Drive us mad

Published: Sunday, July 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 6, 2007 at 10:17 a.m.

It made them so mad they set fire to gas stations.

No, not local motorists after the Alachua County Commission raised the gas tax by 5 cents a gallon. I'm talking about "oil rich" Iranians when they were put on gasoline rations last week.

First they stampeded to the nearest stations to top-off before rationing went into effect. Then, when fuel sales were stopped, things really got hot.

"This made people who are waiting in line angry so they attacked the pumps," one witness told The Associated Press.

Interestingly, this occurred in a tightly-run theocracy where dissention is not tolerated. But they were rationing gasoline, for Pete's sake.

Listen, I'm no Sigmund Freud, but I'm ready to make a diagnosis here:

Gasoline makes us crazy.

Whether we live in Tehran or Gainesville, gasoline makes us crazy. We have to have it. We have to have as much of it as we can burn. And it has to be cheap. Cheaper even than bottled water.

Otherwise it makes us crazy.

If the mullahs are ever pushed from power, it won't be because Iranians listened to the siren song of Western-style democracy. Rather, they will have been seduced by American-style auto-eroticism.

Gasoline makes us crazy. We've been getting some very angry phone calls and letters about the County Commission. In Europe, gas taxes of $5 a gallon are not unheard of. But in auto-America, even a nickel increase makes us crazy.

If those "rascals" don't get thrown out of office come the next election, it will only be because somebody else OPEC, Big Oil, Congress will have done something to distract us and make us even crazier about gasoline.

I can even identify the precise form of mental illness caused by gasoline: Petro-schizophrenia. It causes split personalities.

In our more rational moments, we know and understand that unlimited, cheaper-than-water gas isn't really good for us.

We know and understand that cheap gas is a prime driver of global warming and air pollution. That it puts us in hock to dangerous people across the world who do not have our best interests at heart. That it feeds land-gobbling urban sprawl and irritating traffic congestion. That it makes us obese and unhealthy and takes a fearsome annual toll in highway fatalities.

We know all of that . . . really we do.

And yet, and yet . . . and yet the thought of not having oceans of cheap gas at our disposal now and forever makes us crazy.

We just can't bring ourselves to change our habits when gas prices rise. We continue to commute alone because, well, that's what Americans do. We have this notion that mass transit is for losers. We think that only the American equivalent of "mad dogs and Englishmen" to borrow Noel Coward's delightful phrase for eccentrics, ride bicycles or, even worse, walk in the noon-day sun.

The right side of our brain knows that the cheap ride can't go on forever. But the left side insists that it go on forever.

We rail at our politicians for not improving our roads and highways. Then we vow to throw them out of office if they raise our taxes to improve our roads and highways.

We imagine that cheap ethanol will replace cheap gas, but the price of our delusion can be seen in rising food costs as more and more fuel corn is grown. It turns out that before we discovered we could burn corn in our automobiles, people and livestock were actually eating the stuff. Go figure.

We expect that, one day, some sort of magic switch will be pulled and our cheap gas will instantly be replaced with the cheap, non-polluting alternative fuel of our dreams; thus sparing us the need to change the way we live and the way we drive.

The cold reality is that driving is going to become more expensive. It has to. Our polluting, wasteful, gasoline orgy is economically and environmentally unsustainable.

That is one reason why more states, Florida being the latest, are allowing privately built and operated toll roads; let someone else take the rap. It is the reason cities like London, and soon perhaps New York, are adopting "congestion taxes," on urban drivers and using those dollars to support mass transit.

The truth is that cheap gas is bad for the planet, our children and other living things. It makes us crazy to come to terms with that "inconvenient truth," to borrow Al Gore's phrase. But like all dependency behaviors, admitting we have a problem is the first step toward recovery.

There isn't a politician in Washington, D.C., or Tallahassee who will stand up and tell us flat out that cheap gas is bad for us. That sort of candor is extraordinarily rare outside our own county courthouse.

Because that kind of talk makes us crazy.

Ron Cunningham is editorial page editor of The Sun. His e-mail address is

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