Cars, Gas, and Dinosaur Bones

Thom Hartmann

from the online newsletter Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight June 2001
I remember the first time he turned the car off. It was 1978 and I was in Stadtsteinach, Germany, and my mentor and friend Gottfried Mueller was driving. We came to a red light, and he turned off his Audi while he waited for the light to change from red to green. It startled me: why was he doing this? Thinking it must be a personal idiosyncrasy of his, I didn't say anything.

The next day I was walking around in downtown Kulmbach, Germany. People stopped at red lights and turned off their cars! Amazing! They were doing it, it turns out, because gasoline then cost about US$ 5 per gallon in Germany, and they wanted to conserve fuel.

Twenty-two years later, Louise and I bought our first new car in decades: a gasoline-electric hybrid called the Honda Insight. It gets -- really and truly -- over 70 miles to the gallon, with better pickup than the Alfa Romeo I had in my sports-car phase years earlier. And it turns off its own motor at red lights. Really!

I'm telling you this story about cars and red lights because in the past few weeks I've received about a dozen spam emails exhorting me to boycott Exxon/Mobil for a week or two so they'll "come to their senses" and drop the price of gasoline. Yes, it's true that this corporation just reported one of their largest earnings ever -- $5 billion in 13 weeks, or $384 million a week, or $55 million a day in profits, or $2.3 million an hour in profits. This may seem a bit excessive to those who don't own part of Exxon/Mobil, and will surely give them lots of goodies to pass out to their friends in Washington, DC, when they ask to drill in Alaska, but is that the issue? Is that the real problem?

The fact is that the oil companies know a dirty little secret that's also well-known by every heroin pusher in the world: get people addicted to something, and their gut-level response will always be to do whatever it takes to get more and more of it. Even if it's hard to find. Even if it's increasingly expensive. Addicts will whine and cry and yell, but they'll always roll up their sleeve for the next syringe full of their drug, and they'll always do whatever it takes to get it. They'll cut into every other area of their lives to pay for their drug, until their lives collapse.

The senders of the spam letters remind me of the heroin addicts I knew when I was in college. Blame the pushers. Blame the system. Blame the drug itself. But change their lifestyles? Not a chance. They'd die first, and I personally know several who did.

The next time you go to a gasoline pump, after you've filled your tank and shut off the nozzle and pulled it out of the car, shake the last drop from the nozzle onto your palm. Look at that drop of gasoline. You are looking at a fossil.

We think of dinosaur bones as fossils, but dinosaurs are only 90 million years old, more or less. That drop of gasoline was once a living thing, just like the dinosaur bones. It was a plant that used chlorophyll to grab the energy of the sun, and then sank into the earth or the sea and fossilized into what we call petroleum or oil. And it happened between 400 million years ago and 300 million years ago. There hasn't been any made, in significant quantities, since then. Your drop of gasoline is four times older than the dinosaurs.

Now who in their right mind would base their entire life on a continuing supply of dinosaur bones? Can you imagine a village where dinosaur bones are used to build the buildings, make the furniture, and burned to warm the interiors? Can you imagine a country where liquefied dinosaur bones were poured into motorized vehicles to transport people about for business and pleasure? To power their speedboats and airplanes and motorcycles and RVs? Were burned to make steam to spin the turbines that made the electricity that lighted their homes and ran their hospitals and animated their televisions?

Can you imagine a world addicted to dinosaur bones where when the supply began to run out, the leaders suggested people rip up their most beautiful and delicate natural areas in search of more? Where the people consuming the bones sought to "punish" the bone miners when supplies ran low by "boycotting for a day" their consumption of the bones? Can you imagine how bizarre an economy based on dinosaur bones would be, and what would happen to it when the bone supply ran out?

Welcome to our world.

If you want to do something about the "high" price of gasoline, don't bother with pathetic, whiney publicity stunts to try to shame or intimidate or scare the fossil-fuel suppliers into selling you the same amount at a lower price. It won't work, because there's a limited supply of this fossil, and everybody knows it. The fact of rising prices demonstrates that the supplies are beginning to run down -- scientists project we hit the peak of possible oil production (the "Hubbert Peak," named after the scientist King Hubbert who first postulated it in the 1974) in 1995 ( or will hit it within this decade (there are debates about how "unknown but suspected reserves" should be factored into the equation). We still have a lot of oil in the ground, as you can find on British Petroleum's website: at least enough, at current rates of consumption, to last the world another 30 years or so. Maybe even 40 years, and some hope for 60 years. (In all cases, longer than the term of a single political office, so it's an easy reality to ignore in sound-bytes for the press, or in efforts to enrich fossil-fuel-industry campaign donors and buddies.) This oil and gas is scattered in pockets here and there all over the place, and increasingly valuable: the Arctic Wildlife Preserve, for example, has a 6 to 7 month supply (if it were used all at once) before it's exhausted. (Doesn't seem like much, but it represents billions of dollars in profits for whatever companies the administration decides to let in there.) In any case, protests, boycotts, and letter-writing campaigns aren't going to produce more dinosaur bones -- er -- fossilized oil. And they sure aren't going to convince the pushers -- er -- oil companies to let go of a good thing.

If you want to do something about the rising price of oil, stop using so much of it. Kick the habit. Use public transportation. Ride a bicycle. Walk. Wear a sweater in the winter. Buy a new or used car that gets good gas mileage <96> there's no shortage of them in the marketplace from nearly every manufacturer. Ride a motorcycle. Move into town or nearer your favorite merchants so you can walk to the grocery store. Open and close vents to zone heat your house in the winter, closing off infrequently used areas. Make lists to consolidate your shopping trips. Grow a garden so you rely less on food trucked in (which will become more expensive as trucking costs increase with petrol costs). Plan vacations around resting and hiking and walking instead of motorboating and driving. Check out the web or Home Power Magazine for ways to produce electricity at home, using solar cells, windmills, or fuel cells. You'll be amazed at how sophisticated and inexpensive these technologies have become in just the past few decades since big-oil-supported Ronald Reagan ripped Jimmy Carter's solar collectors off the top of the White House as his first official act in office.

And for those with an activist bent, start asking your politicians to tell you what they're planning for when the oil runs out? When we don't have diesel fuel to run the earth-moving machinery necessary to mine uranium for our nukes? When we don't have the raw materials to make anything plastic? When we don't have any more fossils to burn to heat our homes and power our beloved automobiles? And why are they trying to burn through our supplies faster and faster, keeping supplies cheap and available until that terrible point of no return, instead of planning now for our children's future and creating a soft transition to alternatives?

These are, it seems to me, a few viable starting points in response to the rise in gasoline prices and oil company profits, and all represent efforts that will both increase our quality of life, reduce our addiction, and save precious fossil supplies for our children's children.
De Clarke