I think this is a year that Americans will remember for a long time. A generation from now, people will look back nostalgically and say, "Ah, 2008. That was when everything started to change."
Of course, things are always changing, but they have been taking on a decidedly baleful character of late. I could mention the souring economy, the sub-prime collapse, the endless war in Iraq. But the thing people will talk about in years to come will be the cost of energy. This is the year the price of gasoline hit four dollars a gallon and Americans finally sat up and noticed. This is the year it hurt so bad we finally started changing the way we live.
Of course, that might not be so bad. Wise people (and the rest of the world) have been saying for years that America's energy consumption is unsustainable. Some have even suggested raising the tax on gasoline to the four- or five-dollar level, as the Europeans did years ago. Not only would it raise needed revenue in a day when we are running $350 billion-a-year deficits, but it would cut down on greenhouse gases and stanch the hemorrhage of American wealth to Middle Eastern and other despotic regimes.
Of course, we would have none of that. America loves its SUVs, and with the support of Congress, it was easier to get a 6,000-pound, 12-mpg sport utility vehicle than it was to score a pound of ganja. Just six years ago Congress, at the behest of its automotive and oil company sponsors, was handing out tax breaks to encourage businesses to buy "modified trucks," aka, SUVs. The law was written in such a way that just about anybody with a pulse qualified for this business incentive.
Europeans looked at us and said, "What in hell are they thinking?" I predict we will look back in 10 years and ask the same question.
I also predict that SUVs will soon go the way of the Studebaker. Within a decade they may become as rare as a 1960s vintage VW Beetle. Have you seen the "For Sale" notices in the newspapers? Have you seen the SUVs parked on the side of roads and streets with big, ugly "For Sale" signs stuck in the windows? These dinosaurs have seen their popularity drop faster than George Bush's — and just as steeply.
What will become of these white elephants, which were so popular just a few months ago? If everybody's selling and nobody's buying, they will start piling up along roadsides like steel cargo containers. It may soon be time to haul them offshore and dump them. We could build a reef from Maine to Miami and still have enough of the monsters left to put an SUV museum in every American burg and borough.
When the ranting and railing and pointing and blaming are over, when people get down to the very real and important business of living in a post-SUV America, our behavior and driving will improve and traffic fatalities will decline. The sense of invincibility that an SUV offers makes people arrogant, reckless, and rude when they get behind the wheel. Driving smaller cars will help all of us to remember that we share the road together. Indeed, we share this little blue planet together.
Of course, there will always be rednecks and yahoos, but they will no longer be driving Hummers, Land Rovers, and Escalades. I think that putting them in small, practical, fuel-efficient cars will have an altogether edifying effect on their behavior and character.
For my part, when gas hit $3.75 a gallon, I knew it was time for a change. I found a slightly used 7-speed Raleigh street bike for $125. I do not exaggerate to say that it is changing my life, and for a guy who flunked yoga, meditation, and vegetarianism, this is a major development.
I now go for days without getting into my car, as the whole peninsula below the Neck is easily accessible on two wheels. The last 10 weeks have been an experience of falling in love with Charleston all over again. How many motorists are able to notice the tiny alleys, which snake between ancient houses and across downtown city blocks? How many have noticed the quaint apartment and front porch above Burbage's Grocery on Broad Street? How many are able to enjoy the beautiful canopy of trees arching above Church Street?
All of our lives will soon be changing, some for the better, most not. If we are to remain sane as individuals and healthy as a society, we must learn ways to live with less material abundance, as we seek more spiritual fulfillment. We will all find our own means of coping with the uncertain future ahead. The bicycle will be an important part of mine.