Empty Highways

The drive to Asheville takes about 20 minutes on good roads, famously good American highways that have made remote and once isolated mountain regions into bedroom communities. The commute is the same spectacle all over America no matter the city or the terrain, and sometimes I’m part of it if I happen to have business in Asheville, but not so often that I become entrained in the commuter mindset and fall asleep at the wheel.

The AM/PM rush hour commute did not exist in my grandfather’s time. It began in the 50's with my father’s generation, the heroes of WWII, and it developed into a fundamental pattern of the way we live with my generation, the victims of Viet Nam, and today it is just another banal fact of life for succeeding generations climbing into the driver’s seat of cars that have not changed fundamentally since my father acquired his first vehicle and began humming “See the USA in your Chevrolet!” The technology we rely on today is more refined and sophisticated than Henry Ford put into his Model T’s, but it is essentially the same technology in aerodynamic, comfortable, colorful packages.

My vehicle is a sleek, shiny little car with a smooth automatic transmission and comfortable bucket seats. I press a button to open the windows. When I park, I press a button on a tiny radio transmitter attached to my key that locks the doors. It is fuel efficient compared to cars with larger engines and heavier frames, but not as efficient as the automakers could make it if they wanted to. As much as I like it, I feel like I’m driving a relic of the past because I know that the internal combustion engine should have been displaced years ago.

Because a commute is a sometime thing with me, I enjoy the scenery, the smooth Blue Ridge Mountains in misty layers to the horizon, and I watch the other vehicles around me, too, each with its own personality and purpose, and the time passes easily. I enjoy the drive even in the commuter throng when the four lanes of impeccable blacktop are crowded with an anxious, restless breed . This is because I can so easily see an image in my mind of an empty highway. The grey Lexus behind me, frustrated because it cannot pass, the red Explorer in front of me hemmed in by the truck in the left lane, the Oldsmobile several cars ahead, observing the speed limit and creating the bottleneck, they’re my fellow travelers, and as annoying as they may seem to each other in their single minded, selfish determination to get where they’re going, I will miss them and they will miss each other when the rush hour ends. It will end, not as the last lap in the daily rat race, not as a thank-God-it’s-Friday kind of thing, but as the last commute for years to come. Very suddenly, almost overnight, there will not be enough traffic on the road to create congestion. Eventually, an hour will pass before a single car goes by. The weeds will grow tall at the roadsides and down the median strip. There will be more bicycles than cars, more horses than cars, more pedestrians than cars. I enjoy my driving more poignantly because I know this is inevitable.

Why must it be so?

So called “peak oil” has little to do with it. The cost of fuel will inevitably rise as the demand increases world wide and supplies gradually diminish. No mystery here. The world will not suddenly run out of fuel in a matter of weeks or days like some one who forgets to stop at a gas station. There is enough to last for years to come, at least until I’m so old and cranky they take my driver’s license. The cause will be an “oil shock”, a sudden, catastrophic failure of the market system that delivers the fuel to the end-users. The reason the market will fail will be a direct result of the US policy in the Middle East that now passes under the name of a “war on terrorism”.

When George 43 sent the US military into Iraq, he did so in the name of defending what his father, George 41, called “our way of life” during the first Gulf War in ‘91. This was not empty rhetoric. Saddam Hussein was a clear and present danger to the oil supply. The lynch pin of our way of life is oil. Most of the world’s oil is right there in the Middle East and the US, in the name of guaranteeing for itself the lion’s share of the supply from that region, is determined to take it over and control it by any means necessary. The invasion of Iraq was a pre-emptive strike against peak oil, not weapons of mass destruction, not terrorism. The US, to put it simply, is behaving like a gangster and it is laying claim to a common resource in a way that is frightening to every other oil consuming nation, each of whom is anxious to supply its own addiction. The game that is being played is called “survival of the fittest”. The arrogance of George 43, surprising even to his father, who is not a notably modest man, has had the disastrous effect of making the US a target, not merely for terrorists, but for every other nation that dislikes the lying and the flaunting of international law & order that this cowboy president has engaged in.

The average commuter has only a foggy notion of oil politics, but if the issue were put to a vote, if George 43 had said to the American people: “We need to invade Iraq and get rid of Saddam to make sure we will have the oil we need in the future,” most people would have probably agreed with him. That doesn’t include me, because way back in the 70's when Jimmy Carter was making half hearted attempts to develop alternative energy and fuel efficiency and talking about “the moral equivalent of war”, I could see the Arabs didn’t really like us that much and it just seemed common sense to be energy independent. The quest for energy independence would be the moral equivalent of war, but energy dependence is war, which is the moral equivalent of gangsterism.

Common sense does not prevail in Washington. That is why American young people are now fighting and dying in Iraq. The profit motive rules, not common sense. US oil companies, in partnership with the dictatorial regimes of the Middle East, have for years been reaping huge profits from the consumption of oil and their interest and the interest of all their stock holders, is to consume more foreign oil, not less. They have always fought against alternative energy as the automakers have fought against fuel efficiency and innovation in fundamental automotive technology. If there were in this country a truly competitive free market, we would be commuting today in electric cars that do not pollute or consume any oil at all and our commute would not be rudely interrupted. But the profit motive and sheer creative laziness compels the automakers to fight innovation, to band together to destroy any competition, and to continue to make and sell what they know, the same old technology, rather than risk the development of new technology, or allow other entrepreneurs who would do it into the game. The oil/automaker cartel controls what we drive and how much it costs us. They have betrayed American consumers and the American Dream, by engaging in monopolistic practices, by refusing to innovate, by putting profits above common sense and our true national interest.

When the commute stops and the highways are empty, we should not blame the sabotage of terrorists, the resentment of other nations, or the fickle fortunes of war. We should blame our own failure to live up to the traditional American ideals of self-sufficiency and self-reliance that could have made us energy independent. We should blame our failure to demand a truly free and competitive market in which innovation is encouraged and supported. We should blame our laxness in allowing our government to be taken over by special interests. We should blame ourselves for falling asleep at the wheel. Hopefully, it is not too late to wake up before the crash.