Spoiled Addicts

It appears as though the keepers of the world’s oil supply have decided to give us a break after all. Meeting in Vienna, the assembled princes (I didn’t notice any princesses) of petrol announced that they will increase production just as American motorists are beginning to dream of summer car trips. Prices, we are told, should begin to fall by late summer.

This news no doubt will inspire great celebrations in many corners of this gas-guzzling land. The loudest revelers will be the owners of those monstrous sport utility vehicles, who apparently regard cheap fuel as among the inalienable rights upon which this country was founded. It is a measure of how far we have traveled since the conservation-aware 1970’s that, in the days leading up to the Vienna OPEC meeting, motorists and even a few politicians demanded that we dip into our strategic petroleum reserve to bring down gasoline prices. The strategic reserve, of course, was designed for use in emergencies, like an oil embargo. But in the first year of the new century, with tens of millions of inefficient sport utility vehicles on the road, an emergency is defined as paying $1.70 for a gallon of gasless than the price of a gallon of milk, bottled water or orange juice.

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With its act of calculated generosity, OPEC has allowed us to put off tough decisions and serious reflection about our priorities. We can cruise the interstates in our S.U.V.’s this summer knowing that we once again have dodged the dreaded $2-per-gallon bullet. All will be right with the world.

The princes of petrol must find this highly amusing. We are addicts, and they are suppliers. We are at their mercy, but we don’t notice, nor do we care, because we’re feeling just fine right now. We’ve gotten our fix. But the princes are prepared to squeeze us again. Led by Saudi Arabia, some oil exporters wish to regain more control over oil prices, keeping them consistentand high. The new president of OPEC, Ali Rodriguez of Venezuela, has been given broad power to control the price and production of oil. If prices are falling because of overproduction, or if customers are complaining because of high prices, he’ll put in a call to an offending country or countries and order them to adjust production accordingly.

Who can blame the OPEC nations for playing games? Why shouldn’t they get whatever they can for their oil? Isn’t that what the masters of the new global economy want us all to do? Isn’t that why young workers are being instructed to think of themselves as individual producers, rather than as employees engaged in a cooperative effort? Get what you can when you can get itthat’s the mantra of the modern age.

Apparently plenty of American motorists think the unforgiving laws of the new marketplace shouldn’t apply to them, and that the OPEC nations have a moral obligation to keep providing us with cheap oil. While awaiting an interview at a radio station in Boston in mid-March, I heard the voices of outrage as they vented over their car phones about the cost of gas. They complained that the Arabs owed us because of all we did for them during the Persian Gulf war. Perhaps, but one could easily counter that we fought that war for our own legitimate national interests, i.e., to keep our energy lifeline secure and in friendly hands. Indeed, one might even argue that those who have tossed aside the conservation ethic of the late 1970’s, who have traded in their four-cylinder compacts for Explorers and Mountaineers and Cherokees and all those other rugged-sounding vehicles, have damaged our national security, not to mention our environment, in pursuit of that most individualistic goal, private pleasure.

Several media outlets recently ran stories contending that a key voting bloc this year could be, for lack of a better phrase, the S.U.V. vote. Come November, the prototypical S.U.V. voter presumably will climb aboard the truck of his or her choice, drive to the polling place and cast an outraged vote against any candidate who dares suggest that we shouldn’t repeal our gasoline taxes, and, in fact, that we should slap a luxury tax on trucks posing as family passenger vehicles.

Now that we’re going to see more oil and lower prices, perhaps the S.U.V. voters will be mollified, although it’s highly unlikely that any legitimate contender for national office will risk offending their sensibilities. So don’t look for anybody other than Ralph Nader to speak plainly about our continued reliance on foreign oil and our absurd love affair with S.U.V.’s. It’s a fair guess that Vice President Al Gore is appalled by what he sees on the nation’s roads, but if the national media are right, he would be either incredibly brave or unbelievably foolish to share his thoughts with the voting public.

So the year will pass without a discussion of our never-ending dependence of foreign oil and our suicidal fascination with heavy, inefficient, dangerous and sometimes literally unstoppable sport utility vehicles. On so many levels, we are models for the rest of the worldour democracy, imperfect though it may be, is vibrant, and our economy is the wonder of the world.

On the subject of cars and oil, however, we’re little more than spoiled, self-absorbed adolescents. And our oil-producing friends know it.

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