Last week I stopped at one of the two stations in town to get some gas for my
old farm pick-up truck. The price of regular unleaded at the pump was just
under $1.35 per gallon. A sign on the door informed me that for each gallon
almost 59c goes to taxes; forty cents to the federal government and nearly 19c
to the state of Connecticut. The gas itself costs less than 77c per gallon.
Just inside the station's door, the front page of a newspaper carried a story
about the high price of milk. Whole milk now sells for $2.65 a gallon in
Connecticut. That didn't seem too high, to me. We're happy to pay the equivalent
of $3.60 a gallon plus deposit at Field View Farm in Orange for delicious local
milk in glass bottles. As I paid for the gas, the woman in line behind me put
a plastic jug of water from Maine down on the counter. Its price was $1.50 per
I walked out of the store wondering how gasoline could possibly be so
inexpensive. Although the water contains no energy, it is necessary for life.
It is also delicious and abundant from many springs and wells in our town.
I used to have a few cows, so I know what it takes to produce milk. When you
get right down to it, milk's made out of air, water and sunlight with the help
of green plants and cows. There are still some farms in town which produce milk
even though a few years back, there was such a surplus that the government paid
several large local farms to sell off their herds.
A gallon of gasoline, however, is not so easy to come by. First, it takes
hundreds of millions of years, with the proper conditions, to create oil. We
have to find it (more often than not in some far away desert or beneath the
ocean), bring it up from deep underground and transport it half way around the
world to a refinery. There the oil is elaborately processed into gasoline which
travels by pipeline to the boat which then delivers it to New Haven Harbor, for
example. Eventually, a tank-truck brings it to our town.
A gallon of gasoline contains enough energy to move an efficient car 40 miles.
This is equivalent to the energy it takes to keep a human being going for
between 10 and 12 days. One gallon of milk contains enough calories to power a
human being for one day, although it is not a complete food.
Last year when gasoline cost about $1.20 a gallon, it was less expensive than it
has ever been, after adjustment for inflation. Now gas is priced at less than
half of what people pay in most other countries.
Several recent studies warn of serious problems in the near future with the
world's oil supply. With oil-use increasing all over the planet, experts think
that in less than a decade, we will have used over half of the world's
realistically recoverable supply of this fossil fuel, and that most of the oil
that does remain will be in OPEC countries. Both of these prospects are
We know that our profligate gasoline-use pollutes the air that we breathe. It
is widely believed that the waste products of gasoline combustion are affecting
the earth's climate. These changes are probably connected to the increasing
frequency and severity of hurricanes, floods, fires and other damaging weather
events. Cheap gasoline is definitely implicated in the destruction of small
towns everywhere, as highways run over them, and as suburban stores with large
asphalt parking lots siphon off local business with low-cost, imported products.
Of course, inexpensive gasoline encourages more gasoline use--bigger cars, more
sport-utility and recreational vehicles, longer commutes, wider roads, bigger
stores and on and on. But, we're setting ourselves up for some serious
environmental and geopolitical problems.
Prudence and wisdom suggest that we plan to get along with less rather than more
That's hard to do when one of the most energy-packed and damaging substances on
earth costs less per gallon than water.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
C1996, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT certified
organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban agriculture
projects in New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford and Norwalk, CT). Their collection
of essays Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful
Future is available from Bill Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14
postpaid. This essay first appeared on WSHU, public radio from Fairfield, CT.
New essays are posted weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing