Southeastern U.S. Gas Shortages after Hurricane Ike Reveal How Far We Are from Sustainability

Aftereffects of hurricane Ike revealed a need for consciousness-raising in the American Southeast (and the U.S. in general). I went on-line and viewed TV reports and newspaper stories from the Carolinas Monday (Sept 29, 2008), which said that 4 of 15 gasoline refineries in the Houston area were still shut down since the hurricane 2 weeks earlier, and many others were still operating at reduced capacity, but the situation in the Carolinas should improve and be fine in a week. In the meantime they suggested people buy gas only when their tank was below one quarter full, and that some gas stations were limiting customers to ten gallons per visit. Police also asked that people stop calling 9-1-1 to ask where they could find gas, as it was impeding real emergency calls. Many stories were hopeful, but none sounded certain. Worse yet, none offered any suggestions for people to actually save gas, such as by carpooling, taking the bus, bicycling, walking, or planning out and combining trips, among other solutions that would actually reduce gas demand. I wasn’t surprised, then, that absolutely nobody mentioned any long term solutions, let alone that our overpopulation of the region and the planet is at the root of the problem. Does the word clueless come to mind?

Gas station still out of gas in Greenville, SC on October 3, 2008

Gas station still out of gas in Greenville, SC on October 3, 2008

Gas shortages after Hurricane Ike were a rude awakening for some people. As I planned to drive to see my daughter and her family in Greenville, SC, I found that they were in a frightening gasoline shortage. Hurricane Ike had shut down many refineries in Houston, and had nearly cut off bulk shipments of gasoline coming into the Southeast. I called my daughter, and found her in a long gas line at what she said was the only gas station still open in Greenville that she knew of, and she’d been in line over a half hour even though the gas station had 8 working pumps. When she finally got to the pump it was pumping so slowly she got only 2.5 gallons of gas in 10 minutes, after which the gas station ran out, leaving the long line of people behind her extremely frustrated and angry. This is understandable, as it seems most people, and our entire society, are almost completely unprepared for such occurrences. One of the things that struck me was that she said that the engines of all the cars in the line were idling …

Smart choices can help reduce the impact of such events. My daughter was smart in picking where she lives, less than a mile from where she works, as this is a basic and extremely effective energy saver – she can walk to work, and if she does drive it will take minimal fuel. She also has a bicycle and helmet, which greatly extends the distance she can travel without using gasoline.

Behavior changes could help a lot now, but people have to be thinking of them. Many conservation ideas are simple and easy to implement, and many more could be invented, if the topic is on people’s minds. If everyone shut their engine off while waiting for traffic lights longer than 30 seconds, for example, the combined savings would be enormous. In fact, many very small ideas have great power these days because our numbers are so great. So what if shutting off your engine at long traffic lights saves only a cup of gas a day? If 10% of the millions of drivers did it, the savings would be amazing and have a real impact. These kinds of behaviors and choices are rare, however, because we’re not hearing about them. Everyone needs a more helpful understanding of what is going on, and media and government should be raising people’s consciousnesses about the changes we need to make.

Motivation to conserve exists, but the methods and benefits thereof aren’t made clear to us. There’s no doubt in my mind that people in the Carolinas right now are ripe for some conservation ideas. They are experiencing real anxiety about having enough gasoline to get to work, to the store, and to get their kids to school. The Asheville area school district had to cancel classes because of lack of fuel for their buses, and had to get emergency shipments of fuel from Knoxville and other areas to resume operation (link). The newspaper article gives no ideas for readers to improve their own conservation patterns, though this would seem like an excellent opportunity, and most of the discussion is about how the schools will get fuel and related financial impacts rather than the problems behind the situation. How can the press be motivated to help people understand more and do better?

What are the media doing to help? Very little media attention is being given to our current and future energy use problems outside of a few science programs, almost all on non-profit public television and radio stations which do not have the lion’s share of American viewers. Is the main stream commercial media so wound up in the ratings game that they can’t see that times have changed, and that they have a duty to help everyone change their thinking and learn to respond now to our deeper and longer-term problems?

We will continue to have hurricanes, earthquakes, and other disruptions in our infrastructure. Government needs to plan more effectively for short and long term events, but more importantly make changes to reduce the effects of such disruptions in the future. Otherwise people will wind up in increasingly serious situations as population continues to grow and ever more dense settlements are built in areas with inherent risks. A lot more good could be done, however, if government and the media would help people prepare for disruptions, not just by getting people to have an emergency stash of food and water and a crank-up radio, but by conserving energy and water in their everyday lives, making choices that conserve over the longer term (such as aiming home repairs at increased efficiency), and developing a conservation mindset with which they will invent new methods for conservation. We need the inventiveness of humans sensing necessity to be fully in play.

Shouldn’t our schools be teaching our children the realities and how to deal with them in the future? Schools in some area are starting to teach more appropriately. I don’t yet see an indication that the understanding of the world situation is being taught everywhere, but some school science teachers do teach their students about it. Why isn’t conservation expressly part of every home economics class, every shop class, and many others besides?

We aren’t taught to think long-term. The scale and nature of a population problem such as we face is long-term. We need to learn and act now if we want things to not get worse, and to possibly even get better at a point a couple of decades or more away. That is not easy for people to visualize in American society, where almost everything in our culture is focused on the next quarter, year, or perhaps decade. The lack of retirement planning by many people (link) proves our shortcoming in this important area. Government, the media, and the schools all need to be raising people’s consciousnesses in a helpful way to prevent having people in crises acting like animals as shortages become more prevalent in the near future, and by “near future” I mean within the next 20 to 30 years.

Twenty to thirty years should be regarded as “short term” as far as population and energy needs are concerned. At some point people must start actually having the smaller families we will need to begin reducing population to a sustainable level. From the point where people voluntarily reduce their family sizes, however, the number of drivers on the road will continue to increase for 15 to 20 years. Until population levels off and begins to decline towards a sustainable level, energy needs will continue to rise, and shortages will continue to increase.

Each of us needs to think, learn, and act on our own and our society’s behalf. Conservation can do a lot more to help than people realize, but those of us who understand the situation need to be telling our media and government representatives what we want daily, and thinking creatively ourselves about how we can conserve today as well as respond tomorrow when shortages arise again, as they inevitably will. We have the intelligence and creativity, and we can acquire the knowledge, to make life better and natural disasters less of a problem in the future, but we each need to learn and act.

As always, I welcome your comments. – Tim


One response to “Southeastern U.S. Gas Shortages after Hurricane Ike Reveal How Far We Are from Sustainability

  1. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

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