The upside of $4 a gallon

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By John Foster

It goes without saying that $4 a gallon bites.Everyone has their favorite horror story. Maybe your gas tank won’t close anymore because some punks crowbarred it open to siphon out the liquid gold. Maybe the pump crunch made you give up everything but rice, until even that got too expensive. On to dog food for you.Here’s my personal horror story. Let me skip to the punchline — $100. Yep, I borrowed my dad’s diesel truck a couple weeks ago and when I filled it up, I dropped a cool $100. It probably could have fit more, but I guess the fuel pump figures any price above an iPod means it’s spilling out on the ground.Not any more.Is there any silver lining to this ominous and growing cloud? I think so.There is a more dangerous threat facing our world than high fuel prices. And that’s climate change. You’ve heard all the doomsday scenarios –– rising sea levels displacing millions, killing off species, in general changing life as we know it.Who do I think can save us? None other than the favorite hero of conservatives — trumpet fanfare, please — market forces.Yes, government regulation is of some value to mitigate the needs of a growing economy with the earth that sustains our very lives. But more powerful than any regulation is when it starts to hurt our wallets — be it at the pump or off the bottom line.Yes, free markets and a growing world-wide economy are what have fueled the slow but certain destruction of our biosphere through increased carbon output. Still I contend market forces are the only tool strong enough to mitigate the negative effects of that growth.So, $4 a gallon and more, bring it on if it means an end to human-fueled climate change. I mean in a rational, long-term view, isn’t it better for us to be forced into a simpler lifestyle and have a planet that can sustain life than to plunge headlong into a destruction of our own making?After all, a free fall feels a lot like flying until you reach the ground.The forces have already begun to work. Americans are driving less, for the first time in nearly three decades. In March, Americans drove about 11 billion fewer miles than in March 2007, according the the Schork Report, a energy market analysis newsletter.The TARC parking lots along Interstate 71 stand testament, overflowing with cars of those who have chosen to do the environmentally healthy thing and ride the bus –– possibly to ease their conscience, but most likely to ease their wallet.In Europe, where fuel costs are double what we pay here, public transportation is a way of life. We can hope for the same.Maybe this increase in fuel costs will even be enough to plan our developments more responsibly, force us to ride a bike more, or heaven forbid — myself included — live close to where we work. Full disclosure — I’m not sure this has caused me to drive less, but I do drive slower. On the interstate I’m down from 75 miles per hour to 65. I can’t notice the difference in how long it takes me to drive somewhere. I can tell a difference of how long I can keep driving before visiting Mr. Chevron.Also an increase in transportation cost will undoubtedly fuel innovation into alternative ways to power our planet.Alternative fuels are just a pipe dream until they become cheaper than gasoline. Then they become the reality, making our collective 100-year party funded on cheap fossil fuels a blip in the annals of human history.Who knows. If we beat our addiction to oil, maybe we will get in fewer wars with Middle Eastern countries. Now I’m just dreaming.What we don’t need are those market forces to force up the production of food-based ethanol, which they inevitably will and as a result — let’s face it — will cause many people to starve.But hopefully — still looking for that silver lining — food-based ethanol will only be a quick stepping stone to something better. I personally am banking on next-generation ethanol, like that made from algae or native grasses.South Oldham High School senior Mike Stoess has other ideas. This gearhead has already outfitted an old Mercedes diesel to run on used vegetable oil. His next project is some sort of hydrogen pump that I don’t quite understand, but he promises it will more than double his fuel efficiency.I mean, if a high-schooler can figure it out, surely with the right incentives (read: profit margins) our world’s largest corporations will catch on too.

E-mail us about this story at: jfoster@oldhamera.com.