Friday, August 18, 2006

Chicago Tribune's Oil Safari: A Travelogue of Addiction

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?


Anonymous said...

One systemic solution, that does not involve the oil industry is to beef up city planning. Many geographical planners specialize in urban developments, maybe it is more interesting or to curb the suburban sprawl, however if real estate development incorporated geographical development beyond what comerial real estate they can sell, maybe our commuter dependency on oil would decrease. Possibly our standard of living would increase in decreased traffic times and added income for not needing to buy the third SUV.

Anonymous said...

I find your comments about individual alternatives is very disheartening. If you carry that sort of attitude across other areas of your life and others lives I think we'll all be very disappointed with the results.

As a Christian if you decided your individual efforts were insignificant who would be left to share the Love of Christ?

To be clear, if you hear and understand the things you've learned about in the Oil Safari and other areas, and choose not to take actions that you personally can take, then I think you are then a passive (or active) contributer to the problem.

It's time to start biking, carpooling, maybe even moving from your Suburb...

Al Hsu said...

Well, by no means did I mean to suggest that individuals can have no impact or that individuals shouldn't bother trying to make a difference. It's just that, as Andy Crouch says, culture shapes us (as individuals) far more than any particular individual can shape culture. Individuals, acting individualistically, can only wield so much influence or power, but communities, networks and organizations can enact more systemic change.

It's a both/and, of course - we need to work toward societal transformation both on an individual and a corporate basis. There are personal practices that we as individuals can do, and there are communal and organizational actions that groups and communities can do. My blog post, if anything, was expressing the frustration that there's only so much that we individuals can do, and a bit of a sense of paralysis that even the experts and the powers-that-be that have systemic and structural influence are at a loss as to what to do about oil dependency.