Elitism and energy – maybe progress is a whole lot easier when you’re rich

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A funny thing happens when the price of gasoline increases and stays there for a while – people of lesser means often find themselves driving big, new-ish fuel hogs. I know, because I’ve been there.

How does that work? Well, in periods of low gasoline prices, few people care about mileage and sales of big bloated vehicles are strong. (In 2017, of the top 5 best selling vehicles in North America, the top 3 are heavy duty half ton trucks, the next two are SUVs.)

As fuel prices rise, if they rise far enough, people shopping for new cars switch to more fuel efficient ones, and trade in the gas pigs. The market for those used inefficient beasts then gets oversaturated and the price falls. If the price falls enough, and it often does, then these vehicles show up on the radar of people that can’t afford much.

Think about the economics from their side. They might spend $50 a week on gasoline, and $500 a month on car payments. It is often a worthwhile tradeoff to accept even a 20% increase in fuel costs if a far newer vehicle can be purchased, i.e., if a low-income family is upgrading from a 15-year-old vehicle to a 5-year-old one.

This illustrates a problem that vexes those who think we can quickly drop fuel consumption, or move to greener energy easily. We in the affluent west tend to forget that green energy is, to a large extent, a luxury that many in the world can’t afford.

We lose sight of that if we live in a prosperous urban center, particularly in middle to upper class neighbourhoods, where putting food on the table isn’t high on the list of worries.

I read an excellent post by a farmer serving the Washington DC area, that grows meat and produce in natural settings in the most natural possible way. The farmer is a poster child for the “new food” revolution, whereby proponents scoff at anyone who eats fast food. One of the proponents, a Dr. Daphne Miller who is quoted as saying: “Americans are going to fall into two camps when all is said and done: People who buy cheap goods, regardless of quality, versus people who are willing and able to pay for things that are made with integrity. We are seeing the limits of the “buying cheap crap” approach.”

The wise farmer tees off on the elitism of that speech in a most eloquent way (including a few nice f-bombs). There is a reason places like Walmart and Mcdonalds are popular. Yes, it is possible to live on cans of beans and pasta with cheap tomato sauce cheaply. But not forever. One gets tired of that routine, real fast.

Protesters of whatever stripe often come from a position of affluence. Or worse, a position of the affluence of their parents. In that situation, the links back to reality are often broken beyond repair. Those growing up in affluence don’t really know what it’s like to worry about having electricity cut off, or having to drive a vehicle without insurance, or how to come up with enough money for back to school clothes. Those people don’t protest; they survive.

And here’s the important part: those are most of the people. Not just in North America or Europe, but around the world. Poor people don’t control agendas, or drive Teslas to show they’re helping the environment. They don’t even drive Nissan Leafs. They drive what they can afford.

That point is always worth remembering when we expect sea changes in human behavior. Remember what’s on the other side of the tracks.

 

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