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Accidentally On Purpose

October 4, 2011 - Amidst all the very real anxiety brought about by our transitional economy and the "New Normal," I think it's terribly relevant to ponder some of the unintended consequences of the aforementioned. Case in point: our declining consumption of gasoline. What years of well-intended non-profit preaching could not accomplish, a brutal recession has. Higher fuel prices and lower incomes are keeping people closer to home. Couple these two facts of life - experienced most poignantly by our shrinking, high school-educated middle class - with improved car technology, and the verdict is incontrovertibly in: Americans are using less fossil fuel to power their cars.

Energy Department statistics show Californians out in front in the race to clean up the air by burning less gasoline. Golden Staters can be doubly proud, since they have not only decreased their fuel consumption, but have done so while adding to the total number of drivers in the state. While gasoline consumption has fallen 3.5% since 2002, the driving public has increased by 8.3%. No one else can say the same. Certainly the states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio have radically reduced consumption, but their populations are either stagnant or falling.

Another populous state, Texas, increased its consumption of gasoline almost every year of the past decade. As a result, Texans consume 459 gallons a year per driver; Californians consume 321 gallons. Thank goodness, Texas is the exception to the rule. Research professor Michael Sivak, of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, reports that Americans have, by and large, reduced miles driven even as they have invested in vehicles with better mileage. Driving distances decreased by 6% in 2011, when compared with 2007. In addition, new-car buyers selected cars with 11% better mileage than in 2007. These factors help to clean the air, and to slow climate change.

In fact, according to no less an authority than Shell Oil (hmmmm ... ), the United States is currently on track to achieve its Copenhagen targets (we're using as much oil now as we did in 1996!). Not, of course, because we've come together as a nation in order to do what we know is right. Sometimes human beings manage to get where they want to go by means of a very circuitous route. In the end, that may not matter much. It appears things won't be getting economically better anytime soon, which translates to people suffering greatly in the near-to-mid-term. At the same time, our environment may be granted a respite, which ultimately would result in a respite for all G-d's children. When I consider the nincompoopery coming out of Washington, and then realize we may still accomplish at least a tiny bit of what needs accomplishing, I find the likelihood of divine intervention impossible to ignore.

Further contributing to decreased fuel use, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (i.e., average miles per gallon), or CAFE, has recently been increased again. The controversy that always accompanies its increase centers upon the intention of auto manufacturers to use lighter weight materials in building their cars, thereby improving fuel efficiency. Newer vehicles, built to meet the higher standards, will incorporate plastic in the body of the vehicle. Drivers who own older, heaver vehicles may find they have a natural advantage in the event of an accident. This, in fact, has ostensibly been the reason for corporate reluctance where increased mileage is concerned. (The more down-to-earth reason is increased manufacturing costs.) By the same token, however, drivers with heavier cars will also pay more at the gas pump. Higher mileage standards will also cause the death of the spare tire, which will be replaced with an air pump. It has long been known that correctly-inflated tires help cars get better mileage, whereas under-inflated tires create drag, thereby decreasing mileage.

Politically, increasing miles per gallon makes sense: all hail to the President who makes us less dependent upon foreign oil. Environmentally, everyone benefits, from the state of Texas (still burning due to climate change-induced drought), to South Pacific island nations slowly sinking beneath the waves. Once the new CAFE regulations kick in, I hope the rest of us will come within hailing distance of California's progressive example.


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