War. Famine. Blackout. The rising price of oil has some heavy implications. But what's the one that North Americans are freaking over? The high cost of gasoline. Politicians of all stripes, presidential candidates to premiers, are facing calls to lower gas taxes from a consistently whiny group: Those among us who are convinced cheap gas and pristine roads are not just human rights, but the most important human rights. They are the car-obsessed, and they are dangerous.
Nova Scotian premier Rodney MacDonald made front-page news a couple weeks ago by resisting demands that he reduce gas taxes. Although it's easy to portray RodMac as a latter-day Marie Antoinette---commuting around the province by government helicopter while telling the people to take the bus---he's leaning in the right direction. Between oil's finite supply and the global warming caused by burning fossil fuels, gas prices can't come down. A responsible government would inflate taxes higher to shock the public out of complacency and into using less gas. The best thing the premier could do for Nova Scotia would be to immediately raise the price of gas to at least $2 per litre.
Governments have long enabled gas profligacy, even as individual politicians understand the mess created by catering to the cult of the car. Here's an American member of Congress, speaking so candidly he refuses to be named on the record: "For the long term, let's first face the fact that since eventually we will run out of oil, we need to get people to change their habits: they will have to become less dependent upon automobiles; we have to get to the point where people live closer to work or closer to mass transit; housing patterns will have to change. That will take at least a generation. We have six per cent of the world's population and we consume thirty per cent of its oil. Sooner or later, the rest of the world will hate us for using so much oil. The American way of life has to go through a major change. The most important thing now is to get started."
That quote is from a New Yorkermagazine article published July 21, 1975. That's 33 years ago, the last time North America went through an energy emergency. And the requisite change still hasn't started.
Today's oil trouble is more urgent than that '70s crisis, which was caused by Middle East businessmen with unlimited oil fields flexing their muscles against their largest customer. Now we understand there are limits to the amount of easily accessible oil left in the ground, while developing countries are on their way to US levels of consumption. The situation has pushed the price of a barrel of oil to the current $123---a record high---with $200 possible within two years, according to a forecast this week from investment bank Goldman Sachs. Change is coming, whether we're ready or not.
Which brings us to those whining drivers in Nova Scotia and the need for $2 gas. So far the price of gas has gone up too slowly to cause anything more than complaints. Instead of driving less or getting more efficient cars, most people wallow in higher prices like that poor frog from An Inconvenient Truth, happy to sit in a pot of water as it warms to a boil.
But a quick hike---a carbon tax---from today's $1.28 per litre to $2 would be noticeable. Some people would change their driving habits and use less gas. Those who didn't change would be paying for the privilege, with that extra tax money going to fund public transit (see "Bus blues" on page 7 for more on the lack of provincial support for this worthy cause) and rebates for low-income drivers. Either way, the end result of a serious tax on gas would be the same: Getting Nova Scotians prepared for the bumpy road ahead.