I have been aware of the dynamic of energy costs since 2002, when I became upset at rising gas prices (at the “expensive” price of $1.50), and curious as to what drives oil and gasoline prices. Since that time I faithfully follow the oil and gasoline futures markets, and check the internet every Wednesday at 10:30 AM EST to see what the U.S. energy stockpiles look like.
It seems to me that high energy prices are really hurting people financially, especially the poor, who are less likely to be able to absorb the costs. When explaining the costs of energy on the economy I usually tell this story from college. In 1998, when I was a junior at Ohio University, my dad would give my brother and me gas money after we returned to college from a visit home. He would usually give us thirty dollars and tell us to go out to eat on the rest. With gas at 99 cents a gallon, this left about 15 dollars to eat on (since our Cavalier’s tank held about 15 gallons). In ten years, the cost of a gallon of gas has gone to about $3.00 a gallon, and is likely going to rise in the spring. Now, thirty dollars wouldn’t even cover a fill-up, let alone provide money left over for discretionary spending. You can see how spending this much on a commodity in which most of the money made goes to corrupt leaders and big business hurts local economies. I no longer have the extra 15 dollars to spend at local businesses, and neither do my fellow millions of driving Americans. So, basically while real wages are not really increasing, energy costs are, and with Americans spending more and more on energy, this means less is being spent on other goods (or perhaps more is being spent using credit cards, which is not a long term solution).
Of course we Westerners are a spoiled bunch, materialistic, and some critics think that we deserve high energy prices for our high usage, and quite frankly, I have to agree. I am basically a free-market kind of guy, and basic supply and demand tells us that when demand is increased and supply becomes increasingly harder to obtain, prices will rise. And the more Americans complain about it, without doing anything about it (for some, “the American way”), prices are going to continue to rise. Notice I am not blaming our president, not blaming oil companies, or even OPEC, because I believe that blaming each of the entities for our current crisis is inaccurate and fails to look at one issue that is in our control: consumption, although certainly American energy policy, corporate America, and OPEC play large roles. If we all conserved like crazy there would still be supply and demand issues (as well as geopolitical issues), but a dramatic week-upon-week increase in oil, gas, and distillate stockpiles in the U.S. would likely force futures speculators to sell, and buy short positions.
I am not just preaching here. I have seriously tried to conserve for my part. My car gets 32 MPG on the highway, and I try to carpool if I am able, but since I live about 1/2 mile from my work, I am speaking of carpooling the grocery, etc. I drive like I have some sense, accelerate slowly, coast into stops as much as possible, turn off my car during long waits at drive-through lines, make sure my tires are inflated properly, among other things. See this report from Edmunds.com for dramatic ways to save gas simply by altering driving habits. Around the house, I always unplug items when not in use (like the TV, which is on a power strip), keep the heat at 63-65, among other rather “Spartan” measures, at least by U.S. Standards. Now, I have to admit I may have a selfish motivation rather than an altruistic one: saving money for myself and my family. However, I also know that I am saving energy for consumption by others, which in turn, would likely result in lower energy prices for others, if we all chipped in.
Now, you may be asking, how is this related to Catholicism? One major component of Catholic Social Teaching is “the common good.” The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church defines “common good” as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily” (346). I think conservation of energy prices would benefit the common good, locally, nationally, and even globally, allowing people to reach their fulfillment more easily. The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales say as much, although their reasoning is focused more on the environmental impact of using too much energy: “Our environmental “common goods” are not only available for careful use and enjoyment today, but are held in trust for the use and enjoyment of future generations…In recent years one of the prime duties of public authorities has become the careful conservation of this environmental dimension of the “common good.”
However, Americans (and most Westerners) live in an interesting situation. We have so much compared to the rest of the world, and in a way, if we had “satisfied minds,” we could easily sacrifice certain things in our lives and afford the current prices of energy, energy we need to work and live. Sadly, in this country, when we speak of being unable to afford basic needs, this can sometimes mean “after buying two cell phones, subscribing to cable, and eating out three nights a week, there is no money left over to pay for health care.” A gentleman I work with who is on public assistance was lamenting the high cost of cable and cigarettes. I told him I couldn’t afford cable since I was getting ready to start a family. I think he was a bit surprised that someone in 2008 would dare not consider cable an essential. My basic point, I guess, is that in this country many expect to have their cakes and eat it too. Nonetheless, I think conserving energy would benefit the common good in so many ways: less pollution, less wear-and-tear on roads, less energy costs for all of us, but especially the poor, less exploitation of the poor overseas, less support of oppressive and totalitarian regimes throughout the world, and less chance that our oil addiction is funding our enemies who plan our downfall. Of course, some would say that high prices themselves benefit the common good, as they may cause us to conserve more, explore alternatives, develop more efficient vehicles, and so forth, so this is a complex issue. Nonetheless, I can’t see how conservation of limited resources is ever bad. So, without getting into global warming or environmentalism or any other “hot button” issue at this time, I think that taking basic steps to save energy, even going as far as to (gasp) sacrifice, would benefit the common good, especially the truly poor among us. I am not an economist, and I am aware that there are other views on these issues, so please contribute to this discussion in the comments!