I’ve been thinking a lot lately. Now that the academic year is over, and summer is here, I have a small amount of time to do that.
For those of you who know me, I spend a fair amount of time traveling, and I spend a lot of time commuting between Rochester and Buffalo, NY. I teach in Rochester, and I have a small condominium there, and I live in Buffalo. When I started in my new position at RIT in 2004, the price of gas was just a little over $1 a gallon. Milk was $1.69 a gallon (more expensive than gas). I drove to RIT in the morning, and then back to Buffalo each evening. No big deal. After doing that for a bit, I decided to buy a place, because sometimes the winters in upstate New York — or for that matter, any of the seasons — can be kind of unpredictable. Now here I am, 3 years later, and gas has nearly quintupled in price. What to do.
The media pundits/alarmists have been worrying a lot lately about the economy. I recently read Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy, and all signs point to the fact that we in a recession (see the Newsweek article: The Economy: Why it’s worse than you think at http://www.newsweek.com/id/140553/page/1). However, the magic word here is hidden. RECESS is the root of recession. The word (along with many others, like liberal) has become a charged term used wildly in the political world, but actually to most people, MEANS very little, other than that they will feel a pinch, likely in the pocketbook or wallet.
It’s tough, but a recession requires each of us to examine what we consume, how much we buy, and why. But… why is this a bad or negative thing?
I digress for a moment. When I was a kid, my mom baked cookies from scratch. Cookie mixes, she claimed were for “bad mothers” (yes, she really said that, and we laugh about it today) or for people that didn’t know how to cook. I remember many occasions when my mom made cookies, (one Valentine’s Day in particular, when she made cut-outs with pink frosting, and decorated each cookie individually) and I might venture that if they were crappy cookies from a mix, that I probably wouldn’t remember them.
Another digression. When I was about 9, Clorox made a big deal out of their “easy open” bottle. I thought, wow, how LAZY must people be that they can’t turn the cap on a bleach bottle, and need an “easy opening type”. Many years later, I was conducting universal design research, and began to understand why there was a need for such a cap. Oddly, however, the caps, clinical research and market research demonstrated weren’t easier to open. It was all a clever marketing ploy that really clued in to the American mantra of “cheap, easy, and more”.
Then companies started to make all kind of disposable junk: bounty paper towels that were “as soft as a cloth” (why not just use a cloth then?) pledge wipes, windex wipes, and the pinnacle of all laziness and home economic sloth: Swiffer wet. I mean seriously, how lazy can you get? Let’s just push dirt around a little bit. In fact, if you push it around evenly enough, it will LOOK clean.
OK, so as I’m reading the Newsweek article this evening, my thoughts in [brackets]:
Last November, retired school principal Barbara McGeary, 75, of Camp Hill, Pa., switched from a Toyota Rav 4 SUV to a Prius. [way to go, Barbara McGeary] But the savings she realizes are eaten by a higher food bill. [I hear you sister] “When I go to the grocery store, I see prices have doubled on some of the things I’m purchasing,” [mmm hmm. I know, and all this while the oil companies are pulling in the biggest profits ever!] she says. Last year she paid $3.99 for a container of about two dozen brownies [wow, you ain’t got no Wegmans near you, apparently]. Now that they’re retailing for $8.49 [wow], she bakes her own [ok, now that’s NOT a tragedy].
I mean COME ON. The tragedy is that this woman has to BAKE HER OWN BROWNIES instead of buying them? Is that a terrible thing? I’m going out on a limb here, and I’m going to say no. It’s not.
And maybe $5/gallon gas isn’t a tragedy either. Hey, maybe people will stay home a little more, talk with their neighbors, and take a walk. Maybe some will even notice that their house — save for the shiny new satellite dish that they seem to have ample money to afford — looks like crap! Maybe, just maybe, being under virtual house arrest by soaring gas prices will make people more aware of what they are doing and why they are doing it. Maybe they’ll get involved in their communities! Maybe they’ll finally realize that happiness doesn’t come in a package at the mall, or Wal-Mart.
Maybe soaring gas prices will force people to walk more (my lout of a neighbor drives to Starbucks every morning, which is about 178 feet away)! Maybe if people walk more, they’ll be healthier!
Maybe just maybe, the price of gas will continue to rise, and the quality of life will get better and better. I say, as corrupt as it may be that ExxonMobil is reaping the benefits of higher gas prices, that maybe, just maybe, the social effects may be well worth it. Just like recess when we were kids, a recession doesn’t have to be miserable and painful. It can instead be a “time out” to reconsider, regroup, and redefine.