While higher gas prices are no fun for any of us, the good news is that the crisis is starting to drift into no-longer-a-crisis-just-a-problem-to-be-solved mode. People are beginning to accept that high gas prices are here to stay. The nation is getting over the denial stage, which is the first big step towards rearranging our infrastructure so that we’re less reliant on oil.
After more than five years of petroleum price increases, American consumers appear to be expecting the worst. A CNN poll taken last week showed that 59 percent of Americans believe it is very likely that they will pay $5 a gallon for gasoline before the end of the year and that an additional 27 percent say it is somewhat likely.
Economists say these expectations make it more probable that people will change behavior rather than simply wait for a turn in the traditional up-and-down cycle of commodity prices. “People now realize that prices may come back down, but they’re not going down to where they were,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Economy.com. “We’re going to have to live with higher energy prices for a while. And that’s affecting their behavior and what they buy and don’t buy.”
Like Atrios, I’m surprised and impressed at how quickly the nation is coming to terms with this. There’s so many excuses people could come up with to tell themselves that oil prices will come down, but people are facing up to reality. And the sooner the better, because until you’re past denial, you can’t start making changes.
Some friends informed me the other night that Lance Armstrong has opened a bicycle shop in Austin, and they’re dedicating themselves to encouraging Austinites to commute by bicycle by building a storage facility downtown that has showers and lockers. It’s shockingly logical—most people who don’t exercise cite lack of time as the main reason, so it stands to reason that if you can multitask by combining your commute with exercise time, then you’d jump on that opportunity. And some will. But bad habits like driving everywhere are hard to break. Ideally, to encourage an entire society to change a behavior, you either introduce immediate rewards (not long term ones like weight loss or better cardiovascular health) or introduce obstacles and frustrations to the bad habit.
Obstacles and frustrations—not punishments. If you’ve ever trained an animal, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Spanking a pet after a misdeed is like the worst way to train an animal. If there’s a undesired behavior, you frustrate the behavior and offer alternatives. If your dog likes to sleep on the sofa, you put laundry baskets or cooking pots on it so that he can’t get up there easily, and then put the dog bed nearby. Sticky tape on beloved furniture and a nearby scratching post that the cats actually like (in my house, that’s unfortunately Marc’s desk chair that’s been sacrificed) will train them away from scratching your favorite stuff. As I’ve noted before, driving just seemed like a drag to me because I hate how much of it is sitting around doing nothing. Training myself to feeling rewarded by the bicycle took a couple of weeks, but now I like just the general rush you get from the shot of exercise. Still, cars have all these incentives to them over bicycles, like they’re faster and they go farther and they have air conditioning. The key to getting people to bicycle instead of drive was always increase the immediate rewards of bicycling or taking public transportation while increasing the obstacles to driving. But the latter has problems, because people resist you if you increase driving obstacles, like reducing parking opportunities. People aren’t dumb animals, and so it was pretty easy to single out the culprits behind the newly introduced obstacles and give them hell.
Unfortunately, that privileged higher gas prices as an obstacle that people really had to face up to, instead of casting around looking for culprits and pressuring them to change things back. I mean, that was tried, but now it’s beginning to sink in that gas prices are, for reasons fair and unfair, shielded from bending to public will. The laundry baskets on the sofa are there whether we throw puppy dogs eyes at our politicians or not. What’s frustrating to me about this it that it’s bigger than transportation of human beings, which could easily be addressed with alternatives like bicycling, remaking cities so they’re walking cities, and public transportation. It affects the prices of produce and other things that will present a much bigger problem in terms of restructuring society to make these things more affordable. Compared to moving closer into the city and taking the bus more, figuring out how to make apples not cost $2 a pound is going to be rocket science.