The gasoline shortage that wasn't
It is appropriate somehow that the COVID crisis in America should wind down with a faux gasoline shortage. After a year of anxiety over supply chains and the availability of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, America's fear-fueled push-pull culture was bound to turn its hysterically unhinged gaze upon the most important consumer product of them all. And suddenly, there it was, driving out of a time machine from the 1970s, the perfect cultural analog to scarcity. Photographs of cars lined up at gas stations. Headlines about gas stations closing and prices spiking. Talking heads practically salivating over the opportunity to declare another scarcity crisis. As a man in my fifties, it was all very familiar. Same story, different details. In the 1970s, the enemy was OPEC; today, it is hackers (or possibly Russia or possibly both) pulling off a ransomware attack on the Georgia company that operates a vital east coast pipeline.
My wife was taking it seriously.
"You should fill up both of our cars," she fretted.
"It's not a real crisis," I assured her.
She was not comforted by this, and after some back and forth about whether or not it was, in fact, a crisis, I climbed down from my pulpit and drove her Honda CRV to the RaceTrac a quarter mile from our house, where gasoline was available for purchase. Even though her tank was more than half full, I topped it off anyway.
There are four gas stations within a one-mile radius of my house. Gasoline was available to buy at one or more of these stations throughout the duration of the week-long "shortage."
Nevertheless, the gas pumps at RaceTrac were like an early scene in a post-apocalyptic movie, the one where the audience is first learning that something awful has begun. The elderly man in the pickup truck in front of me saw an opening at another pump and frantically backed up to exit our line. I then watched him aggressively maneuvering his vehicle around the pumps to exploit the opportunity. People were beeping their horns at him. The tension was real. When I finally reached the pumps, the man pumping gas into his black Volkswagon sedan in front of me had a wild-eyed look, like a person experiencing an unexpected shot of adrenaline. He saw that my window was rolled down and wanted to talk.
"There's plenty of gas," he gushed. He seemed shocked by the reality of actual gasoline flowing from the pump.
He went on to explain that I should just ignore the plastic bags taped over the nozzles. He couldn't vouch for the availability of premium, he said, "but regular seems to be plentiful."
When he finished filling his tank, he waved enthusiastically and shouted "good luck to you man," before climbing into his VW and driving off.
Good luck to you man, as if we have just endured some kind of ordeal together.
I realize now that Americans respond to the perception of scarcity through a series of public gestures. The most common of these is to rush to the store and buy "essentials." This particular performance has the effect of actually producing scarcity because the next day, the media will invariably run lurid video clips of empty shelves and shopping carts filled with milk, diapers, and toilet paper, which in turn will prompt a frenzy of buying from otherwise rational people who are on the fence about the severity of the crisis. Another gesture is for individuals to inflate the seriousness of the event by turning it into a personal narrative of scarcity. They do this by telling their story---to neighbors or friends or friends on social media---of an attempt made to procure the scarce thing. The account is framed as a quest tale, sometimes ending in success, sometimes failure, but no matter. The point is to join in the public performance of scarcity.
I used to think that these performances were about actual scarcity---that the all-powerful "lizard brain" inside of us was triggered by the perception of a shortage---but the COVID crisis, with its many built-in mini-scarcity crises, has changed my thinking. There is something else going on, I think.
Consumer capitalism promises the uninterrupted spectacle of choice and convenience. The consumer lives inside of a waking dream in which he/she can potentially say "yes" to an always changing, always unfolding field of opportunity (the one-click purchase is the ultimate facilitator of this dream state and the most obvious sign of consumerism triumphant). The amount of money one has at any given moment sets limits on this field of opportunity, but not entirely. Credit cards extend the field considerably. The dream is unsustainable, of course, and for many, it will end in debt, clutter, and deep feelings of emptiness, but the economy we have built nevertheless depends upon the zealous and pervasive propagandizing of it. Any perceived ripple or interruption in the neverending dream of "yes" is a threat to the entire system.
Something more than primal "lizard brain" fear drives individuals outside of their normal routines when the media declares a consumer "shortage." The gas lines and the shelves emptied of toilet paper are also a kind of mass cultural defense of the system. So powerful and seductive is the waking dream that almost no one wants it to end, even for a day. Showing up to wait in a gas line is a culturally acceptable way of demonstrating solidarity with the current socio-economic order. Think of it as a kind of consumerist patriotism wherein the credit card rather than the flag is waved to show support for the system.
It is my awareness of this particular dynamic that explains why I was reluctant to rush out to the gas station to top off the tank last week.
My grandmother is practically the only person I have ever known well who experienced real scarcity. I discovered this truth about her when, in 1975 at the age of ten, I watched her rinse a piece of used aluminum foil, neatly fold it into a square, and then slide it into her cupboard alongside other squares of similar size and shape. I would later learn some of the details about her poverty during the Great Depression, including very credible stories about her family not knowing where the next meal would come from. These experiences permanently marked her, along with many others in her generation. I've known others too---the Vietnamese friend in high school who had grown up in a Malaysian refugee camp, for example---but actual scarcity is mostly foreign to me, as it is for many Americans.
I think about my grandmother often---the way her frugality was wired into her, making her tough and clear-eyed. People like her are capable of properly setting priorities in their own lives. They understood the value of things in the marketplace and more importantly, outside of it. But two generations later, her grandchildren were teasing her about her abstemious ways. We were incredulous about the aluminum foil squares. "You don't have to do that anymore," we would say, stifling a laugh. Now, I think, we were all blind to the deep lessons embedded in her seemingly penny-wise lifestyle.
A year ago, I was confident that the COVID crisis might teach America some important lessons about the dangers of its religious devotion to consumer capitalism, but as the crisis is ending, I have my doubts. I see instead the old familiar America reasserting itself with a vengeance. The whole country appears to be hell-bent to return to its pre-COVID state of frenzied to-ing and fro-ing. Everyone is eager for the new “Roaring 20s” to begin. Let's blow out the stops. Spend money. Indulge. Everywhere I turn, I am hearing about the “pent-up demand” that will lead to “explosive growth” in 202. In conversations with my friends, we share our fantasies about excessively compensating for their COVID year from hell. A year of dining out. Live music every weekend. And travel. Oh, the places you’ll go with a passport and a renewed confidence in air travel.
And who can blame anyone for feeling this way? It's been a terrible year of sacrifices. We all deserve a little self-indulgence. At the same time, it feels like a lost opportunity if we can't at least acknowledge that our lifestyles are hideously bloated, out of proportion, and catastrophic to the environment. It feels like a tragedy, in fact, that many of us cannot abide the thought of a week in which gasoline is not 100% available in the four gas stations within a mile's drive from our houses.
"Sit tight," I tried to reassure my wife. "This will all be over in a week and we'll be on to some other topic." I was right---it is already over---but that isn't the message anyone wanted to hear last week. It was far more satisfying to indulge in the collective hysteria, to wallow in it. I realize now that the great Colonial pipeline gas shortage of 2021 was more about religion than economics. I picture in my mind the millions of fretful, solidarity-inducing conversations rising up all over the country as something like a collective prayer for rain. But the incantation was not about freeing the flow of gasoline; it was a plea for the quickest-possible return to the waking dream. Anything less is unacceptable.