For one of the nastiest substances on earth, crude oil has an amazing grip on the globe. We all know the stuff's poison, yet we're as dependent on it as our air and water supplies -- which, of course, is what oil is poisoning.
Shouldn't we be technologically advanced enough here in the 21st Century to quit siphoning off the pus of the Earth? Regardless whether you believe global warming is threatening the planet's future, you must admit crude is passé.
Americans should be celebrating rather than shuddering over the arrival of $4-a-gallon gasoline. We lived on cheap gas too long, failed to innovate and now face the consequences of competing for a finite resource amid fast-expanding global demand.
A further price rise as in Europe to $8 a gallon -- or $200 and more to fill a large SUV's tank -- would be a catalyst for economic, political and social change of profound national and global impact. We could face an economic squeeze, but it would be the pain before the gain.
The U.S. economy absorbed a tripling in gas prices in the last six years without falling into recession, at least through March. Ravenous demand from China and India could see prices further double in the next few years -- and jump start the overdue process of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels. Consider the world of good that would come of pricing crude oil and gasoline at levels that would strain our finances as much as they're straining international relations and the planet's long-term health:
1. RIP for the internal-combustion engine.
They may contain computer chips, but the power source for today's cars is little different than that which drove the first Model T 100 years ago. That we're still harnessed to this antiquated technology is testament to Big Oil's influence in Washington and success in squelching advances in fuel efficiency and alternative energy.
Given our achievement in getting a giant mainframe's computing power into a handheld device in just a few decades, we should be able to do likewise with these dirty, little rolling power plants that served us well but are overdue for the scrap heap of history.
2. Economic stimulus.
Necessity being the mother of invention, $8 gas would trigger all manner of investment sure to lead to groundbreaking advances. Job creation wouldn't be limited to research labs; it would rapidly spill over into lucrative manufacturing jobs that could help restore America's industrial base and make us a world leader in a critical realm.
The most groundbreaking discoveries might still be 25 or more years off, but we won't see massive public and corporate funding of research initiatives until escalating oil costs threaten our national security and global stability -- a time that's fast approaching.
3. Wither the Middle East's clout.
This region that's contributed little to modern civilization exercises inordinate sway over the world because of its one significant contribution -- crude extraction. Aside from ensuring Israel's security, the U.S. would have virtually no strategic or business interest in this volatile, desolate region were it not for oil -- and its radical element wouldn't be able to demonize us as the exploiters of its people.
In the near term, breaking our dependence on Middle Eastern oil may well require the acceptance of drilling in the Alaskan wilderness -- with the understanding that costly environmental protections could easily be built into the price of $8 gas.
4. Deflating oil potentates.
On a similar note, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently gained a platform on the world stage because of their nations' sudden oil wealth. Without it, they would face the difficult task of building fair and just economies and societies on some other basis.
How far would their message resonate -- and how long would they even stay in power -- if they were unable to buy off the temporary allegiance of their people with vast oil revenues?
5. Mass-transit development.
Anyone accustomed to taking mass transit to work knows the joy of a car-free commute. Yet there have been few major additions or improvements to our mass-transit systems in the last 30 years because cheap gas kept us in our cars.
Confronted with $8 gas, millions of Americans would board buses, trains, ferries and bicycles and minimize the pollution, congestion and anxiety spawned by rush-hour traffic jams. More convenient routes and scheduling would accomplish that.
6. An antidote to sprawl.
The recent housing boom sparked further development of antiseptic, strip-mall communities in distant outlying areas. Making 100-mile-plus round trip commutes costlier will spur construction of more space-efficient housing closer to city centers, including cluster developments to accommodate the millions of baby boomers who will no longer need their big empty-nest suburban homes.
Sure, there's plenty of land left to develop across our fruited plains, but building more housing around city and town centers will enhance the sense of community lacking in cookie-cutter developments slapped up in the hinterlands.
7. Restoration of financial discipline.
Far too many Americans live beyond their means and nowhere is that more apparent than with our car payments. Enabled by eager lenders, many middle-income families carry two monthly payments of $400 or more on $20,000-plus vehicles that consume upwards of $15,000 of their annual take-home pay factoring in insurance, maintenance and gas.
The sting of forking over $100 per fill-up would force all of us to look hard at how much of our precious income we blow on a transport vehicle that sits idle most of the time, and spur demand for the less-costly and more fuel-efficient small sedans and hatchbacks that Europeans have been driving for decades.
8. Easing global tensions
Unfortunately, we human beings aren't so far evolved that we won't resort to annihilating each other over energy resources. The existence of weapons of mass destruction aside, the present Iraq War could be the first of many sparked by competition for oil supplies.
Steep prices will not only chill demand in the U.S., they will more importantly slow China and India's headlong rush to make the same mistakes we did in rapidly industrializing -- like selling $2,500 Tata cars to countless millions of Indians with little concern for the environmental consequences. If we succeed in developing viable energy alternatives, they could be a key export in helping us improve our balance of trade with consumer-goods producers.
Weaning ourselves off crude will hopefully be the crowning achievement that marks the progress of humankind in the 21st Century. With it may come development of oil-free products to replace the chemicals, pharmaceuticals, plastics, fertilizers and pesticides that now consume 16% of the world's crude oil output and are likely culprits in fast rising cancer rates.
By its very definition, oil is crude. It's time we develop more refined energy sources and that will not happen without a cost driven shift in demand.