Beyond Sentiment

by Carolyn Chase


mericans love their symbols. And we also love raging against authority. Combine these two aspects and you have a fine formula for widespread political impotence. We would never confuse a menu with the meal itself, but we routinely endorse symbolic political dalliances over productive choices required for substantive change.

It was with some consternation that I began receiving computer email messages a few weeks ago from friends asking me to join and promote "THE GREAT 'GAS OUT'." It had the appealing lead: "It's time we did something about the price of gasoline in America!" and the interesting idea to "see how many Americans we can get
to NOT BUY ANY GASOLINE on one particular day!" Right on, I thought.

It continued: "Wanna help? Send this message to everyone you know. Ask them to do the same."

Problem was, from the get go, the premise that this action would matter was questionable. It continued.

"All we need is a few million to participate in order to make a difference. We CAN make a difference."

Fair enough, and a premise I do agree with. After I started receiving more and more invitations to join, it was clear that this spontaneous demonstration would make the jump into other media. Email from Roger Hedgecock's radio show soon arrived, exhorting people to "Boycott Big Oil."

After a while, the message changed. Someone else had figured out that one day of moving market demand wouldn't really matter. So I started getting emails suggesting that people boycott a different oil company each week. I knew then that this movement had peaked.

The amount of spontaneous public participation in something like this is directly related to how simple the plan is. One day off a habit is imaginable. Figuring what to do every week is beyond the passions of most of us. But Hedgecock pushed people to: "TARGET A MAJOR OIL COMPANY EVERY WEEK TIL PRICES COME DOWN!!" Now, more than a week after the scheduled one-day Gas Out, he is still building "a valiant band of anti-Big Oil commandos."

This is a squad that should appeal to any environmentalist. However, I question their sincerity about really wanting to get out from under the thumb of "Big Oil." What they really want is cheap gas and this movement is a well-meaning combination of legitimate frustration and self-centered whining. As addicts, knowing we are getting screwed by those who control our supply. So we want the government to control the price of our required choice of fuel.

You see, this boycott was not about being "anti-Big Oil," but about the rising price of something most of our lives are designed around: a gallon of gas.

For environmentalists, it was promoting the right action for the wrong reason. Environmentalists have common ground with Roger's "commandos" in wanting oil companies to be subject to real competition. But I've found there is much less interest in wanting to be responsible for the full costs and damages of increasing oil consumption. That's why having a so many folks wanting me to endorse the Gas Out caused such consternation. Boycotting Big Oil? Yes! Cheap gas? Subsidized, cheap gas is one of the main drivers of environmental pollution and climate change.

Cars and light trucks (including minivans and pickups) cause the highest amount of environmental damage overall -- nearly half of the toxic air pollution and more than a quarter of the greenhouse gases traceable to a household's consumption is related to cars.

If you really want out from under Big Oil, a path is now becoming clear: lease or convert to an electric car, change your power provider to a "green power mix" of wind, geothermal and solar - and voila! You have now just bypassed the oil cartels and significantly reduced your environmental impacts.

Unfortunately, electric cars are still out of reach for most consumers who are so trapped in a gas-dependent lifestyle that they can't even imagine a way out. They just know they need their gas to be cheaper. But a way out seems so impossible that thousands are pouring energy into purely symbolic expressions against the system that they have bought in to. But for anyone who really wants out, you can start to get there.

A new Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) website, Green Car:
Guide to Cleaner Vehicle Production, Use and Disposal at offers a truckload of recommendations for choosing and using your vehicle to minimize its impacts on the environment. All of them also reduce your dependence on "Big Oil."

EDF and other environmental groups are also calling on auto manufacturers to offer consumers cleaner vehicles in all classes. EDF is promoting a Green Vehicle Standard for the auto industry. The standard calls on automakers to offer a vehicle during the year 2000 that is at least 50 percent more fuel efficient than other vehicles in its class, meets the tightest California emissions standards, and is built using state-of-the-art clean production practices. Visitors to the Green Car site can let the auto industry know they want the choice of greener vehicles by signing a Green Vehicle Pledge.

"By committing to integrate green vehicle standards into their purchase decisions, consumers can convince automakers that there is market demand for clean production processes and products," said Kevin Mills, director of EDF's Pollution Prevention Alliance.

These are consumer choices that can matter.

The consumer lobbying group Utility Consumer Action Network, who endorsed the Gas Out early on, helps to channel the frustrations of people attempting to engage with the system and "send a political message."

UCAN Executive Director Michael Shames puts it this way: "Oil companies are abusing their accumulated, ill-gotten power. Gas pricing is symptomatic of an oligarchy that is dictating state policy on energy, in this situation, retail gasoline prices."

The definition of an oligarchy is "a government in which a small group exercises control, especially for corrupt and selfish purposes." This is not news about "Big Oil." Environmentalists have been pointing it out for decades. Attempts to regulate and deregulate the oil industry have been political sport since the term "oil baron" was well established early in this century.

This attempt to wield consumer influence on the consumption - and therefore the price - of gasoline, if nothing else, was an interesting and evidently popular idea, grounded in a sound premise. Too bad it wasn't connected to action that could really make a difference.

You've got to respect the mythic model of a hardy band of righteous individuals railing against powerful oppressors. It's important to rally together for change. But unless the actions are chosen judiciously, it's just so much political angst. Political angst is fine, but is it too much to ask that it move beyond the realm of sincerity and into the realm of integrity?

Real competition will affect the oil industry when consumers awaken to their freedom to choose other energy sources and providers and break out of their dependence on a system that has been polluting and politically entrenched from it's inception.