As the U.S edges itself closer towards paying $4 a gallon for fuel, Andrew Leonard, in an essay written for today’s Salon, says that recent reports coming from researchers at U.C. Davis’ Institute of Transportation Studies say that drivers are no longer “adjusting their driving habits in response to the rising cost of fuel”. Information coming from the Department of Energy show that American drivers are driving more.
Leonard wonders why this is the case. The last time prices rose, drivers cut back on the driving they did. Not this time, it appears. He is not wholly convinced the Davis researchers explanations – that more people live in the suburbs and driving farther than they did 20 years ago and increased fuel efficency – fully accounts for this. As far as he can see, the increased fuel efficiency would, to some extent, offset the increase in milage.
He thinks that there has been major psychological shift.
Could this be a case of the oil shock that cried wolf? The oil shocks of the late ’70s coincided with the mainstream debut of the environmental movement. The two phenomena sent messages to the general public that reinforced each other. Conservation: good for the world and good for your pocketbook.
But what happened next? Oil companies desperate to break the stranglehold of OPEC spent billions of dollars developing new sources of supply and the price of a barrel of crude went on a sustained decline. At the same time, the environmental movement quickly became a toxic political football. The messages sent by these phenomena reinforced an entirely different conclusion. First, there was no real reason to worry about fossil fuel shortages, since the magic of the price mechanism would fix any such problem, just as it did in the 1980s; and second, conservation was something only business-hating hippie left-wingers cared about. What a relief! Not only is buying an F350 a sound investment, but patriotic, also!
Now that, it seems to me, is a pretty plausable explanation of what’s happening and why it’s happening.