Cars, Ethanol and Patriotism

The Times had an interesting article yesterday for which a reporter drove through the Midwest to find out how ethanol users, distributors and producers are adjusting to the new fuel blend. One of the most striking things was that use of ethanol is accompanied by a sense of patriotic pride. One person, for example, says, "We are in favor of alternative energy forms, especially those produced here in the United States." Trade associations and state governments are pushing for more ethanol use.

The reasons a patriot would support energy independence are internal (i.e., helping American farmers) and external (not wanting to support countries that are de-facto breeding grounds for terrorism). Ominously, the amount and proportion of petroleum coming from the middle east is expected to increase in the coming years, as Bloomberg.com reported in an article yesterday in discussing OPEC:

The cartel’s members — Algeria, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela — together sit atop 75 percent of the world’s reserves and account for about 42 percent of total production, according to BP.

OPEC countries are hardly paragons of economic and political stability. Most of the terrorists who attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, came from Saudi Arabia. The war in Iraq has hurt that country’s ability to pump oil. Bush says Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Can we New Yorkers be patriots too? Not by filling our tanks with ethanol. "E-85 barely exists outside the Corn Belt. You cannot fuel up on it in New York or New England," the Times reported. So what can we do instead? Preventing money from getting to nations that have proven to be spawning grounds for terrorism is as easy as taking mass transit, walking or cycling. So where is the connection between these transportation modes and support for the U.S.A. being made? Nowhere.

Far from being viewed as patriotic, the average person looks at anything except the car as somehow foreign to American sensibilities. Money for Amtrak is "a subsidy" but money for highways is "a public investment." Outside New York and a few other places, mass transit is for poor people and even here where mass transit is socially acceptable for everybody, participation in the city’s most well-known cycling event is cause for arrest. SUV owners all over the country, meanwhile, decorate their vehicles with flags and patriotic-looking ribbon magnets even as they send money each week to Saudi Arabia.

A Minnesotan summed up the paradox recently on a thread about energy:

Six years ago I started riding my first cargo trike. I thought that folks would look at me and say — oh, what a great solution to some of our problems with pollution, global warming, and lack of exercise in our daily routines.  "I think I’ll try that!" they’d say.

Not to mention other benefits — "energy independence" and reduction of oil-related geopolitical tensions and also "peak oil."

But no. …  A significant number of people are hostile to the cargo trike.  It seems to challenge their fundamental beliefs in a way that triggers an immediate emotional response of anger and scorn.

We need a public relations campaign to encourage people to accept mass transit, walking and cycling first as American, and once that’s done, as patriotic.

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