Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The American Reality Disconnect

There is a disconnect in the American political contest in regards to world evolution. For instance the increase in petroleum prices, the decline in the U.S. dollar, and impoverishment of America that is starting to resemble Russian collapse. None of these issues are dealt with honestly or straight forwardly in the U.S. A good example is the recent Bush trip to the Mid-East which was by all accounts a huge fiasco, Asia Times Online goes into further detail:

" Bush's Middle East policy in tatters
By M K Bhadrakumar

"They [Arab leaders] have stopped taking their instructions from Islam, they have decided that peace with the Zionists is their strategic option, so damn their decision." - Osama bin Laden, audio message, May 18

Last Tuesday, while United States President George W Bush was setting out from Washington on a five-day tour of the Middle East, Iran's semi-official Fars news agency quoted Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad as hinting that Tehran might consider a cut in oil exports. Of course, Iranian Oil Minister Gholamhossein Nozari quickly clarified that Tehran was only reviewing its exports

and here, too, a decision was to be taken on a possible increase or decrease.

Neither Ahmadinejad nor Nozari said anything like Iran was reviewing oil output as such (which exceeds 4.2 million barrels per day, the highest level since the 1979 Islamic revolution). But US oil prices went into a tizzy nonetheless and hit a record high of US$126 per barrel by the time Bush landed in the Persian Gulf region.

"Bush was expected to press the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) for an early meet to raise oil production. (OPEC is scheduled to next meet in September to decide on its oil output policy.) Stephen Hadley, the US national security advisor, was on record that Bush would tell Saudi King Abdullah that the oil-exporting countries should regard it to be in their self-interest to "take into account the economic health of their customers who pay these prices". In the event, when they met on Friday, Bush found that the Saudi king was not to be persuaded.

Meanwhile, Nozari was back on stage. He told Fars news agency, "I believe there is no need for an [emergency] OPEC meeting. Why should there be this meeting when oil prices go up? The OPEC members are currently utilizing their full capacity and are supplying the market ... With oil at US$126, it is not wise for those with oil not to supply it." Nozari then added, "I believe it is not that oil is becoming more expensive, but the dollar is becoming cheaper."

It would have been unthinkable five or six years ago that a visiting US president would receive such an open rebuff in the Middle East. Last weekend's exchanges revealed the extent of decline in the US's dominance of the Middle East through the present Bush administration. No doubt, oil lies at the very center of the decline of the American dominion. The cascading rise in oil prices has led to a massive transfer of resources to the energy exporting countries. Iran is one principal beneficiary.

The huge accumulation of wealth enables Iran to exert influence regionally and ensure there is practically nothing the US can do to stop its rise as a regional power. Goldman Sachs in a report on Friday predicted oil would further jump to a level of $140 by July. "The near-term outlook for oil prices continues to be bullish," Goldman said. Investors are flocking to the oil market as a hedge against the fall in the value of the dollar. The Wall Street Journal has reported that at the moment the Iranians hold about 25 million barrels - about twice the quantum of the US's daily imports - of heavy crude in offshore tankers in the Persian Gulf."

Even more interesting is the beginning of the "end of the car dialogue" and the end of American suburbia, exurbia, culture as noted in the Philidephia Inquirer:

"Call it a change of plan.

Across the nation, the price of gasoline is sending more and more Americans to public transit.

This ridership surge points up three things: (1) These millions of new riders can do it. Most of them always could have. They just didn't. (2): We're not at the end of car culture yet . . . that's a few generations off . . . but (3) it's clear, in not-quite-hindsight, that the U.S. car culture does not work.

Meanwhile, more people are parking the car and hopping on the train or bus. Just ask the people at SEPTA. Director of public affairs Richard Maloney says: "It's been a steady upward curve for the last 18 months, 14 percent growth in that time and 24 percent in the last three years, driven primarily by gasoline prices." Growth is greatest, he says, in regional rail, among suburban communities, and among people with long car commutes.

