Goodbye To The
Golden Age Of Motoring?
By Douglas Herman
"We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children."
When I grew up in the mid-Sixties, a gallon of gasoline cost between 25 to 30 cents a gallon. Oftentimes gas stations waged a competitive "gas war," and prices dropped another nickel a gallon. Indeed motorists could often buy gasoline for fifteen or twenty cents a gallon during a frequent gas war, when rival stations vied for customers. Imagine: for that price an attendant would pump gas, top the oil, wash the windshield and check the tire pressure - no one charged for air then - all while you waited comfortably behind the wheel of your car. Most gas stations offered green stamps and free roadmaps, cups and cutlery, anything at all to induce customer loyalty. In the Golden Age of Motoring, those were the good old days.
"Fillíer up?" was the frequent, cheery greeting whenever you coasted into the station, your lumbering, Detroit-manufactured vehicle setting off an exuberant ding-ding as the car rolled across a signal hose. The attendant would hasten to your window with squeegee and spray bottle in hand. A merry little chime on the gas pump rang whenever another gallon gurgled down the throat of your tank, and the uniformed attendant smiled at kids like us, rollicking around in the backseat, years before seatbelts became standard equipment.
Yes, those were the good old days. For almost two decades after the war, America enjoyed worldwide manufacturing supremacy in an age of cheap, abundant gas. Travelogue.htm
You saw the USA in your Chevrolet , Buick or Chrysler, while Ford had a better idea called the Mustang, and a veritable land yacht called Cadillac was the ultimate success symbol.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road?
When historians finally write the saga of America, for the years 1920-2020, an entire section should be devoted to gasoline alone. For almost a century, America reinvented the wheel and reinvented the idea of itself, from rugged pioneer to intrepid individualist behind the wheel of a shiny automobile. When the idea of a mobile America was best symbolized by a Flying Red Horse, whitewall tires and sweeping tailfins, the open road called and ignition keys turned in unison.
The Interstate System of the Fifties fueled an Icarian fantasy of escape, whether to the far western shores of America or to the suburbs just outside of town - and rarely did anyone give a second thought to gas. You flew close to the sun, top down, hair streaming, in your T-bird or "Vette or economical Ford Falcon on fossil fuel wings. Certainly the migratory history of this nation, for nearly a century now, has been propelled by the internal combustion engine and gas, lots and lots of cheap gas.
By late May, 1927, the fifteenth million Model T produced by Henry Ford rolled off the assembly line in Detroit, Michigan. Route 66 was paved only a year earlier, in 1926, from Chicago to Santa Monica, California. Oil fields, with their ubiquitous oscillating pumps, sprouted from Erie, Pennsylvania to East Texas to West Los Angles, California. Following the oil boom of the Twenties, the architectural advent of the gas station began soon after, spawning the roadhouse, diner and motor hotel, or mo-tel. Touring became the new fad; campgrounds began to cater to cars.
The open road offered redemption, release or a tantalizingly rebellious idea of romance. The Dustbowl era of the Dirty Thirties forced thousands of Okies onto the road during the Great Depression. The Joads of John Steinbeckís novel, The Grapes of Wrath," sought redemption in a utopian vision of California that didnít exist, at the end of Route 66. During the war years, gas, oil and tires were rationed, but following World War II optimism eventually returned and so did consumer goods. Beginning in the Fifties, Jack Kerouac lured two generations of misfits - a sizable portion of humans at any one time--back r/rt66icons.html onto the beckoning highways with his Beat classic of rebellion, "On The Road."
Elegy for The Lost Horizon
Unfortunately for those of us with a gypsy spirit and a penchant to pull into the nearest gas station with a road map on our lap, the days of unlimited cheap gas are almost over. According to a trio of noteworthy books, and one recent development in the Persian Gulf (Iraq), the last gasp of affordable gas is either a few years away or a few decades. Goodbye yellow brick road, hello to the long and winding road.
A few developments of note before we go farther, call them sub-chapters within that section on gasoline. During the mid-Seventies, America and Great Britain brought two enormous oil pools into production: The North Slope of Alaska and the North Sea between Norway and England. Thirty years later, those two huge pools are now nearly depleted. Not surprisingly, both England and the US are the major players in Iraq.
The book that started the ripple effect was called "Hubbert's peak." Written by an oil company insider, the book discusses the bell curve effect of production. According to this theory, apparently substantiated by the fact there have been very few large oil discoveries in the last 20-30 years, the peak of oil production has been reached and perhaps even passed. Now begins the long painful slide to increasing demand and thus scarcity, at least according to this scary yet debatable theory.
The second book to appear, and certainly most controversial, was the recent, 75 "Crossing the Rubicon." A hefty volume that, among other things, accuses Vice-President Dick Cheney of masterminding the terrorist attack on the September 11, 2001 in order to effect the present military occupation of oil-rich Iraq, the book is thick with evidence and reads like an overwhelming indictment for the prosecution.
