Friday, August 1, 2008

The (Re)Creation of the Traditional (?) American Community

Depending on where you live and what your existing community is like, it might be inconceivable to think that in a few summers from now your summer will be spent at home. In modern times, “at home” simply means you are either at your house or within your community. It means you do not take a long roadtrip, you don’t venture to a foreign locale, in short, you just don’t go anywhere that’s more than, say, 20 or 30 miles away. Does your community offer what you need or want to make a summer at home tolerable? What is there to do, see, think about, explore, etc.?

One of the most beneficial (for the long term) but potentially difficult modifications American society will soon have to make as a result of generally unaffordable gasoline is the rebuilding of the true community. Or, should I say, the forced rebuilding of the traditional community. We are going to have to make our communities more inhabitable, more packed with opportunities to feed our ever-growing lust for diversion, and in general, more conducive to just plain hanging out in. We are going to have to create more on our own and learn to live without as much selection.

In this still golden (albeit quickly tarnishing)age of cheap-ass gas and a full tank that cost less than a good meal out, many of us have and often drive our cars. This means we can go places, shop around, have the world delivered to our doorstep by men in brown uniforms, get our food shipped in from across the country in less time than it takes us to get ready for bed at night. In short, many of our identities exist within but also outside of our communities because we have the potential to be somewhere else, do something new, experience something out of the norm…. all of those American “grass is always greener-isms” we share.

We have multiple options for goods and services presented to us and we are used to the idea of multiple providers of essentially the same thing, simply as a matter of competition. However, this competition that allows us the diversity in goods and services that we so value is all based on keystone of cheap transportation for the delivery of these products.

The lack of choice we will eventually be forced to experience will be the topic for a host of entries on this blog, as this fact alone composes one of the most potentially difficult social and consumer-related difficulties we will face. For now, that is something I just want to touch upon, but back to the matter at hand….

At this point I do not believe in a true community spirit exists (unless you live in a commune, which more power to you, I guess) that is universally accepted voluntarily by all of its denizens. This suggestion is likely to ruffle a few feathers simply because a lot of us (myself included) like to think we live in close communities. We feel good about our communities when we shop at the local farmer’s market or independently-owned grocery, volunteer for community-related organizations, attend community and neighborhood events and socialize primarily with people in the general vicinity. What we will come to acutely understand in coming years, however is that the concept of community extends far beyond what we do. It includes who we are; as individuals and as a society and this is a brand-new notion for a country obsessed with places and things from places that are only accessible by a drive, whether it’s a short trip or an extended journey. What will happen when we’re all forced to stay at home? We will create new, local and hopefully community-member owned enterprises, restaurants, shopping venues, etc.

It just has to happen that way.

As gut-wrenching as the economic (and, for that matter, recreational) effects of unaffordable gasoline will be for the masses for the next couple of decades, America’s loss of driving privileges will recreate the traditional concept of community with the added dash offered by internet, satellite, and communication technologies. In short, far from reverting to the “old world” community of yore with a singular community groupthink enforced by geographical isolation and a lack of diverse information coming in from the outside world, the new American community will be enhanced by easy access to global information, entertainment, news and worldviews while simultaneously being tight-knit and driven, economically, socially, and otherwise, by local interactions, businesses, organizations and educational/recreational outlets.

In the coming time of the New American Community where staying close to home is a necessity rather than a choice we are going to need to find new ways to make our communities somewhere we want to be. For far too long now we have been able to ignore glaring issues and brush aside the persistent notion that life is always better when we’re away from home, away from what we know… We are going to have to make our communities somewhere we want to live, work, and play in because as the years roll on with no realistic alternative to affordable transportation on a whim, it is the only place we can afford to be. We will have to learn with less of a choice but make the most of what we do have and take pride in what has been created out of necessity.

The complexities related to this issue are astounding and specific topics related to it will be added in future posts… In the meantime, however, think about your community. Is it where you want to be? Can you find common ground with your neighbors and build into something more, if for no other reason than that you have no choice? Can you imagine living with less selection, fewer choices?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Getting Full on Filling Up?

In a general survey conducted by the temporary employment giant, Manpower, and published in the academic trade journal T&D, high gas prices are having an enormous impact both on the balance workers are finding between their jobs and work and, perhaps more importantly, that some employees, even those who are relatively satisfied with their current positions, are looking for employment closer to home. According to this survey of 900 folks, 65% claim they “have reduced their spending on entertainment and hobbies, 29 percent have cancelled their summer travel plans, and another 29 percent have restricted their children’s extracurricular activities” (T&D 2006).

Oh, yeah, did you happen to see that citation? This survey is from 2006 when the average cost for a gallon of fuel in the United States was $3 and was causing mild panic.

