The Chicago Tribune has put together an amazing multimedia piece of investigative reporting on the realities and complexities of our societal dependence on oil to sustain our commuter culture. Tribune correspondent Paul Salopek traced the roots of a tank of gas at a gas station in suburban Chicago, working at the station itself as well as going to the sources of the oil in the Gulf Coast, Nigeria, Venezuela and Iraq. The articles themselves are available here as a PDF, and there's a full-blown interactive special report with video and photos.
Of particular interest to me are the observations relating to suburban commuter culture. Here's a quote from a suburban real estate agent: "Few people here go into downtown Chicago anymore. When they relocate, it's between suburbs. When they go to work, it's between suburbs. And when they commute it's in all directions. This makes mass transit impractical." This real estate agent's family owns three cars, one of which is a Hummer that gets about ten miles a gallon. They considered buying a hybrid, but got a luxury sedan instead. One of the employees at the Marathon gas station says that a third of her take-home pay is spent on gasoline - she has a two-hour daily commute, about 40 miles each way, in a Chevrolet Suburban that gets ten miles a gallon.
Salopek investigates the economic, environmental and political impact of the oil industry in originating nations, as well as how it plays out here in the United States. The full report, over sixty pages long, is quite sobering. By all accounts, we're consuming oil at unsustainable rates. Modern industrial society is built on cheap energy, and some speculate that oil sources could run out within forty years.
I'm not sure what to do with all this. All of our individual alternatives - carpooling, bicycling, hybrids, recovering a parish concept, etc. - seems so insignificant in light of the larger systemic and global forces at work. Everybody's hoping for affordable alternative energy sources to be developed in the near future, but even the experts are pessimistic about our chances. What to do?