21, 2008
I was having a conversation about a year and a half ago with a friend of mine about gasoline prices. My relationship with this person was remarkable in that he and I were almost always diametrically opposed on any issue of substance. It wasn’t remarkable that we disagreed, it is remarkable that we are able to coexist in a relationship that is nearly 20 years old. To get back on point, he told me that the tipping point (regarding gasoline prices) at which Americans would change their driving habits was $3.50 per gallon.
Now that gasoline prices have crept above $4 per gallon, it would be my observation that the tipping point has yet to be reached. Traffic, at least here in the High Country, appears to be flowing unabated. Those of you who travel Hwy. 9 between Silverthorne and Kremmling can attest to the fact that traffic is as heavy as it has ever been. Traffic jams between Georgetown and Idaho Springs are still a staple of weekend traffic. I try not to base all of my opinions on anecdotal evidence, so I did a little Internet research on the gasoline consumption in the United States.
Consumption does appear to be down, slightly. According to the California State Board of Equalization, that state saw a decrease in consumption in 2007 of about one percent. In Colorado, Department of Energy statistics show that gasoline consumption per capita has been relatively the same since 1995. Given the rapid increase in population during that time frame, that would translate to a increase in consumption. The point is that driving habits remain relatively unchanged. You hear talk of car pooling, of purchasing smaller cars, of limiting the number of trips taken, but there certainly aren’t wholesale changes in our habits. The tipping point has yet to be reached.
The increase in energy prices has given more credence to the “going green” discussions and the talk of developing alternative sources of energy. Ironically, some of the solutions appear to be less “green” than the problem which they were designed to solve. And, unfortunately, the whole issue has been politicized to the point where a person doesn’t know whom to believe. You can get “factual” information on both sides of any issue to justify whatever point it is you wish to make. I like the way these discussions almost always end with the “global warming” argument. I was watching a travel channel the other day and the whole justification for going on this one particular cruise was that at the destination (Antarctica) the trip participants could help scientists collect data. The overly effusive host of the show gushed about going on vacation and being able to help “save the planet” by solving global warming.
Instead of getting caught up in the rhetoric of these discussions, I try to focus on the things which I can control. For example, when I drive, I can save gas (and my own money) by driving sensibly, following the speed limit, using cruise control and overdrive gears. If you get zealous about your driving habit and do things like coast in neutral and plan a trip with right-hand turns only, you can almost double your gas mileage. By simply driving the speed limit, experts estimate you can experience gasoline savings of 7-23 percent. If you one of those people who can’t stand to have a car in front of you and you are incessantly passing over double-yellow lines, you are probably experiencing a loss of the same magnitude. And, of course, you know you are responsible for global warming (tongue-in-cheek).
I would like to do more things that are related to good conservation practices. I grew up on a farm at which we either raised or grew a good portion of our food. Bread was homemade and clothes were sewn. The soles of shoes were replaced when they wore out and many of our toys were pieced together from parts in the scrap pile. Food scraps weren’t ground up in the garbage disposal, they were either fed to the pigs or turned into the garden. Food that wasn’t eaten fresh was canned, frozen or dried for consumption during the winter. Vehicles were repaired, they weren’t replaced. When the animal’s corrals were cleaned, the manure was spread either on the fields or the garden.
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Over time, things changed. With mobilization and globalization, it no longer became practical to grow your own food or make your own clothes. The fabric to sew a dress cost more than an off-the-rack outfit at the local department store. Potatoes at the store cost less than the water it took to irrigate a crop to maturation. Then there was the element of time. I can remember using the following phrase myself, countless times, “If you value your time at all …” Now, in some cases that is true. If you take time away from gainful employment it is likely that you are not being very economical with your time or your checkbook. For example, if I took a part-time job and worked the same number of hours that I use to produce my annual crop of three cucumbers, 10 tomatoes, a handful of peas and 16 radishes, I could use those earnings to start a decent-sized savings account.
I pondered these things over the past week as I helped my wife refinish a piece of furniture for our daughter, who is expecting a son in September. We stripped off three coats of paint, sanded it down to a fine finish, built a top suitable for changing diapers and stained the piece of furniture with a nice dark wood-grained finish. It took quite a bit of time, but it was time for which I didn’t have much else planned. When it was completed, there was a sense of satisfaction that I wouldn’t have felt had we stopped by a furniture store. And, since, this particular piece of furniture was being handed down to the third generation, there was a sense of passing along family history. Nothing like a family heirloom to get the old memory banks spinning.
I got to thinking about other ways in which I might adjust my thinking. I have tentative plans to rebuild an old greenhouse on the property. It has fallen into disrepair and needs to either go away or become something useful. While evaluating the project with my conditioned-by-our-culture mind, I was thinking about adding a new roof, electricity, heat, water, insulation and windows all, of course, with the proper permits. Kind of a clubhouse for grownups. As I thought more (mostly about the expense) I started to considered alternatives. After a quick mental inventory, I realized I probably have enough scraps around the house to do virtually all of the construction. Instead of electricity and water, there are other options that are “off the grid.” Remember candles? Remember cisterns?
Gas prices are probably not going to decrease. Frankly, I don’t think wages are likely to keep up with increased expenses. Most of the people I know are already working two and three jobs and will have to give up sleep if they want to increase their income. We are probably in for some adjustments. Some of those adjustments will likely be painful. The home equity most of us have lost in the last year, may not return. Neither presidential candidate (despite their promises) can single-handedly return all of us to prosperity. The sooner we realize that life isn’t static and is always going to change, the sooner we can look past what we think we have lost or has passed us by. Ironically, some of what we adopt as a “new lifestyle” may look a lot like the past.