Oil prices…

…have been going down for the last few days, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

I don’t say that because I have oil company stock.  I don’t.  I don’t say that because I have lots of money and don’t care about the price of gas.  I’m not rich, and I do care.  The rising gas prices have screwed up my personal finances just like everyone else.  But anyone who takes global warming seriously, and I do, has to realize that high gas prices are a good thing in the long run.

As H. Beam Piper noted in Space Viking, good things in the long run are often very unpleasant while they are happening.

Skyrocketing gas prices are finally getting people out of SUVs and into fuel efficient cars.  Four-day work weeks are suddenly seeming reasonable to a whole lot of people who sneered at them before.  Mass transit ridership is up, as is telecommuting and college classes over the internet.  All of these things have been advocated for years by people who are concerned about the environment, but it took high gas prices to get people to actually do them.

Will these trends continue if gas prices drop?  My experience says no.  We made some of the same changes during the last oil crisis, and abandoned them as soon as gas was cheap again.  Which is why I am not sure that falling oil prices are a good thing.  If I thought that this was the good scare we needed to break our addiction to oil, then I would be happy to get gas prices back down to where I’m not having to think about how much each trip is costing me in gas, but as a society we are more inclined to turn the oxygen off for a few minutes so we can smoke another cigarette than to actually break our addiction.

I’ve been thinking about this since the prices started going up, but a post by Mike the Mad Biologist brought it to a head.  The post points out that we have been subsidizing cars through road building and maintenance that is not covered by gas taxes, yet people complain about subsidizing mass transit.  We subsidize all transit systems, and it may be time to start looking at total cost in making decisions about what kind of transit gets priority in funding.

And so, my reluctant conclusion that high gas prices may be a good thing in the long run is not entirely based on the schadenfreude I experience watching someone fill the tank on their Hummer.


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