It's summer along the Colorado Front Range. Daytime temperatures rise into the 90s and the sun stares down from a hard blue sky. The fire danger is extreme; afternoon thunderstorms bring the twin threats of dry lightening and wind to spark and drive flames through sprawling mountain subdivisions.
And then, of course, there is the traffic, always bad these days, but exacerbated by the hordes of tourists come to enjoy the wonders of the Rocky Mountains. On the highways and freeways, elephantine recreational vehicles join the endless lines of 30-gallon-tanked, 15-miles-per-gallon SUVs crawling through rush-hour traffic.
In the past year gasoline has gone from practically free to cheap, and the power of the rhetoric that has accompanied the modest price rise is almost enough by itself to fuel this country's energy addiction. Ordinary Americans are outraged -- at OPEC and the other oil exporting nations, who, after all, are only being good capitalists and exercising their rights to maximize profits; at the big oil companies, who have seen their profits skyrocket in the past year; at our leaders in Washington. But, except for a few lonely voices, there has been no finger pointing back at ourselves. After all, we have an inalienable right to drive gas-guzzlers anywhere we please and pay next to nothing to fuel them.
The rest of the developed world, where gas is sold by the liter rather than the gallon, and costs two to four times what we pay, looks at the great chorus of moans and whines coming from our shores with a mix of pity, anger and contempt.
Our political leaders are, of course, addressing the issue. They are alternately pleading with and threatening OPEC, blaming the oil companies (who, conveniently, are far from blameless and so easy to hate) and hinting at dark conspiracies or blaming the very regulatory agencies, such as the EPA, Congress created and funds.
One of the more masterful solutions is to eliminate or reduce state and federal gasoline taxes, so that transportation infrastructure, already deteriorating, can crumble even further. And there are the calls, mostly from the old Republican extractive-industry dinosaurs of the Western states to open up the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration so we can have another hole to suck dry within a few years.
Americans everywhere have come to rely on the amenities and prosperity that come with cheap fuel. Westerners, especially, have built their lives around it, thinking nothing of driving 40 or 50 miles roundtrip to work, to shop, or for an evening's entertainment. We routinely drive several hundred miles on a weekend to recreate in our increasingly crowded national forest and parks.
But cheap fuel exacts a price in other ways. It has allowed the West's booming population to spread out wide and far across the land, turning our highways into parking lots and our open spaces into sprawling residential and commercial developments.
The last time reality intruded on the American fantasy of unlimited cheap energy, in the early 1970s, we actually developed productive policies. We reduced the size of our vehicles, increased fuel mileage and created incentives for alternatives to fossil fuels, such as wind and solar. Public transportation also go a boost. Maybe we'll get there yet.
Al Gore, to his credit, has at least opened a dialogue in this direction. George Bush's entire energy policy seems to be to blame the Democrats and somehow charm OPEC into giving us more oil at lower prices, even if it means reduced profits for them.
There are few truly blameless actors in this drama. The working poor and lower middle class are the only real victims. With housing costs that have soared in recent years, inadequate or nonexistent public transportation, many are forced to drive long distances to jobs in communities where they cannot live. Their budgets are stretched to the breaking point.
There should be some sort of relief from higher gas prices for these Americans. But not for the owners of big SUVs and full-sized pickup trucks and of motor homes as long as city blocks, towing their boats and all-terrain vehicles to the mountains. So far, increased gas prices haven't slowed this crowd, but maybe if prices continue to rise, we'll see some changes in behavior. We can always hope.
Michael Adams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He writes from Lafayette, Colorado.