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Energy's silver lining

High oil prices are painful. But they're forcing positive changes in our economy and lifestyle.

August 13, 2008

The price of oil has cut into household budgets and curtailed summer vacation plans. With families forced to choose between a shopping trip or the commute that brings in a salary, consumer spending has declined. There's more than enough pain to go around, and yet there is no denying it: High energy prices also have an unforeseen bright side, forcing the nation to reduce its carbon emissions and delivering the encouraging message that, although we might not regain the freewheeling way of life that came with cheap gasoline, we have more ability to shape our fates than the caricature of the soft, spoiled American implied.

The first sign was when SUVs went from being the belles of the freeway to oversized wallflowers. Thirteen miles per gallon isn't just expensive; it's no longer chic. As U.S. automakers gear up for a new motoring sensibility, we can look forward to a more gas-thrifty future.

Then, a handful of manufacturers with overseas operations found that the costs of global shipping outweighed the cheap labor, and moved their factories back to the United States. It's not easy to abandon an expensive plant, so the movement of factory jobs has been more a trickle than a rush, but it can be expected to grow as companies consider their options for new facilities.

Now supermarkets are cutting down on shipping costs as well, by buying more local produce. Wal-Mart has announced that it will spend $400 million on local produce this year, with plans to expand such purchases in the future. The markets are finding a convenient match in cost reduction and consumer tastes. In addition, locally grown fruits and vegetables are less likely to go through the giant processing plants where produce from throughout this country and others is commingled, occasionally spreading food-borne illnesses such as salmonella and E. coli.

Sure, stores still sell bottled water shipped from New Zealand, but concerns about global warming, and the prices of long-distance goods, are making consumers more mindful of their choices.

Solar and wind energy are moving past the stage of environmental symbolism, to be viewed as realistic sources of significant energy. The New York Times reported this week on supermarkets that are installing solar panels on vast, flat roofs that previously absorbed the sun's rays to no one's advantage.

And the Wall Street Journal outlined the various ways, big and small, in which energy consciousness is shifting the culture, from companies downsizing packaging (easier to ship) to families buying more front-loading washing machines (which use less electricity and water). Truckers are driving at lower speeds, and commuters are using more public transportation.

Best of all, our new energy practices have contributed to the falling price of gasoline at a time of year when it traditionally rises. Strange indeed is the day we celebrate $4.11 a gallon at the pump, but forecasts are that prices will continue to drop, if not to their old levels.

Before we reach for the keys to the Suburban, this is a good time to ask ourselves what we will do next. We can go right back to habits that raised our dependence on oil, or we can continue retooling the economy in ways that make sense for our health and the environment. Maybe, when the household budget is solid enough, we'll treat ourselves to dinner at a nearby restaurant that serves locally grown food.

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