By Ryan Singel, LiP
It's hard to forget Robert Duvall's ode to napalm
in Apocalypse Now, but most people misquote it: "I love
the smell of Napalm in the morning. The smell, that gasoline
smell. Smells like victory." We leave out the middle line,
which is odd, given our love of gasoline.
Gasoline, like napalm, is a powerful, flammable
oil distillate. We inject it into our car engines where it explodes
droplet by droplet, propelling us across the surface of the
planet. Its smell is intoxicatingly sweet, and when it spills
on your hands, it leaves a smooth film on your fingers as it
Gasoline is freedom, speed, pleasure and convenience
in liquid form. Think of first escaping from your parents' house
in a friend's car. Of how little personal effort it takes to
drive to the supermarket to get a loaf of bread. Of the beauty
of cross-country road trips, impromptu drag races, and backseat
groping. Of the joy of screaming out the lyrics of a favorite
song when it comes on the car stereo. All these pleasures owe
something to gasoline.
It can also be liquid utility. Gasoline was the
driving force behind the single largest public works project
in history, the American Highway System, as conceived in the
1956 Interstate Highway Act. It speeds produce to market, propels
kids to soccer practice, adults to their jobs, and family station
wagons to Yosemite.
Not surprisingly, gas has seeped into our language:
I'm running on fumes, It was a high octane football game, that's
like throwing gasoline on the fire, I'll have a cup of unleaded,
or I wanted to finish the project but I ran out of gas.
Gasoline's metaphorical saturation of our culture
is understandable given that, after water, it's the most popular
liquid in America. According to the Department of Transportation,
Americans burn over 125 billion gallons of gasoline annually
while driving around on the nation's roadways. That's almost
450 gallons per capita. By comparison, we only drink 7 billion
gallons of beer, wine and spirits yearly.
And like alcohol, it's a fluid we try to handle
with care, knowing instinctively that any liquid that actually
burns can't be all good. One sniff of the stuff as a kid, perhaps
while refilling the lawn mower, and you know gas isn't good
I quit doing gasoline a year and a half ago. I'm
not talking about sniffing gas; like those kids who inhale the
fumes of airplane glue. I mean I was a real addict, the kind
who likes his gasoline in liquid form and by the tankful –
the kind who has indignant conversations about the fluctuations
in the street price of gas.
I didn't join a support group or go to a detox program. I'd
been thinking about quitting for 6 or 7 years. I even went nine
months in Chicago not doing it at all, but a year and a half
ago, I consciously gave it up for good. Went cold turkey. Stopped
buying it. Stopped using it. Clean and sober. I don't even use
Gasoline is our country's largest addiction. Doing
gasoline is a filthy, dangerous and expensive habit and worse
in some ways than drinking or smoking. In fact, you can transfer
warning signs on cigarette packs almost verbatim to gas pumps,
like so: "Using gasoline causes lung cancer and emphysema,
and may complicate pregnancy."
Consider the following statistics from the Federal
Bureau of Transportation about gasoline and cars: Automobile
crashes kill 43,000 Americans a year, a death toll almost as
high as the total American body count in the Vietnam war. In
the year 2000 alone, there were 6 million gasoline-fueled crashes
in which more than 3 million Americans were injured. Of that
3 million figure, more than 130,000 were pedestrians and bicyclists.
Moreover, emissions from burning gasoline are the leading cause
of smog and global warming. And according to a recent study
published in the Journal of the American Medical Association,
air pollution in cities puts city dwellers at a higher risk
for lung cancer than people who live with smokers and breathe
Gasoline addiction is a public health nightmare
in other ways, too. Consider drunk driving, which is, in its
distilled form, just the mixing of our culture's two most powerful
liquids, gasoline and alcohol. On could also argue that gasoline
usage leads to automotive dependency and a sedentary lifestyle,
which is closely linked to heart disease, the number one cause
of death in the United States. Through tailpipe emissions, gasoline
also plays a part in killer number two – cancer –
and killer number four – emphysema. The fifth most common
cause of death is accidents.
