The inconvenient circle of hell

A specter is haunting the U.S. The specter of gas prices.

Topics: Globalization, How the World Works, Alternative Energy,

Fifteen reporters on a single byline?! What could possibly have happened? Did China bomb Pearl Harbor? Or is President Bush having an affair with an intern?

Worse than that, actually. High gas prices.

According to Wednesday’s USA Today, high gas prices are a “nightmare” imperiling “the autonomy, convenience and privacy” of Americans. So the paper dispatched a score of reporters around the nation for some grass-roots coverage of what “the great gasoline price spike of 2006″ really means.

Readers of How the World Works know that, while we readily acknowledge that gas prices hit the pocketbook hard, they also pack a delightful double whammy: simultaneously making the White House look stupid and alternative energy technologies seem smart. But we forgot that they also send American drivers straight to the hitherto overlooked tenth circle of Dante’s Inferno — the inconvenient circle. Clearly, hell hath no fury like the commuter forced to carpool. The USA Today article is a litany of complaint and despair that makes one fear for the sanity of SUV drivers from Key West, Fla., to Nome, Alaska. We may have to change our profligate ways: Heads, no doubt, are soon to roll.

The funny thing is, if you read past the over-the-top ominous beginning, the story is actually a pretty good summary for anyone interested in learning how the entire economy is bound, eventually, to take a severe hit if gas prices continue to rise. Landscaping services that depend on electric mowers are hurting — as are restaurants that use gas jets to cook their food. It’s enough to make one reread James Kunstler’s portents of impending doom with a newly approving eye. If people are this upset and frazzled when gas prices hit $3 a gallon, how are they going to handle it when the price goes to $5? Or $10? Truly, the SUV driver who lives in the suburbs will go straight to the endangered species list (and boy, won’t we see some nimble congressional action to save the poor critters then!).

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And there are a couple of choice sound bites that tell you that the average American has a pretty good idea of whom to blame:

Chris Frantz, suburban computer: “Oil companies. Billions of dollars in profits for Mobil Oil? Come on. It’s them.”

Steve Rose, co-owner of M&M Lawn Maintenance: “The people who have the power to do something about it are the people who are making money from it today.”

And then, finally, the happy ending. Because it turns out that the four people forced to carpool at the beginning of the story find out that, hey, it’s not so bad. Linda Burnett, the mom, used to worry about sleeping when her daughter was driving. But not anymore —

“Now, with two others to keep the driver company, Burnett can get her rest. And when neither mother nor daughter are driving, Jennifer can join her. Gas prices may be a nightmare, but for the Burnetts, carpooling works like a dream.”

You see, that’s the great thing about Americans. For us, inconvenience might be the Great Satan, but we’re also adaptable. We’ll get used to it. Even as we lop off a few of the nearest heads.

Andrew Leonard
Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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