It appears from the news that gas prices have gone temporarily crazy. Overnight, prices have spiked $0.30 to $0.50 per gallon all over the country. Obviously, this is in response to the production shortages caused by Hurricane Katrina.
In response, the President and several state governors have asked that people conserve. I think it's the least we can do in this time of crisis. There are people who need fuel to get to jobs, to conduct good samaritan work for victims of the hurricane, and for many other reasons -- all of which are more important than my next trip to Watkins Glen, NY.
So, at this point, we are planning to stay put here in Maine. It's 540 miles to Watkins Glen, and although it would be a terrific rally with good friends, I can't see making the trip at $3.69 per gallon (actual price in Plattsburgh NY today). It's just not as important enough in this time of crisis.
Perhaps my view is slanted a bit by what I've been reading lately. Our hosts left three copies of "Esquire" magazine from 1943 in our cottage. Being wartime magazines, the ads are filled with reminders of wartime shortages and conservation. Articles, ads, and editorials all repeat the key messages of the war era: (1) Use less and be willing to sacrifice; (2) Have confidence that things will return to normal.
What has since been named "The Greatest Generation" did exactly that. They pulled together to save, work harder, recycle, sacrifice, and change their habits in every aspect of their lives, to beat Hitler. Much of the consumer production capacity in the US was dedicated to military purposes. Rubber, steel, gasoline, alcohol, coats, shoes, and many other products we take for granted were rationed or in short supply. Even some food was rationed.
And the spirit of the people comes through in this 60-year-old magazines I've been reading. They were upbeat: eager to win the war, willing to agree to measures that would now seem quaint (blackouts, sky patrols, hushing "loose lips"). They were anxious to see an end to the shortages, of course, but fully cognizant of the fact that only by pulling together could they achieve that goal. They were the generation that Won The War -- the Greatest Generation.
In that regard, I am still a bit stung when I recall the briefing given by Ari Fleischer, then Spokeman for the White House, on May 7, 2001 about the upcoming national energy plan:
Q Is one of the problems with this, and the entire energy field, American lifestyles? Does the President believe that, given the amount of energy Americans consume per capita, how much it exceeds any other citizen in any other country in the world, does the President believe we need to correct our lifestyles to address the energy problem?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's a big no. The President believes that it's an American way of life, and that it should be the goal of policy makers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one. And we have a bounty of resources in this country. What we need to do is make certain that we're able to get those resources in an efficient way, in a way that also emphasizes protecting the environment and conservation, into the hands of consumers so they can make the choices that they want to make as they live their lives day to day.
Q So Americans should go on consuming as much more energy than any other citizens in any other countries of the world, as long as they want?
MR. FLEISCHER: Terry, the President believes that the American people are very wise and that, given the right incentives, they will know how and they will make their own right determinations about how much they can conserve, just as the President announced last week that the federal government, as part of its consumership in California will reduce energy needs -- for example, the Department of Defense facilities in California, by 10 percent. He believes the American people, too, will make the right decisions about conservation and the program he will announce shortly will also include a series of conservation items.
The problem with these plausible words is that "the right incentives" didn't exist, either for automakers or consumers. Conservation has become something of a dirty word in this decade. We needed a crisis so shocking that it would rival the formation of OPEC and the Oil Embargo of the 1970s, to move the government and the marketplace to create really meaningful incentives.
Well, now we have the crisis. Gas and diesel suddenly cost well over $3 per gallon and anyone who can find it at last week's price of over $2.50 would call it "cheap" today. But of course, most of us weren't ready for such a rapid market shift, and we don't have enough fuel-efficient vehicle alternatives. Even if we did, we wouldn't all go out and buy new cars tomorrow. It will take time to respond.
This doesn't mean the end of Airstreaming. For the occasional trip in your Airstream, the increase in fuel price doesn't mean as much as you might think. For example, a three night weekend trip to a destination 100 miles away from home would cost about $60 at $3.00 per gallon. That's still much less than the equivalent cost in a hotel or motel, and probably less than you'd spend on other things, such as meals, admission fees, and campground fees.
I think we could take a note from the Greatest Generation on this. Keep living life, but treat this like a war, where we all need to join together to solve the problem. Maybe you'll go a little less distance than you would, or take one trip fewer than you would have. (If everyone did that, the impact on demand would be enormous, and prices would decrease accordingly.) But still, keep seeing more, doing more, living more.
We have a responsibility as individual consumers to walk a fine line between adopting a recessionist "I will stay at home and spend no money, do nothing" attitude, and wantonly consuming resources which are today in scarce supply.
A few weeks from now, gas prices will stabilize, and perhaps drop again. In the meantime, give it a rest to help out those who really must buy fuel. We can still enjoy the Airstream experience -- a bit closer to home perhaps, but still the same great experience whether you've driven 10 miles or 1000 miles. Your Airstream is still an economical and really fun way to enjoy your travels -- or even your backyard!
I hope to see you on the road, soon after the shortages caused by Hurricane Katrina have abated.