Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, February 28, 2005

Letter from California-February 21, 2005

Back when I was growing up in the 70’s, if you’d asked me what the future, meaning right about now, would be like, I would have said something like the following: we’ll all be driving flying cars and vacationing on the moon, but we’ll be under non-stop attack from killer bees and the Metric system. Also, I would have been sure that by now, society would have totally collapsed. People then just took that for granted, which probably accounts for the bad hair and clothes. Who cares what you look like when hippies were coming to burn your house and eat your children any day now? Or maybe it was burn your children and eat your house. Either way, it was worrying enough to distract attention from the coast-to-coast lapels on your jacket or the hairmuffs covering your ears.

As a child, I picked up on this downer vibe, of course, and it caused me to misunderstand a common bumper sticker slogan. “Waste not, Want not” got plastered on light switches and in other places, as a way of reminding people that since society was down to its last few hours of juice, they might want to think twice about running their lava lamp full blast while simultaneously cranking up the 8-track. In my childish eyes, “Waste Not, Want Not” didn’t make any sense. I thought it meant that if you didn’t waste something, it meant you didn’t really want it. The concept had a certain ‘party-like-it’s-1999’ fatalism to it that generally went along with the times, so I figured that we were being urged to waste up now while we still could, because, you know, the hippies were coming. Party on, Department of Water and Power!

A few years later, in the early 80’s, I think it was Tuesday, I was running all the taps in the house and had all the closet lights on, and I realized I had it wrong. “Waste not, Want not” meant that if you didn’t waste, you wouldn’t go wanting. Well, the devil’s in the details, and I misunderstood; what are you going to do? I turned off the running water and started thinking about what a sensible idea that little bumper sticker was. Since then, I’ve admired the act of a squeezing every last bit of value out of resources so that you’ve got what you need in a crisis, like when you’re trapped inside your house by killer bees and the directions on your bee spray say to hold the can 15 to 20 centimeters from your head.

So one of my favorite trends of the last few years is hybrid cars. Earlier electric cars had to be plugged in overnight and traveled such a short distance on an 8-hour charge that it was easier just to use an extension cord. These cars, though, use regular gas, but stretch it farther by turning the engine’s motion into electricity. When you pull up to a light, the car doesn’t use any gas at all, for example. It makes it hard to intimidate the driver next to you when challenging him to a drag race, but that’s probably ok. Here in California, these cars have become somewhat common. You can see them quite a way off because they’re extraordinarily ugly, resembling a toaster with wheels or a skateboard with a cockpit. The philosophy there seems to be that if you’re willing to save energy, you should be willing to drive a car that makes you look like a geek. If you’re not that committed, well, maybe you’re just not ready to be driving a hybrid, buster.

I don’t agree with that philosophy. These cars are good for the environment, save fuel, and generally make a lot of sense. I think people who drive hybrids should get their choice of flames or the Tasmanian Devil painted on the hood of their car for free. As an alternative, perhaps a set of Boss Hogg-style longhorns from an organic cattle ranch mounted to the front of the hood, courtesy of the State of California.

Instead of fabulous prizes like these, some in the State government, inspired by Oregon’s example, are actually considering another way of punishing the energy efficient. Since California relies on gas tax, it takes a bite out of the budget when people buy less, so if hybrid cars take off, that’s a whole new problem. The solution? Tax by the mile. All this would require is equipping every car in California with a GPS tracker so that when you pull into the gas station, you’ll transmit the total miles you’ve driven since the last time you gassed up and pay the fee. This way, no matter how many miles per gallon you get, you’ll end up paying anyway. After all the State’s going to need that money to pay for the GPS units needed to do the program. You can understand why it’s important to do your part.

It makes me think that maybe I’m not the only one who didn’t understand that bumper sticker.


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