One of the words most often associated with the American lifestyle is “freedom”. If you look back through history, Americans have enjoyed their fair share of freedom. From our post-colonial independence, to the Emancipation Proclamation, to the our democratic foundation, choice is built into the American way of life. For the time being, we can skip over the discussion about who actually benefits from that freedom or if that history of freedom is really as ironclad as we often proclaim. For the sake of this discussion, I want to talk about one particular kind of freedom, or lack thereof.
Ever since the mass production of the Model-T leading up to the Roaring Twenties, working and upper class American’s have enjoyed the unfettered ability to travel throughout their country. When you get in your car, no one checks your ticket, no one checks your itinerary… you simply go. In a sense, my desire to travel is a product of that time period. Automobiles, interstates, and gas stations made America accessible at a relatively low-cost to the consumer. Freedom.
Even today, that freedom is far more limited than we imagine. When you are planning a road trip, you can choose what kind of car you want to drive, what hotel you want to stay in, which grocery stores you want to shop at, what music you want to listen to, etc. One thing that you have very little control over is your dependence on oil. Up until this point, you have had 100% control over your adventure, but now, you have been forced to work within the oil-dependent framework of the auto industry. As a result, the oil companies have basically assumed full control over our transportation network.
Although this inability to choose at the pump is not unique to the United States, there are countries that have given their citizens a choice. By allowing consumers to choose between gas, diesel, electric power, ethanol, bio-diesel, natural gas, or methanol, we open the market up to the diverse fuels that could power our future. Each of these fuels brings different benefits to the table, while simultaneously presenting challenges. Regardless, it would create a more open market. It would force oil companies to shift their prices to stay competitive with alternative fuel options. It would encourage innovative design by our auto industry. It would start the conversation.
When nationalistic sentiments are at their height, “freedom” and “America” are often seen as synonymous. It is important, however, to think about the areas where we do not have control, where decisions are, by in large, made for us. Although a total reevaluation of our oil/gas industry is a rather drastic way to start the conversation, it can definitely get the ball rolling.