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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Another gusher

Suddenly, the world seemed all turned upside down. Oil prices were going crazy. The price of gasoline was shooting through the roof. The economy was going through petrol shocks. The environment was in extreme danger. If anything was clear, it was that absolutely nothing in our world would ever be the same again. But enough about the 1970s.

There’s no vu like a déjà vu, and the more I read the papers or listen to the radio or TV, the more the 2000’s are seeming like the 1970s. I’m starting to suspect that some evil time lord is at work, fiddling with the space/time continuum and fraying the edges of the universe’s reality.

Actually, I am thinking a lot about time lords these days anyway. Maybe that is because I am becoming obsessed with Doctor Who. I was always a prime Doctor Who target. As a TV show, it had all the necessary ingredients to trigger my classic televiewer mania, i.e. fantastic stories but low-tech production (cf. Dark Shadows), an entire imagined world/universe (cf. Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings) and English-ness. But, as I’ve mentioned before, by the time I became aware of The Doctor, there were too many episodes in the pipeline and the prospect of going back to the beginning of the queue was just too daunting. Call me a compulsive personality, but unlike most normal people, for me just jumping into the middle of the story was not an option.

But I finally did jump last year when I saw that the BBC was reviving the series. It wasn’t clear to me whether this constituted a revival/remake of the series or a continuation of the classic series. By the end of the first season, I still wasn’t quite sure although, with the first few episodes of the second season, it seems clear it is a continuation. But never mind. I considered it a fresh start anyway. Besides, the BBC was helpfully running another series, Doctor Who Confidential, on another of its channels providing background and context from the old series, as well as commentary from the talents behind the new series. It’s like getting an extended DVD version, with extra features, delivered piecemeal to the hard disk of my personal digital recorder.

I have to say that, so far, the second season (or series, as the Brits call it) is even better than the first one. For one thing, David Tennant fits my pre-concept of what The Doctor would be like much better than Christpher Eccleston did, although I did grow to be rather fond of Eccleston’s Doctor by the end of the first season. Moreover, he and the congenial Billie Piper have got a good chemistry going, sort of a John Steed/Mrs. Peel vibe for the 21st century. And the stories, so far, have been first rate, consistently mixing the goofy/nerdy humor of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, tense moments evocative of the best horror movies and more than a bit of romanticism. No wonder I’m hooked.

So, maybe it’s my obsession with The Doctor that makes me see the handiwork of time lords everywhere. Like the way the 2000s keep repeating the 1970s. Or the time trickery with oil industry profits. A couple of weeks ago, every news outlet was reporting, in virtually the same breath, how oil had hit a record price and gasoline had hit a record price and oil company profits had hit a record as well. Now, the serious news sources never actually said that the oil profits were related to the oil and gas prices. But everyone seems to think so they are. Sort of the way so many Americans thought Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks, even though no one in the U.S. government actually said he was.

As politicians from both major American political parties fell over each other to get to a microphone and tell everyone how awful high gas prices and how terrible high oil profits were, no one seemed calm enough to point out that the oil profits were from the year’s first quarter, well before the price spike. And in the midst of running lots of footage of all those politicians, the evening news people apparently couldn’t find an actual economist to explain that profits don’t rise from high wholesale and retail prices. Generally, it’s just the opposite. Profits rise with demand. And demand rises with affordability. You had to look pretty hard to find a pundit or officeholder willing to point out that the record oil profits were a result of oil prices having been too low. They were too busy trying to top each other with the size of the check they wanted to send everybody to help buy more gas.

Okay, now the one or two of you still reading this are probably thinking: too low? This man obviously doesn’t own a car or else he is a major shareholder in Exxon-Mobil-Chevron-Texaco-Shell-Engulf+Devour. Well, wrong on both counts. If I seem blasé about the price Americans are paying for gasoline, it might have to do with the fact I am in Ireland. Here, the good news is that the price of petrol at the local filling station is an amazing 1.15. The bad news is that this price is euros per liter. At the current exchange rate, that works out to be about $5.50 per gallon. And I’m actually thrilled to be paying that price because, when I was in France last month (before the latest big oil price spike), the cheapest price I could find was around $6 per gallon. This explains why I consider the price Americans are paying pretty darn cheap. Now, the good news about high gas prices is that at least it should encourage people to use less gas. The bad news is that, even at the petrol prices people pay here, the traffic in Dublin is still as bad, or worse, than in Seattle. And, despite the price of gas here, people are still buying more and more SUVs.

Bottom line: if the industrialized world wants to get off its addiction to oil (and realize the resulting environmental benefits), the price probably needs to go a whole lot higher. Now, it’s not surprising that politicians of all political stripes are pandering, but how do you explain the ones who tout themselves as “pro-environment” but decry the high gas prices along with the rest of the politicos? But they do seem to have a backdoor plan. Calls for a “windfall profits” tax are basically calls for higher gas prices, since higher taxes (like all expenses) invariably get passed on to consumers. Or else production drops, like it did when the idea was tried in the 1970s. Besides, the U.S. government can’t tax the foreign state-owned oil companies that provide something like 90 percent of the world’s oil anyway.

One thing the government can do that sort of works is to set strict fuel efficiency standards. Of course, after that was done in the 1970s, when gas got cheap enough again, everyone went out and bought gas-guzzling SUVs, which weren’t covered by the standards. If new, SUV-inclusive standards are tried in the 2000s, what will consumers do then? Start buying and driving moving vans?

It’s no wonder that oil companies make such good villains for politicians to tilt at. To build on President Bush’s addiction rhetoric, they’re like the pusher who sells drugs to willing users. We all want what they have to sell us, but we don’t love them for selling it to us. But, surprisingly, I can’t really think of all that many movies that have used oil companies as villains. A notable exception, of course, is the recent Syriana. Occasionally, they show up as sinister megaliths threatening courageous individuals trying drill on their own property, as in Stanley Kramer’s Oklahoma Crude. At least once, they were portrayed as nefariously using any means to suppress a formula for synthetic fuel in John Avildsen’s The Formula. (It may or may not be a coincidence that both of those movies starred George C. Scott.) But perhaps the oil companies’ greatest role in the movies was by their absence in a post-apocalyptic world, in which gasoline was a scarce commodity to be hoarded, stolen, ransomed and to have incredibly exciting car chases over. I speak, of course, of the three Mad Max movies.

Is that our future? The world of The Road Warrior? Or will we just continue in this time loop that some malevolent time lord put us into: reliving the 1970s over and over until some benevolent Doctor finally arrives to bail us out?

-S.L., 11 May 2006


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