In my opinion, $3 per gallon on average was enough to get people thinking, enough, at least enough to fearfully respond to this survey about their plans and projections. What this survey did not analyze was the retroactive effect of these higher gasoline prices and how they had an impact on what really happened as opposed to what the respondents speculated upon; did these people truly cancel their summer plans and nix the idea of summer camp three states away or were things not quite scary enough then to make a big difference? Did they eventually just decide to suck it up and pay the pump after all?

At what point, or, better yet, at what price, does gas really need to be before we genuinely do alter our plans for recreational travel and activities? Is the current $4.10 national average going to do it or is $10 per gallon enough to break us?

There is a lot of moaning going on, but consider this, “the number of Americans traveling more than 50 miles from their home is expected to drop by 1 percent this year [2008], to about 38 million travelers” (Crouch 2008) and although the article recognizes this as a disturbingly mild statistic, especially given the sour economic news coming out of the U.S. more generally, it does say that this is a significant drop-off in travel.


Well, let’s see. Maybe some recent figures by the airlines can offer a more indicative idea of the pain behind the pinch. According to the Air Transport Association, “airlines are expecting 2.7 million fewer passengers this summer, a drop of about 1.3 percent” (Crouch 2008). Okay, so I guess when we consider the number of people rather than the ineffective-sounding statistic it does seem a little less distressing. 2.7 million less people in the skies this summer means roughly the equivalent, statistically speaking, of every single person in the metropolitan area of Indianapolis, Indiana (and some of the suburbs to boot) not getting on a plane this summer period. Now it seems a little easier to fathom.

I have always had a love-hate relationship with statistics. 1 or 2 percent sounds like nobody at all when considering the American population but if you look at such a percentage in the context of a city and its localized population, the numbers gain strength and clarity. The whole city of Indy…every man, woman and child, says “heck no, we won’t go” to the airlines. Geez.

So, this year might mark the first truly significant dip in travel plans for the summer, particularly if we find some median between conflicting statistics reporting, erroneous or optimistic responses to surveys, and the general act of attrition between consumers faced with a boring summer at home versus an unaffordable but much-needed foray across state lines. We are still paying it, folks. Most of us are still sucking it up and paying the pump. We bitch and moan, we huff and puff, but pretty soon…. Yikes.


(2006). High Fuel Costs Affect Work-Life Balance. T+D, 60(9), 18.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Ghostly Green Light of False Hope

Today, and as expected for the rest of the week, barring, of course, any unforeseen calamities that will allow for a sudden increase in gas prices again, most of the United States will see the average cost of fuel hovering just below the $4 mark, except in the cases of the usual suspects as far as unaffordable gasoline go (California, Alaska, etc). Fantastic! Hooray! What a deal…thank you random deciders of the future of American transportation!

America is go this week! Load up the kids, visit the Grand Canyon, drive across a few states just because you can, people.


While it’s difficult to argue with the point that we are all getting a welcome break this week, the constant fluctuations in gas prices are leading to a sense that we should all remain calm and keep filling up our tanks because pretty soon, there will be some kind of break in the spike and we can return to life as normal.

This lowering of pump prices and subsequent high levels of publicity surrounding such drops makes us complacent as it lends to the feeling that all of our bitching is having some kind of impact; that someone high up in an office in Dubai or Washington is listening to the complaints of ordinary citizens and has decided to step in and save us all from what we know is forthcoming. The fact is, there are a number of variables having an impact on this sudden but not really significant dip in the price of crude, thus the amount you pay to fill up your tank and rest assured, none of them have anything to do with feelings. Yours, mine, or theirs. In a few weeks, something will happen and they will be back again, higher than before, although who knows by how much.

I'm heading up to Northwestern Ohio tomorrow to visit the parents and filled up the tank today after an almost 20-minute wait at the pump. I passed by the closest gas station because their prices were about 4 cents lower than the one I ended up at and the line to fill up was spilling out over a major roadway. People looked hot and tired this afternoon and while normally, people probably might have seemed a bit crabby to boot, there was actually a palpable sense of eagerness in the air. The same vibe I get when I am at a store with a big sale and there are people ooing and ahhing to themselves, impressed with the delivered promise of a deep discount. It was primal. And frankly, a little depressing.

It's a green light for me tomorrow too and I will readily admit it was nicer to fill up for 3.80-something rather than over $4. I noticed again as I was filling up that I seem to kind of glaze over as I watch the cents add up to dollars before I've even had time to flip the little switch that holds the pump trigger down for my convenience. I rationalize and wonder when the day will come that when I go home to visit I have to budget for it like I would if I was taking a flight instead. Is that two years from now or ten? Am I jumping the gun? Is there nothing to fear?