In drug terms, gasoline is to oil what heroin
is to opium. And like opium, most oil comes from shady overseas
cartels located in non-democratic countries, including ones
designated as "sponsors of terrorism." Billions are
spent yearly by the Pentagon to maintain a huge military presence
in the Persian Gulf to protect our "national interests."
Having a gasoline habit is personally expensive
too, even though gas is cheaper by the gallon than milk or spring
water. MSN CarPoint estimates the cost of owning a car in Los
Angeles is over $9,000 a year. The Federal Bureau of Labor estimates
18% of household income is spent on transportation, and AAA
calculates driving costs to be 40 to 60 cents per mile.
Gasoline is also responsible, at least in part, for all of the
following: road rage, speeding tickets, asbestos contamination
of groundwater, urban decay, the Valdez oil spill, the Persian
Gulf war, car alarms, erosion, Los Angeles, aromatic hydrocarbons,
social alienation and parking tickets.
But we don't like to talk about our addiction.
We prefer denial. We prefer to say we are stuck in a traffic
jam because we don't want to admit we are the traffic jam. We
bitch about traffic, parking, smog and the high cost of auto
repairs but still keep using more and more. Articles and statistics
about gas-guzzlers and the social costs of driving can feel
like personal attacks. These are textbook reactions of an addict
when confronted with his or her behavior. And if you're one
of the people who feels this way, you have a lot of company.
Conservatives like William Safire don't turn their
personal responsibility rhetoric loose on citizens who drive
2 miles to the grocery store for a stick of butter, instead
of riding a bike there. The White House didn't condemn the recent
military coup in Venezuela, because the democratically-elected
government there sells gasoline to Cuba and has threatened to
nationalize its oil fields. And liberals oppose oil exploration
in "sensitive habitats" (as if there were any other
kind) but burn gasoline by the tankful in their SUVs on the
way to Whole Foods. One prominent Democratic Senator, Sen. Barbara
Mikulski, (D-Md.), defended the Senate's recent vote not to
raise corporate fuel economy standards and apply them to SUVs,
by calling the measure an attack on "soccer moms."
Despite all this widespread denial, a growing
number of people are getting wise to our culture's gasoline
addiction and are learning how to wean themselves off it. In
New York City, a huge percentage of the population is gas-free.
The "smart growth" movement is gaining in popularity
in America, and whole communities are being planned in ways
that reduce gasoline addiction. Voters in San Francisco, the
birthplace of the original freeway revolt, recently voted to
tear down a highway overpass and replace it with a boulevard
rich in housing and local businesses.
Years ago, countries in Europe realized the extent
of their addiction and created social structures to help people
live without gasoline – mass transit, dense mixed-use
developments, and networks of bike lanes. American visitors
to cities like Venice and Amsterdam and Paris come home marveling
at how easy it is to get around while abroad without gasoline.
And Brazil's second richest city, Curitoba, has designed a public
transit system so fast and effective that 70 percent of its
people use it daily, even though, percentage wise, car ownership
in Curitoba is higher than any other city in the country.
Joining that growing group of Americans who have
sworn off the stuff feels really good, and not just in an intellectualized
"I'm saving the world by recycling my yogurt container"
sort of way. My life is less stressful. I save money and I have
more free time.
Like any recovering addict, I understand the allure
of my former drug. In fact, I must admit, I still own a gasoline
burner. Rose is a 20 year-old pick-up, a handsome little number
with a bench seat, who carried me and my stuff over the Bay
Bridge into the fine city of San Francisco. For almost a year
after, she ferried back and forth across that same bridge to
work. But I'm having a difficult time bringing myself to sell
her, to sever all ties with gasoline.
You see, I was such a good user of gasoline. I
once burned gasoline for 17 hours straight, going solo from
Atlanta to Massachusetts to see a girl I was in love with. One
year, I drove cross-country twice. For a while, I even owned
a gas-guzzling 1965 V-8 Ford Mustang. In college, I daydreamed
of escaping academic life by becoming a long distance trucker.
But that's all the good stuff about gasoline: the visceral rush
of a heavy gas pedal on a wide-open road without the more common
drag of stop-and-go traffic in rush hour. If ever a phrase needed
updating, it's "rush hour." I got my first true taste
of that side effect at age 21, commuting to a summer office
job in Atlanta. That's when I first experienced the unique frustration
of stop-and-go traffic, of being deprived of speed, momentum
and velocity. But I kept using gasoline, partly because I didn't
what else to do and partly because sometimes, late at night
on an almost empty highway, I'd get that old feeling again.