On the eastern side of the Delaware, New Jersey Transit's Trenton-to-Camden River Line had its best-ever quarter ended in September, averaging a record 7,900 riders a day, and followed that with another record quarter through December. And the Delaware River Port Authority says ridership on the PATCO High-Speed Line is up 7 percent from a year ago.

All of which fits a big national pattern. According to a May 10 New York Times survey, metro Minneapolis, Dallas, Seattle, and San Francisco all are seeing ridership spikes, with big gains both where public transit is long-established (New York, Boston) and where it is comparatively new (Houston, Charlotte, N.C.).

Clarence W. Marsella, chief executive of the Denver Regional Transportation District, told the Times that gasoline prices had brought on a "tipping point" regarding ridership. Maybe so. Or is this just momentary, and once we get used to higher prices, we'll backslide into former habits?I can imagine a reasonable objection: "The car culture doesn't work? The car has made our lives possible! It has made this country great, made contemporary life what it is today. Life without cars - without the unquestioned right to personal mobility at will - is unimaginable. You couldn't have the suburbs without the auto. Didn't Frank Lloyd Wright design his modern suburbs based on the car? And Levittown . . ."

Agreed. All true. Car culture got us where we wanted when we wanted - for five generations. Much has been spectacular, beyond what could have been dreamed 100 years ago.

How, then, can I say that car culture doesn't work? Because the cost to individual and communal life, and to the environment, has been too high. And the bill is just now coming due.

It's not evil, just heedless. People take the opportunities they're given. They have the right. The car symbolizes freedom, rights of passage, career, sexuality. We've created the national road system, bought hundreds of millions of cars, based hundreds of millions of lives on the assumption that Hey, we can just drive. But all that time, we've been burning resources, replacing none. (How much steel have we put back in the ground? How much oil?)

We've basically laid the environment to waste, millions of acres never to return, all because there was no plan B. Roads are good things - but where you build a road, you outrage an environment, and no one ever rectifies it. The sad sprawl of the 1980s and 1990s, when people let towns metastasize into hastily planned and built exurban strips - that worked well, didn't it?

And does anyone think the morning and evening rush is good for us? Individually and as a society? Single drivers (70 percent and more in many metro area traffic jams) in single cars, edging ahead, until sometimes it seems as if the ambient blood pressure is about to blow? (Studies show traffic jams do contribute to stress and high blood pressure. But you knew that.)

And wasteful: The car commute amounts to a willing sacrifice of billions of hours of precious, productive time. U.S. Census figures suggest the average U.S. driver spends 100 hours commuting a year (the standard vacation, 10 work days of eight hours apiece, is only 80 hours). Philadelphia ranks fifth among cities with a long one-way commute (29.4 minutes); New Jersey ranks third among states (28.5 minutes). Traffic jams waste time, and therefore bucks: A 2007 Texas Traffic Institute study said that in 2005, folks wasted an average of 38 hours a year stalled, for grand totals of 4.2 billion hours, 2.9 billion gallons of fuel, and a loss to the economy of $78.2 billion. That's what I call not working. (At least you can work on a train or bus.)

This has wrecked family life for many who live farther and farther from work - and so work farther and farther from home. It has created the commuter suburb, whose residents have little to do with their towns except, just about, the bed where they happen to sleep between commutes. How great is that?

We will all put up with it, as long as we can get where we're going.

I sure did. It's with us for the foreseeable. But no one has to love it. Many are now finding there are other ways. As oil gets scarcer and pricier, people may start to work closer to home, based on resources. They're starting to, it seems. That may benefit cities, with people increasingly opting for "elegant density" and closeness to work and amenities. We should have been doing this all along. We just weren't paying attention.

So, no, we haven't reached the tipping point - we've reached a pocketbook point. When things really tip, we'll discover - gasp - we don't have enough trains and buses for those who need them. (Already, says Maloney, SEPTA "has every available car in service" and is "searching internationally" for more train cars.)

Life will change. The roads will start getting lonely. It's a while off - but worth thinking about. Maybe then we'll make plan "B"."

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