Spring 2002, p.2

To Break With Oil
By Charles Komanoff

Spring, finally. More sun! Longer days! And half a year removed from last fall, a time of darkness and suffocation. The city is coming back to what it was before the towers fell. And we still have the carpool rule, which has made getting around town much more pleasant.

There is one thing I personally miss from that time: all the letters in newspapers from people wanting America to use less oil. These were so-called "ordinary people" who wanted to make Sept. 11 a turning point; a point when Americans graduated from notions of entitlement about driving (and flying and snowmobiling and jet-skiing); when they actually chose to give up some of our much-worshipped "mobility" in the name of a higher good.

There was Leila from Manhattan, proclaiming that "most Americans are more than willing to make personal changes in their lifestyles to become independent of Middle Eastern oil."

There was Dana from Astoria, reminding us that "hanging flags from our militaristic S.U.V.'s will not help. Getting out of these gas-wasting hulks will." There was even columnist Arianna Huffington trading in her 12-mpg Lincoln Navigator for a sedan. Every little bit helps.

Change was in the air, a change we have needed to make for a long, long time.
Alright then, how do we do it? What exactly would we have to do to cut U.S. oil use substantially - not sometime down the road, but now?

It turned out that no one knew. Or wanted to know.

The Bushies certainly didn't. No surprise there. But neither did the professional environmentalists! The big "green groups" were fixated on having Congress tighten automobile mileage (CAFE) standards, and couldn't be caught urging "behavioral change." Too un-American.

But the sad fact is that higher CAFE standards wouldn't start whittling away at gasoline usage for a decade. And even sadder: by ignoring the revulsion at our oil addiction that surfaced after Sept. 11, the enviros let slip the best chance in generations to attack the root cause, Americans' frenetic mobility.

So, I sat down and calculated how and where America uses petroleum, and I crafted a plan to cut usage 10% overnight through a co-ordinated, "patriotic" giving-up of our least necessary travel.

Almost half these savings could come from "tithing" our driving, which now consumes more than 40% of U.S. oil use. Commuters could carpool once a week. The kids can bike to soccer practice. Everyone can consolidate today's drive to the grocery store with tomorrow's.

Aviation is another big fuel user. Surely we could ask the top echelon of corporate flyers to forego, say, every fourth plane trip, perhaps by teleconferencing instead. The rest of us might consider walking the Appalachian Trail this summer instead of trekking in Nepal.

Virtually every sector, I concluded, could yield oil savings right away. To reinforce these voluntary steps over the long haul, the U.S. would build a national network of TGV-like trains, abolish the sprawl-subsidizing tax deduction for home mortgages, phase in higher gasoline taxes (and rebate the revenues equally per capita), and, of course, enact "yield to bike" laws in all 50 states.

I put all this into a booklet, Ending The Oil Age. The traditional green groups have avoided it like a rattlesnake on the hood of their Volvos. Seems the only folks who like it, and keep ordering copies, are bicyclists!

No surprise there. My booklet doesn't push the "armchair" variety of conservation that delivers oil savings effortlessly, on a CAFE platter (except that the US Senate dropped this particular offering on the Capitol floor last month, smashing the Big Green "inside strategy").

No, giving the boot to oil demands participatory conservation, like bicycling instead of driving. In this kind of conservation, as Gandhi said, you become the change you want in the world.

In For Love of the Automobile, Wolfgang Sachs wrote that "with the bicycle everything depends on the self."

Saving the world from the oil curse is like that too. Everything depends on the self: yourself, myself, our collective social self.

I invite you to visit www.rightofway.org and read Ending The Oil Age. If you'd like to help spread its message, write me at kea@igc.org.
We are the change. Keep on cycling!

Komanoff, T.A. president during 1986-1992, is active with the pedestrian rights group Right Of Way.

Read the latest news on this issue.