The occasional taste of the original high is critical;
it's what keeps addicts going, even when the high is mostly
gone. Consider this passage from Sex, Drugs, Gambling, and Chocolate,
an addiction workbook, and apply it to your own gasoline habit:
"One of the ironies of addiction is that...it tends to
take away from you what it gave you at first... It does not
take it away entirely, or...you probably would have stopped
the addiction. ... But consider whether you are now actually
worse off than when you began, in precisely the areas you thought
you were being benefited."
Of course, you will never see rush hour in a gas
or car commercial, though you may well see it in a painkiller
commercial. The collective amount of stress American gasoline
addicts feel daily being frustrated in their goal of getting
from A to B quickly is astronomical. You get drunk on gasoline's
power as a teenager and then later you can't get that high again.
So I quit. Except for two tankfuls I split with
5 others on a ski trip in a rented minivan, I haven't bought
a drop in over a year. It's not that hard to do actually. But,
like quitting smoking, you have to have a plan and know why
you are doing it. So here are a few hints from an ex-addict
on how to kick – or at least temper – the habit.
First of all, even after you make the decision
to cut back on doing gasoline, you will still want to go places.
You will feel that craving to go to your friend's house or to
the donut store. While this feeling may pass if you ignore it,
you may also safely give in to that urge by walking, taking
public transit, or riding a bike. Despite what the television
and your friends say, these options are neither un-American
nor only for poor people and children.
You should figure out why you want to curb your
habit. Make a list of all the expenses you pay to maintain your
habit: insurance, registration fees, repairs, parking fees,
tickets, and of course, gas. Think about how much less stress
you will experience when not using gasoline. Then, think about
which of your trips could be done on foot, bike or transit.
Then set some achievable goals, maybe 5 gasoline-free
trips a week. This shouldn't be too hard, since 40 percent of
all automobile trips are less than 2 miles. Reward yourself
after these trips, using the money you save to buy yourself
a treat. Each week, try extending the range of how far you can
travel without gasoline. Tell your friends what you are planning
to do and invite them along. Pride yourself on incorporating
exercise into your daily life.
Have gasoline-free family ventures, biking or
walking together to the video store. Become active in an organization
that advocates for transit alternatives. Don't be intimidated
by thinking that you have to be "pure" to join. Many
activists are multi-modal travelers, sometimes taking the train
and sometimes driving. Investigate whether a car-sharing program
exists in your city, and join it or advocate for one to be established.
Realize that some gasoline use is structurally
necessary. Some places are only accessible by freeway, are too
far away or are located on dangerous roads. Don't feel guilty
when you use gas, but also don't make excuses. You can carry
a lot of groceries on a bike with side baskets or you can get
a bike trailer. That might sound hard, but it isn't, and a lot
of people do it.
For gas addicts, living in the suburbs can feel
like being an alcoholic who lives in a bar. Suburban America
was mostly designed by and for gasoline addicts. Mass transit,
walking, and biking have all been squeezed out in the last 80
years. So if you really want to completely quit you might think
about moving to a city or at least moving somewhere in the suburbs
near a transit line.
Quitting gasoline, even just cutting back, isn't
always easy and there will be some drawbacks. You will probably
have to wait too long for an all-too-infrequent bus. But the
bus or train will come, you will get there, and you can read
a book on the way. And while you're en route, you'll be sitting
right in the middle of one of the only viable public spaces
left to us.
If you ride a bike, like I do now, gas addicts
will sometimes drive by you too closely. Drunk on 89-octane
fuel, drivers will forget to signal, they'll blow stoplights,
and they'll break the speed limit. But you will still be safer
than you were as an addict. Moreover, you will be using the
most energy-efficient means of transportation ever invented,
and it runs on burritos and water, not gasoline.
Freelance writer Ryan Singel teaches
ESL, tends his garden, studies Spanish, and pays too much in
student loans. He would never refer to decaffeinated coffee
as unleaded, nor would he drink it.