Wednesday, March 16, 2011

High fuel prices = instant heritage?


In the face of rising fuel prices, Cars.com, a joint venture of several big media companies, has revived an earlier feature, the "Gas Saving Moment of the Day."  These tips, ranging from advice on keeping your tires properly inflated to a suggestion that it wouldn't hurt Americans collectively to lose a few pounds, date to the last big spike in oil prices, back in 2008.  Of course, most of the same ideas and advice could be heard during the "oil shocks" of the early and late 1970s, and variations on the same theme came up during the gas rationing of the World War II years (remember "When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler"?). 

This seems to offer yet more evidence, as if we needed it, of our collective amnesia and denial when it comes to fossil fuels (we know our fuel mileage is better if we drive at 55 mph, but we don't act on it until prices rise or we're faced with shortages).  But this cycle of forgetting and remembering and re-remembering is also starting to have heritage-like overtones to me.  Every time we hit one of these patches, we dredge up our rather limited repertoire of suggestions about how to save fuel.  And while some new ideas do get added to the list each time, there's also enough sameness that it can't help but resonate with past experiences of being reminded that oil is not, after all, an infinite resource.  (Even some of the newest ideas aren't all that new--for example, there have always been hybrids and alternatives, including those that run on wood and air.) 

And those suggestions themselves--slow down, use older and less energy-intensive forms of transport, act in community by car-pooling or taking the train, become more aware of the mechanics and physics of your vehicle by checking tire pressure, etc.--represent something of a retreat from the faster-is-better individualism and convenience that drives so much of car culture.  It's like a little taste of living history, with echoes of earlier periods of austerity and an unwilling but not necessarily unpleasant acceptance of different values.

All of this doesn't amount to anything quite as conscious as a revival movement or a mobilization of folk culture, but it feels to me as though there's something quasi-heritage-like taking shape here.  Heritage theory shows us how commemoration and obsolescence often go hand in hand, with preservation sometimes even coming first and helping to redefine something as "past" even while it's still a part of everyday life.  With each layer of rediscovery that gets added to our histories of high fuel prices, perhaps we're actually seeing the first inklings of a real shift into post-fossil-fuel mobility, nudged along by historical resonances that are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

The 1944 poster image above, by Harold Von Schmidt, is from the New Hampshire State Library.

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