Rising gas prices hurt poor most of all


We’ve all seen gasoline prices rising steeply for the past few weeks, and as though on cue, some pundits in the blogosphere and other media are dusting off their “drill baby drill” routines. It’s true that the price hikes are alarmingly rapid and I might be more open to these arguments if, like some, I had conveniently forgotten about the devastating BP oil spill environmental disaster that is still wreaking havoc on marine life and Gulf of Mexico residents. New York Times political blogger Michael D. Shear noted this week that memories of the spill may be having a muting effect on Washington’s pro-drilling rhetoric, but for the most part such restraint isn’t evident here in the Western red states. One local blogger posting on the Arizona Republic's site adeptly ticks through all the right wing’s rationales in a recent piece advocating expanded drilling: Intrusive big government! The untrustworthy Mideast! Obama’s failed policies! China! “Militant environmentalists at the ACLU”!

Of course this issue isn’t that simple.

Here in the interior West, especially in suburban and rural areas, we couldn’t ease up very much on our dependence on gasoline powered vehicles, no matter how much we wanted to. There simply isn’t enough reliable public transportation even to get to work or school, let alone to visit other states, as many East- and West-coasters can.  What little there is has often been cut and underfunded in the recession. The poor and disabled, of course, suffer the most from this, and now those who can drive must suffer the added problem of draining their wallets just to fill the tank. Frankly, it angers me to hear smug generalizations about “America’s addiction to foreign oil” when I think of these people. It isn’t like they’re the ones in the Hummers pulling toy haulers full of ATVs to the dunes every weekend.

The solution, whatever it is, has got to involve more than simply drilling, building more solar arrays, or other large-scale, feel-good projects. Nor, on an individual level, can we contribute all that much by buying hybrids or riding bikes more or telecommuting one day per week. Back in 2008, the last time prices went well over $3.00 per gallon, we saw a big increase in urban areas of car-pooling, bus riding, and people trading in their Expeditions for hybrid Escapes. Afterwards, when prices came back down, many of us went back to our old, guzzling ways. A real solution will have to be long term and involve everyone. Further, it must be just, without requiring rural or coastal residents or the poor and sick (wherever they live) to sacrifice more than the rest of us.

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University, where she is also the Associate Director of Writing Programs. Outside academia, she’s an avid rafter, kayaker, and horsewoman who also attempts to garden. When possible, she escapes the Phoenix metro area for an undisclosed location in Southeastern Utah.

Image of gasoline prices in Washington State courtesy Flickr user Brian A Sayrs.