More importantly, the book warns readers that the End Times are coming for cheap and plentiful oil, hence the entire reason for 9-11 and the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Written by a former LA police detective, Mike Ruppert, "Crossing The Rubicon" created an enormous buzz on the Internet upon publication but, understandably, not a murmur of debate occurred in the mainstream media, where any controversial topic stronger than Michael Jackson is verbotten.
Adios to The Open Road?
The third book, and most recent, may be the most sobering. Entitled, "The Long Emergency" by James Howard Kunstler, a segment of the book appeared in Rolling Stone magazine subtitled, "What's Going to Happen as We Start Running Out of Cheap Gas to Guzzle?"
"A few weeks ago," wrote Kunstler, "The price of oil ratcheted above fifty-five dollars a barrel ($58 presently), which is about twenty dollars a barrel more than a year ago. The next day, the oil story was buried on page six of the New York Times business section. Apparently the price of oil is not considered significant news, even when it goes up five dollars a barrel in the span of ten daysÖNote to clueless nation: Call planet Earth."
Recently Congress voted to permit drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), but few believe this to be more than a stopgap solution. We use more than 20 million barrels of oil per day. At best, according to the Department of Energy, ANWR might provide four or five per cent of our total oil needs in 2025, an estimated 30 million barrels a day. Not long ago, reports indicated that EPA estimates of fuel economy in cars they tested was deliberately skewed to give more positive readings. Before the 2004 elections, both Kerry and Bush pledged to enact bold new energy plans - doubling the CAFE standards would have been a logical step--but aside from the continuing occupation of oil-rich Iraq, no bold new energy plan has been forthcoming.
"The widely touted "hydrogen economyí is a particularly cruel hoax," Kunstler stated. "We are not going to replace the US automobile and truck fleet with vehicles run on fuel cells. For one thing, the current generation of fuel cells is largely designed to run on hydrogen obtained from natural gas." Presently the US contains 3% of the known reerves of natural gas and most of that lies in distant Alaska.
"The two hundred and ninety million people who live in the Untied States make up just five per cent of the worldís population, but they consume a quarter of the worldís oil supply," wrote John Cassidy in "Pump Dreams: Is Energy Independence an Impossible Goal?" printed recently in The New Yorker. "For much of the twentieth century, the United States was the worldís largest oil producer, and its profligacy wasnít a pressing problemÖIn terms of proven reserves - oil deposits that are known to exist and are believed to be accessible at reasonable cost--we have slipped to tenth place in the international rankings, as reservoirs in Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma have started to dry up."
What does this mean to the average American motorist? "The automobile will be a diminished presence in our lives, to say the least," Kunstler noted. The price of gasoline will rise at the rate of all products in the marketplace, increasing in direct relation to expense of production or scarcity.
Farewell to The Last of Gas?
"It has been very hard for Americans - lost in the raptures of nonstop infotainment, recreational shopping and compulsive motoring - to make sense of the gathering forces that will fundamentally alter the terms of everyday life in our technological society," Kunstler added.
Oil is the lubricant that allows our entire economic machine to run smoothly. Hardly any aspect is untouched by the influence of oil. Walk through any Walmart, Safeway or K-Mart superstore and try to find one item that is not directly or indirectly affected by the slippery stuff. Difficult or impossible to do; every product we make and use - food, shelter, clothing, transportation, information, entertainment and especially gasoline--bears the imprint of oil.
Even if the Neocons succeed in their agenda to secure Iraq into some sort of willing, semi-permanent subjugation, as our gasoline vassal state for the next fifty years, America will need a sweeping austerity program and considerable men of vision, neither of which seems likely. But miracles do occur; never underestimate the power of American ingenuity. In ten years time hybrid cars may be as common as cell phones and 50 MPG will be the norm.
"If there is any positive side to the stark changes coming our way, it may be in the benefits of close communal relations, of having to really work intimately (and physically) with our neighbors, to be part of an enterprise that really matters and to be fully engaged in meaningful social enactments instead of being merely entertained to avoid boredom," Kunstler added.
Some silver linings may also be the outright extinction of that 8,000 lb dinosaur known as the land yacht. Likewise the reversal of the trend of Americans to obesity. Bicycles will become a wonderful method of short distance transportation, the most practical machine ever invented for personal transportation, a mode the rest of the world knows very well. Heart disease will decline and sleep disorders diminish. Global warming may even slow appreciably, as this vibrant young planet begins to breathe again, after a hundred year hangover from the fossil fuel binge.
An avid bicyclist, Douglas Herman completed a 10,000-mile journey around North America twenty years ago and continues to use his mountain bike for short errands and small commutes. A resident of Pompano Beach, he writes regularly for the website,
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