When you ride alone, you ride with 30 million flooded-out Bangladeshis

Via Andrew Sullivan and Bradford Plumer I find this great essay in the Sierra Club’s magazine by Mike Davis, on how the United States adapted to a war-production economy in the 1940s. A taste:

The war also temporarily dethroned the automobile as the icon of the American standard of living. Detroit assembly lines were retooled to build Sherman tanks and B-24 Liberators. Gasoline was rationed and, following the Japanese conquest of Malaya, so was rubber. (The U.S. Office of the Rubber Director was charged with getting used tires to factories, where they became parts for tanks and trucks.) When shortages and congestion brought streetcar and bus systems across the country near the breaking point, it became critical to induce workers to share rides or adopt alternative means of transportation. While overcrowded defense hubs like Detroit, San Diego, and Washington, D.C., never achieved the national goal of 3.5 riders per car, they did double their average occupancy through extensive networks of neighborhood, factory, and office carpools. Car sharing was reinforced by gas-ration incentives, stiff fines for solo recreational driving, and stark slogans: “When you ride ALONE,” warned one poster, “you ride with Hitler!”

 

Even hitchhiking became an officially sanctioned form of ride sharing. Drivers were encouraged to pick up war workers stranded at bus stops and soldiers heading home for furloughs. In Colorado, the Republican Party vowed to save rubber by having all of its candidates in the 1944 elections hitchhike to campaign rallies.

America did this before, Sullivan and Plumer both say — so why not again?

Well…

Jimmy Carter called for “the moral equivalent of war” on energy waste back in 1977, in a speech he could pretty much give today. The U.S.’s national security was threatened by its energy insecurity, and things went on to get worse, not better. Yes, fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles got better, but the country was just as much a hostage to unfriendly Persian Gulf states’ oil production when Carter lost his job in 1980 as it was during the first OPEC crisis in 1973. Carter was an ineffectual president in other areas, but he and his message of personal austerity didn’t stand a chance against a genial actor who promised a country sick of national malaise that he’d make it “morning in America.”

The point: to make people act as though they’re at war, they have to be at war.

America does not believe it’s a war. Today the HSBC bank released the results of surveys it conducted in nine countries on attitudes toward climate change (HSBC is billing itself as a green champion). Here’s the PDF of the United States’s country profile. The gist is this:

  • Americans are less concerned about climate change than average;
  • They are less confident than average that enough is being done about the problem;
  • They are much less personally committed than average to making a significant effort to reduce climate change themselves;
  • They are less optimistic than average that climate change can be averted (though given the inevitability of some change, that could theoretically be explained by greater awareness of the issue).

These are not people prepared to accept the rationing of gasoline and requisitioning of metal and rubber that made possible the dramatic change in attitudes toward the automobile Davis describes. (Nor, for that matter, was the car remotely as closely entwined with the average person’s lifestyle in 1942 as it is today.) People did it during the Second World War because London was being bombed by Nazi fanatics and half the Pacific Fleet had been sunk at Pearl Harbor; they did it because they had sons and husbands risking their lives abroad and one more spare jeep tire or plane ready for a bombing run might make the difference.

Today, a call for energy independence is just about as likely to result in calls for greenhouse-gas-billowing liquid-coal technology as it is for carpooling.

Besides, although I’m supportive of the goal of having people plant victory gardens and stop driving everywhere all the time, I’m not sure even a problem as significant as climate change justifies measures as intrusive as rationing — certainly not of rationing supply. You can justify that in a free country when the country faces an existential threat, a literal war, and the goods being rationed are critical to the effort to win that war. You don’t do it because you think the ends would be desirable. That’s not up to you, or to me, or to the government.

What about carbon-emissions caps? you ask. Sure, they seem like rationing, but in fact it’s just an acknowledgment that there’s a resource that’s scarce already: the capacity of the earth and its atmosphere to absorb and re-fix greenhouse gases in any given year. It’s not obviously visibly limited in the same way a bushel of apples or the quantity of gasoline in a refinery tank is, but it’s limited all the same, and emissions caps just acknowledge that fact and provide a distribution mechanism. The distinction is fine, but I think it’s important.

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