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Slow that train down

Andrea Stewart - May 5th, 2008
Slow that train down

All that foreign oil
controlling American soil
Look around you, it’s just bound to
make you embarrassed
Sheiks walkin’ around like kings
wearing fancy jewels and nose rings
Deciding America’s future
from Amsterdam and to Paris
And there’s a slow, slow train
comin’ up around the bend

“Slow Train” --Bob Dylan


Thirty years after Dylan recorded those words, I’m driving 55 mph down North Long Lake Road, a hilly, curvy road with a really bad surface and two school zones, and there’s a young guy in a big truck right on my tail. When I don’t speed up, he stomps on the gas, roars around me, and disappears in the distance. Less than a minute later, I pull up right behind him where he’s sitting at a dead stop at a red light. He did get there before I did, though.
I stop at the hardware store and park between two huge SUVs that dwarf my Ford Escort. They’re both empty, the owners inside the store, and they’re both idling.
I pull into the local deli behind a big truck with a plow on the front. The driver hops out and goes inside without turning off the engine. I expect him to make a quick purchase and run right back out, but am surprised to see him seated comfortably at the counter, ordering lunch, his truck rumbling away outside.
A utility truck pulls into my driveway, and the employee gets out without shutting off the engine. He works on the connection to my house for about 15 minutes, his vehicle idling the entire time.
Do we really want to be the spoiled brats of the world, sucking up 25 percent of the planet’s oil, spewing 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, and not even bothering to turn off our vehicles?
Our ignorance and/or arrogance about what’s happening in this world is alarming, and has enormous environmental and geopolitical consequences. But it’s the financial cost of our excess consumption that’s hitting us hardest now.
Meanwhile, we’re ignoring a vast, readily available, and non-polluting reservoir: conservation. John Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil, has stated that if we could reduce demand just five percent, we would see a drop in gas prices, but that “Americans have chosen not to conserve.”
There isn’t one of us who couldn’t cut back our gas consumption by five percent. We can’t control factors like the weak dollar, speculators, or China’s growing demand, but we squander our power as consumers and refuse to change our wasteful habits.
I recall moving back to the mainland from Hawaii back in 1975 after Congress lowered the interstate speed limit nationwide in response to the 1973 oil embargo. We drove a Volkswagen bus from California to Michigan, and then from Michigan to Florida, never going over 55 mph. I also seem to have a memory of making “slow down” gestures out the window and yelling “Ecology!” at cars that sped past us. These days, whenever I drive on the interstate at 70 mph, 90 percent of the cars on the road pass me.
I wouldn’t want to drive cross-country at 55 mph again, but I’m amazed at the extra money local folks seem to have to burn up in gas. Recently a big truck roared up behind me out of nowhere and stayed inches from my bumper until he literally ran me off the road as I pulled over to let him pass. This time it was an old man who had the missus along, which didn’t keep me from expressing myself as I pulled up beside him at a red light. Which didn’t keep him from taking off like a jackrabbit and careening down busy South Airport Road. Probably headed to the video store to rent that old Steve McQueen movie, “Bullitt.”
Later in the ‘70s, I commuted in an old VW bug from Muskegon to Grand Valley State to finish my degree. It had two knobs on the dash, one for the lights and one for the wipers, and no heat to speak of. These days we have dual climate control, heated seats, cooled seats, DVD players, GPS navigation, headlights that turn with the car, cars that parallel park themselves...and most of all – horsepower. Small cars that used to have 75-100 hp now have more than 200 hp, and some cars now have 300 hp, 400 hp and more. We’ve traded energy independence and economy for crazy power to convey us to the office and the grocery store. And now we’re paying for it.
Indicative of how Americans just don’t “get it” is a recent article about RVs that referred to “fuel-sipping motor homes.” Probably not in this category is the popular “toy hauler,” a large RV complete with a “garage” at the rear that may qualify for columnist Dave Barry’s title: Least Sane Motor Vehicle.
So now in addition to using fossil fuels to drag a condo down the road (which are available, by the way, with garden tubs, home theater systems, central vacuums, and fireplaces), we can load up an additional 2,500 pounds of four-wheelers, motorcycles, etc., and burn gas like there’s no tomorrow.
If we took a fraction of the Defense Department and NASA budgets and gave it to the most brilliant minds in the world, perhaps they could come up with something.
In fact, French engineer Guy Negre has developed a zero-emissions car that runs on air. That’s right – air. This vehicle, made mostly of fiberglass, will be sold in India this year. There’s a hybrid version with a gas-powered air compressor that could go 3,000 miles on the equivalent of one tank of gas. Wonder how long it will take for the political winds to shift and we can buy the air car in America? Better not hold our breath.
In the meantime, to save money and save the planet:
1) Don‘t idle,
2) Drive less,
3) Slow down – Driving 5 mph slower saves 20 cents a gallon,
4) Replacing dirty air filters saves up to 26 cents a gallon,
5) Keeping the engine tuned saves up to 10 cents a gallon,
6) Keeping tires properly inflated saves up to eight cents a gallon.
We’re in a painful transition period right now that requires some adjustment and sacrifice to force change. But change is coming. There’s a resurgence of the environmental activism of the ‘60s and ‘70s. We can elect a president who will lead us to a national energy security and conservation policy. And someday not too far in the future we’ll be driving vehicles big and fast that free us from foreign oil and don’t pollute our planet’s soil.
Groovy.

Writer Andrea Stewart lives in
Traverse City.
 
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