There is an e-mail that circulates every year that tells people not to buy gas on May 15th. It dubiously claims that a similar protest against gas prices in 1997 resulted in a 30-cent drop in the price of gas "overnight". A version of this e-mail has been going around since e-mail was invented.
There are three problems with this suggestion, the least of which is that it won't work. It ignores the waste and pollution caused by cheap fuel. And, as activism goes, it is passive as can be.
Let's start with the good news: this protest won't work. Not all misguided efforts benefit from being utterly ineffectual. If all we are doing is buying the same amount of gas a day earlier or later, it won't raise a blip on the oil companies' weekly, much less annual, reports. Oil is becoming scarce (unless, tragically, you are on the beach in the Gulf of Mexico). We learn in Econ 101 that as a commodity becomes scarce, it becomes more expensive. The most this protest will do is inconvenience protesters, and it won't even do much of that.
A friend in the auto industry said that oil companies have no moral obligation to keep prices low, and he's right. If anything, he said, their obligation to the environment would lead them to keep prices high, because high prices reduce demand and discourage waste.
Which suggests the next question and its answer: why would we want this protest to work anyway? We've had among the lowest gas prices in the industrialized world for the better part of a generation, and we have the lowest fuel economy of any auto-making country. The desire for lower gas prices is incompatible with environmental concerns. The only reason to want lower gas prices is that it costs us too much. That issue looms so large for some people that they can't think clearly.
It's like reading about the collapse of bee colonies around the world and worrying about whether the price of honey will rise. It's like thinking the Boston Tea Party was about tea. We may understand some of the implications, but we're missing the main point, which is so close by.
Lowering the price of gas is not the way to lower its cost to us. We are not so dependent and helpless as we think.
Whether we write letters, wave placards, sign online petitions, or send checks, we are sending one consistent message: we are unable to do anything about this ourselves, so we are asking the people in charge to help. But what if that's not true – and not just about the cost of gas, but about other things as well? What if we are asking the people in charge to do something that is contradictory to their interests and job description? What if, in fact, the people in charge, when it comes to the changes we want, are largely irrelevant?
Small changes can cause big changes. If we stop focusing on price, which they largely control, and start focusing on cost, which we largely control, everything tilts. Suddenly we are the people in charge. We can begin to address environmental and other issues that we may be surprised to find are connected to the way we deal with our gas problem.
Here's how to lower your costs. And I promise you – I guarantee you – that, unlike the May 15th nonsense, this will work. It will be like magic: you will lower your cost without the price of gas going down a penny. You can wait for someone else to lower the price for you, but they won't do it. They don't care. It's not their job. It's up to you, and it's something you can do without waiting for permission or help.
Here are some alternative ways to spend May 15th. Go online to cars.com. Click "Research Cars". Then click "Search by Price and Features." Find a used car that gets at least 20% better gas mileage than your current car. You want it to be significantly better to make it worth your trouble. Do this for each and every car you own. It may take you an hour, but probably not. If you have a car that gets 22 MPG, combining your usual city/highway usage, and you replace it with a car that gets 20% better mileage (26.5 MPG, roughly) you will, in effect, lower your cost of gas from $2.70/gallon to $2.16/gallon. You don't have to wait for some overpaid CEO in Gucci loafers (does Gucci still make loafers?) and a Rolex watch to give a damn.
Want to do more? If your used car has a lower insurance rate attached to it, you're saving money on insurance. If you send e-mails to co-workers or friends and begin planning to carpool one or more days per week – and maybe have breakfast that day before work, or play pool and have a beer after work – then you have kept still more money out of the pockets of big oil and insurance companies and in your own. Without waiting for them to help you instead of making big profits. It gets better.
Are you paying to go to a gym and ride a stationary bike? You know where I'm going with this. Get a real bike and ride it to work. Spend less on gas, insurance, and that gym membership. Also, save visits to the doctor about your cholesterol, your high blood pressure. . . . That's not all.
By doing it yourself, all manner of things begin to fall into place. Opportunities arise to spend more time with friends and co-workers, to get into shape, to make the difference you told yourself you wanted to make when gas went over three bucks a gallon, or when the quest for more and more oil ruined the fisheries and tourism of the Gulf and the entire nation of Nigeria.
Doesn't it make you wonder why we've been waiting for others to do what we can do, especially when they are not only unlikely to do it, but paid not to?
If we can, single-handedly, lower the cost of gas, the cost of owning a car, and reduce our impact on the environment, all without the price going down a penny, what else can we do?
- Don't like the commercialism of Christmas?
- Don't like stores selling you food sprayed with poison and dripping with trans fat?
- Don't like what the government is doing with your taxes? Don't like taxes?
- Worried about the mass extinction that is already under way?
Using the model above, we can do something significant about every one of those things, without waiting for someone else to fix it.
Ultimately, the new revolution will not be a matter of taking back the government or regulating corporations, but may come from undermining their power and relevance in our lives. But it must begin with the realization that being concerned is not enough. Action that creates the change we want is no longer one option: it is an urgent necessity.
We need to begin by taking charge of what matters to us. Once we've begun, we may find that we can affect more than we thought possible on our own. But what do we do when our government suspends habeas corpus or tortures people? Or when a corporation, in a Mordorish frenzy for short-term, short-sighted profits, fouls the food, air and water needed to sustain life itself?
Our global generation will either rise to these challenges or abdicate our responsibility to do more than complain, to change the course of human affairs. It is not possible to overstate the importance and urgency of what we are obligated to do. Acting to reduce our consumption of gas – among other things – is only a first step. If we are unwilling to take even this simple step, now, then Vonnegut was right when he wrote, "The good Earth – we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy." But if we stop thinking about price, and start thinking about cost, we can change the world without writing a check or letter, without holding a meeting.
Want a revolution? What are you waiting for? Permission? Do it yourself.