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Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing?

There’s still a lot of anger in this country about the BP oil spill, and rightfully so.

Words like “outrage,” “fury” and “indignation” have been used in news reports on the topic for months. President Obama faced criticism early in the fiasco for not being angry enough. Though BP’s “static kill” operation has stopped the flow of oil into the Gulf and federal scientists report that the majority of the oil has broken down or disappeared, the news has been met with anxiety and distrust more often than celebration. Everyone is hesitant to trust a fix after so many failures, and ecologists still caution that we won’t know the scope of the spill’s environmental impact for years to come. The collective sense of anger is still palpable, from taxpayers and victims alike.

But amidst all the calls for BP to take responsibility for their accident, and the condemnation of the company’s lack of foresight, there’s been one aspect of the public discourse that I haven’t seen mentioned: the lack of action we have taken since the spill to change our habits.

While we all have the right to be angry with BP, there’s no evidence of a decline in U.S. gasoline sales since the spill in late April. The same public decrying big oil as a public menace continues, undaunted, to create demand for the industry. Drilling for oil comes with risks, and BP would not take those risks if we didn’t demand they do so.

Compare today’s traffic landscape with that of a few years ago. Back in 2008, gas prices were up across the country, with the national average topping $4 per gallon. And after a hit in the pocketbook, American drivers changed their behaviors. We cut back on unnecessary trips, carpooled more, and stopped buying gas-guzzling Hummers.

As gas prices have edged back down, however, some of that progress in gas efficiency has been lost. SUV sales are back up, and public transportation options look less appealing to drivers who can budget money for gas without anxiety. Without the pressure of high prices, we roll back into our familiar groove. Our anger with BP has proven a poor substitute for financial anxiety where action is concerned.

Of course, people are boycotting BP’s gasoline specifically. But it’s a misguided idea. Most stations are independently owned, and the British-owned oil company makes very little of its profits from selling to them. Though no one wants to support a company responsible for so much ecological devastation, choosing to buy your gas at a Shell or Exxon station won’t affect BP in any appreciable way (and you may still be buying BP gas regardless). Boycotting local BP stations, while continuing normal gas consumption, hurts small businesses and accomplishes little else.

So what should we, the public, be doing, if we’re as mad as we claim to be?

The clear answer is to reduce our gasoline consumption as dramatically as possible. This is easier said than done, of course, and our national dependence on oil has been much discussed and dissected.

On the level of the individual consumer, however, new options are beginning to arise. While new hybrid vehicle models continue to gain traction, there’s also been a resurgence in the field of electric cars. Startups like Tesla Motors and more established companies like General Motors and Nissan are competing to market cars with both reasonable price tags and reassuring amounts of power. Though there are still obstacles of price and battery life to overcome, electric cars show promise as a gas-reducing or gas-free way to make use of the infrastructure of roads and highways already in place.

The more traditional means of cutting gasoline use also still apply: bicycles, carpooling, public transportation. Many cities are working to make their streets more bike-friendly and their public transportation more convenient. Some of these ideas are extensive overhauls of the way we move from place to place; others use systems we already have in hand. Some would be government decisions, and some would rest more firmly with consumers. But as the Gulf spill illustrates, exploring alternatives should be a priority for citizens as well as their leaders.

While the BP oil spill hasn’t led to any real changes in consumer behavior, eventually we will change the way we travel. Whether it’s caused by another energy price spike, government subsidies on alternative energy, or additional environmental disasters, we won’t be driving gasoline-powered vehicles forever. Anger can be liberating, but without action to back it up, it’s about as effective as a car that’s out of gas.

Vice President and Chief Investment Officer Paul Jacobs, of our Atlanta office, contributed several chapters to our firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55, including Chapter 12, “Retirement Plans;” Chapter 15, “Investment Approaches and Philosophy;” and Chapter 19, “A Second Act: Starting a New Venture.”

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One Response to "Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing?"

  • Adam Rauscher
    August 6, 2010 - 10:54 pm

    While people claim some degree of negligence on the part of BP– and they may be right– the truth is that the simple practice of drilling for oil is a risky process and spills will happen. The only way to reduce the risk is to reduce the drilling, which means reducing our consumption.

    While many individuals do their best to use less gas, I do wish that our leaders had made a statement to this effect. It seems like lately, our politicians lack the ability to make calls to arms for anything other than voting. In World War II, Americans had their food rationed, they recycled and bought war bonds and did it with pride. In the past 10 years, we’ve experienced two wars and two major environmental tragedies and our leaders do not ask us to make any major sacrifices. Sacrifice is what shows conviction and our country could stand to show a little more of that.