Wednesday, June 15, 2011


We live in a world of gasoline. Everything depends on gasoline. Food, childbirth, furniture, jewelry, appointments, vacations, wars, exhibits, construction, exploration, diplomacy, clothing, cologne, haircuts and rock concerts. Gasoline.

The food on your table travels an average of 1,500 miles to get there. There is even a term for it: Food Miles.

The word in French is ‘essence.’ I prefer essence. There is philosophy in the word ‘essence,’ and fumes. Fumes of power. Fumes of thought. In one manner or another, there is essence in everything.

One fuels cars. The other is a problem without a solution, but fuel for endless discussion.

The word ‘gasoline’ reeks of chemicals, sinister refineries in Texas and Alabama, eyes burning with hydrocarbons, lungs straining for clean air.

I’m nervous around gasoline. You can smell fire in it. The perfume of death. The fumes are potent. They penetrate the olfactories, permeate them with the latent crackle of violence and revolution. The roar of explosion. The smell of anarchy. Molotov cocktails. Window panes blown out of a store.

I will postpone a trip to the gas station as long as possible. Sometimes (in fact, all too often) until the needle is on empty. I know it’s risky, but in some ways it is strangely pleasurable. I am daring fate, risking the loss of power in the midst of traffic. It’s weirdly exciting, but also stupid. One of these days I am going to pay for that peccadillo. I mean, what’s the big deal?

I hate self-service gas stations. It is one of the reasons I enjoy driving in Oregon, where self-service is illegal. You are guaranteed that someone will come out and pump gas for you.

The place we usually go to get our gas now is a mini-mart called the Plaid Pantry at the bottom of the hill at the intersection of Valley and Taylor Streets. There are four pumps. Quite often, all pumps will be in use. If there is still, say, a quarter tank left in the car, I’ll go back at another time. But if the needle is on empty, it means waiting.

I have often wondered about the disappearance of gas stations. There used to be one on every corner. Now, there is only one within a radius of 5 miles, and that’s within a city. It seems paradoxical. The more cars there appear to be on the road, the fewer gas stations there are to provide them with gas.

Of course, no gas stations at all should be the norm. No cars. A modest fleet of trucks, buses, and trains should be all that we need for transportation and the delivery of goods. But this is Utopia. The actuality is far different, and more intractable. The world teeters on apocalypse. Conferences convened to solve the problem of climate change end in abject failure.

The use of petroleum is nothing less than insane. Pumping oil out of the ground, or the floor of the ocean, destroys the ecology and is just plain ugly. But the real menace is the carbon that it produces. 350 parts per million of CO2 is as high as carbon emissions in the atmosphere can go without destabilizing the climate. Atmospheric CO2 reached 390 ppm in 2010. The results have been catastrophic. Between April 25 and 28 of this year, over 300 confirmed tornadoes culminated in 317 fatalities. 41 people were killed in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Hospitals filled to capacity. People with broken bones were told not to go to them. In Birmingham, a tornado produced by the same supercell, was so huge that television reporters could not zoom their cameras out far enough to get the entire funnel into the frame.

In May of 2010, while BP’s underwater well in the Gulf of Mexico was hemorrhaging millions of gallons of oil per day, Roberta and I stopped driving as much as we could. We are aware that this little modification in our driving habits won’t change a damn thing, but driving just doesn’t feel right. It’s like trying to drink again after a few visits to AA. The spirit sickens behind the wheel. One turns the ignition key feeling an acute sense of toxic decadence.

I bought some gear at REI so that I could run small errands, pick up books at the library or medicine at the Safeway pharmacy, while I was out running. Seattle’s public transit system is decrepit and dirty, but we live close enough to downtown to either walk or grab a short ride on one of the buses to get to an exhibit at the art museum or restaurant or movie. A short ride on the bus is tolerable, although the best option is the monorail. It only goes a mile, but it’s a blast. One has the sensation of flying through the city on a magic carpet.

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