"What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. It is dearness only that gives everything its value." –American revolutionary Thomas Paine
Much of what America has accomplished in the last two centuries is indebted to that understanding — whether we’re talking about the cost of liberty or the impetus for our celebrated Yankee thrift. Alas, as great a nation as we remain today, we’re clearly losing sight of Paine’s premise.
For much of its existence, America has been blessed with cheap and plentiful resources, many of which have come at the expense of our global neighbors. In the last 100 years, however, no single resource has shaped the nation as profoundly as our easy access to cheap oil.
It’s led to the primacy of personal cars, which in turn has radically affected the design of American cities during the course of the 20th century.
Under the relentless growth of automobile ownership, America’s infrastructure geared itself almost exclusively to internal combustion vehicles. Slowly but inexorably, we abandoned public transportation in favor of building freeways to ever-more-distant suburbs. In response, businesses fled dense city centers for suburban sites where they could provide "cheap" parking. Meanwhile, American homes sprouted two, then three or even four garages, which became the dominant architectural emblem of postwar housing.
Somewhere along the line, though, automobiles became not so much desirable as simply indispensable. We now find ourselves trapped in this ironic cycle: Since virtually the whole nation has been built to suit cars, cars are now practically the only way we can get around.
Our homes are strung along miles and miles of automobile-choked highways — sometimes so far from our jobs that we drive for hours just to get to work each day.
Even our economic health is inextricably tied to the business of building more cars, giving a sclerotic government and a technologically moribund auto industry even less stomach for intelligent change.
Yet our world is forever changed from the one that came before — due in no small part to American ingenuity. Brought closer by the miracle of global connectivity, and simultaneously haunted by the specter of diminishing resources, it’s now a place in which all peoples feel entitled to participate. We can no longer ignore that what comes cheaply to us often exacts a heavy price from someone else.
Thomas Paine could hardly have anticipated such a state of affairs, yet his observation is all the more trenchant today. The longstanding luxury of cheap fossil fuels has made us too comfortable to bother developing motive power more intelligent than the internal combustion engine.
By any measure — whether of politics, depletion, pollution or economics — it’s been clear for decades that our petroleum-based society is unsustainable. Yet in that time we’ve shown only the most leisurely interest in better alternatives.
Even energy that costs nothing, like sunshine, wind or the tides — surely a dream come true for any thrifty Yank — hasn’t been enough to rouse us from our fossil-fuel stupor. Perhaps, as Paine foresaw more than 200 years ago, the blessings we enjoy aren’t yet quite dear enough.