No wait, not 6. To hell with that. Make it 10. Ten bucks a gallon, no matter what the going rate for a barrel of light, sweet crude. That would so completely, violently, brilliantly do it. Revolutionize the country. Firebomb our pungent stasis. Change everything. Don't you agree?
Here's what we could do: Give gas discounts to cabdrivers (at least initially), metro transit systems and low-income folks, those who have to drive their busted-up '78 Honda Civics to their jobs scrubbing restaurant toilets and flipping burgers and vacuuming the residual cocaine from the seat cushions of numb SUV owners. Everyone else, 10 bucks a gallon, across the board. Eleven for premium.
It would take some finessing. Maybe also give a price break to some truckers and trucking companies (so vital to the economy), but not so much to global delivery companies (FedEx, DSL, et al), because that would force them to raise shipping rates and force you (and me) to reconsider buying everything online and hence encourage you to shop locally, thus reviving a stagnant local economy.
Voila -- gas crisis, oil crisis, warmongering agenda, pollution issues, road rage, traffic congestion, urban decay, oil profiteering -- all completely, almost totally, somewhat solved. Or at the very least, dramatically, gloriously shifted toward ... I don't know what. Something better. Something more humane, less greedy, more sustainable. Could it work? How outraged would you be to have to pay that much for gas? How long would that feeling last?
Take it one logical step further. Set up a national system whereby if you want to buy a vehicle that gets less than 20 mpg in the city, you pay a $1,000 Global Warming Surcharge and that money goes straight to a local organic farm, or school, or environmental think tank. And if it gets less than 12 mpg, make it 3 grand, plus a slap to your face from a small, angry child. Got yourself a shiny new Hummer? You pay 5 grand extra, you can only buy gas once a month and all the truly beautiful women of the world will shun you like Charlie Sheen. (Oh wait, that already happens.) See? Revolution is easy
What, too far-fetched? Too implausible? Not at all. Sure, 10 bucks a gallon would be extremely painful for a while. Citizens would wail. Commuters would scream and stomp and die. But then we would do what we always do. We would evolve. Adapt. Systems would quickly transform, habits would shift. It would be easier to implement than the mess that is Medicare reform, far easier than Lots of Children Left Behind, more viable and livable than the toxic existence of Homeland Security and the disgusting Patriot Act.
But, of course, such an idea is also, right now, absolutely impossible. It will never happen -- not 10 bucks, not 6, not even a buck more per gallon -- and not just because no politician on either side of the aisle has the nerve to come out and suggest that Americans might actually need to drive less, conserve and change their gluttonous habits. This is, of course, absolute death for a politician. Tell Americans what to do? Dare to suggest that they're doing something wrong or that their behaviors are destructive and irresponsible? Are you insane? This is America! We're flawless!
No, the primary reason such reform won't happen is because, simply put, we are the most entitled nation in the world, perhaps in the entire galaxy. Americans are trained from birth to believe we deserve as much as we desire of every exploitable resource on the planet, be it water or natural gas or oil, coal or salmon or steaks, Big Macs or diapers or iPods or bizarre varieties of blue ketchup. It is, in a word, perilous. It is also, in another, slightly more devastating word, our downfall.
Look, I adore cars. I adore driving and I cherish open roads and smooth horsepower and a musical exhaust note, and I fully believe most German automotive engineers should be sent gifts of candy and Peet's coffee. I would, like most everyone else, be absolutely loathe to give much of it up.
But you know what? Big freaking deal. I could learn to live without so much. I like to think I would be able to step back and see the bigger picture, realize what is and isn't essential, what does and does not absolutely define my identity and my life and modify accordingly. In other words, I could make it work. And so could you.
Ever been in a citywide blackout? One that lasted for more than a few hours and stretched on into the night? Ever see people suddenly shift gears and become astoundingly helpful and polite and sharing? Happens in a matter of moments. Disasters do it. Katrina did it on a scale we haven't seen in years. Sept. 11 did it, emotionally speaking, before BushCo whored that tragedy and turned it into the most vile political poker chip in American history. Shocking change brings people together. Brings out the best in humans. Or at least makes you rethink what's truly important in your life.
Another example: You know what would happen if guns -- all guns, everywhere -- were banned outright tomorrow? Well, right off, nothing much. Criminals would still commit crimes. Lawsuits would skyrocket. The NRA would shoot itself in the face in screaming protest. Crime rates would dance all over the map. It would be a little ugly.
But then something remarkable would happen. Over a short blip of time -- say about 10 or 20 years, as gun manufacturing ceased and the culture of gun violence died down and our favorite death object was less visible in the news and in video games and on TV and in every aspect of modern life, well, guess what? Guns would begin to disappear. From the culture, from the drug dealers, from the streets, from public consciousness. They would turn into a sad relic, like eight-track tapes, like the bubonic plague, like the Miami Sound Machine. Think 20 years is too long? It is but an eye blink, a twitch.
This is the unappreciated, underreported magic of the human animal. We are infinitely adaptable. We can accommodate far more than politicians, pundits and the morally knotted Christian right would ever have you believe.
Ten bucks a gallon. Imagine the mad scramble by carmakers to invent new ultra-gas-sipping, enviro-friendly technologies. Imagine communities coming together for ride sharing and mass transit. Bike sales would skyrocket. Walking shoes would be the new bling item. We would mourn the loss of cool car culture even as we celebrated the birth of, say, moped culture. Telecommuting would explode. Sure, the superrich would still tool around in their bloated Escalades, oblivious to the world.
So what? The rest of us can simply roll our eyes and laugh, evolve and sharpen and sigh, and wonder what great change we can embark upon next.
Mark Morford's column appears Wednesdays and Fridays in Datebook and on sfgate.com. E-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2006 San Francisco Chronicle