The other day in southwestern Fresno County, a poor part of Central California, I talked with a number of folks at a rural gas station. Most drove second- and third-hand pickups, large cast-off sedans or used SUVs. Their general complaint was twofold: They didn't have the cash to buy a new fuel-efficient Honda or Toyota. And they were now spending a day or two of their wages just to fuel their cars for their long rural commutes.
But I also fill up three hours away on the San Francisco peninsula near Stanford University, where I work. High-priced hybrid cars and new more-efficient SUVs are everywhere. Mass transit is available and crammed. After listening to these quite different motorists, I can confirm an obvious rule about energy use: The wealthier and better educated seem less concerned about the price of gas.
Indeed, from my informal conversations at two very different gas stations, I would go even further: The wealthy, particularly those who are politically liberal, also like that high-priced gas translates into less burning of fossil fuels by others and will help accelerate research into alternative energies.
But what these elites don't seem to realize is that the energy policies they tend to advocate are for the present paralyzing almost everyone else in the country -- and that the truly ethical and environmental solution would require embracing positions long considered anathema to traditional liberalism.
The debate in Congress over more refineries and nuclear power plants; drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and off our coasts; and developing oil shale, tar sands and liquid coal has been usually a predictable soap opera: Grasping Republicans supposedly wish to enrich energy companies, while idealistic Democrats want only to protect the environment. But those black-and-white positions, hatched in the good old days of $1.50-a-gallon gas, should now be revisited on the basis of far different moral considerations.
One is fairness to the poor and middle class. Like it or not, radical environmentalism (and those behind it who provide the lobbying, funding and influence to block energy legislation) appeals to an elite not all that worried when gas prices rise or electricity rates go up -- since fossil energy use goes down.
But a paradox is that most environmentalists think of themselves as egalitarians. So, instead of objecting to the view of a derrick from the California hills above the Santa Barbara coast, shouldn't a liberal estate owner instead console himself that the offshore pumping will help a nearby farm worker or carpenter get to work without going broke?