Economy crisis used to force lifestyle change

Freedom New Mexico

To most Americans, rapidly rising gasoline prices are a serious budget problem, but are something less than a cataclysm.

No one knows the future trajectory of gas prices, but Americans do know how to deal with their budgets until gas prices moderate. We will drive less, buy more fuel-efficient cars, work closer to home (or maybe work from home), car pool and adapt.

The public already is dumping its SUVs for econo-boxes and cutting back on discretionary driving. Meanwhile, if the market is allowed to operate, oil companies will step up exploration and investors will focus more on alternative-energy sources.

There will be economic pain and inconveniences, but free people and free markets can be amazingly malleable.

To many environmentalists and urban-planning types, however, soaring gas prices are not a cause for concern but for glee. They are ecstatic that Americans have to cut back on what they view as our “unsustainable” standard of living. “The public, and especially the mainstream media, misunderstands the ‘peak oil’ story,” writes author James Howard Kunstler this month in the Dallas Morning News. “It’s not about running out of oil. It’s about the instabilities that will shake the complex systems of daily life as soon as the global demand for oil exceeds the global supply.”

In Kunstler’s view, there is no sense trying to come up with super-efficient cars. He wants “to dramatically reorganize the everyday activities of American life.” We need to grow our food close to home and make agriculture the center of our lives once again, he writes. Americans must “occupy the landscape differently, in traditional towns, villages and small cities” instead of “giant metroplexes.”

We’re not sure what he would have in mind for those already living in megalopolises, but he wants them to stop driving and flying places, and take rail transportation.

Kunstler and others in the Smart Growth, New Urbanist and environmentalist movements have been calling for the same policies long before gas prices have increased, but the gas spike provides new impetus for their plans. The only way, of course, that any of Kunstler’s ideas could be implemented is through government coercion.

He’s radical, but even mainstream thinking is echoing Kunstler’s ideas. A recent CNN.com article, probing the subprime crisis, asked: “Is America’s suburban dream collapsing into a nightmare?” The solution found in the article: “walkable urbanism.”

That means adopting policies that push more Americans into high-density cities instead of single-family suburbs.

We’ve got nothing against urbanization, high-density living, bicycles, and transit in and of themselves (we do have problems with the subsidies that drive these things, of course).

But we do have a lot against ideologues who are using high gas prices as their latest in a long list of rationales to push policymakers into adopting planning strategies that reduce consumer choice and increase coercion.