<i>The</i> political issue of the year

In 1980, having gone my separate ways with a high-school sweetheart who went to college in a different time zone than I did, I wrote her a letter - OK, I just really dated myself - proudly announcing my newfound interest in studying political science. Her response, a week or so later, has always stuck with me. "Politics!" She all but harrumphed on the page, as though considering such a thing to be beneath her dignity. "Well. At least maybe you can DO something about the horrible price of gas!"

I think gas was peaking around then at about 60 or 70 cents a gallon.

And there, give or take inflation, it floated along for a couple of decades. In the peak summer travel season in 2001, regular unleaded was going for $1.29 a gallon.

Now, six years later, that price has nearly tripled. I wonder where Diane is (last I heard, she was living in Georgia), and whether she is paying attention. I'll bet she is.

There are a lot of reasons why gas prices in the United States, among the world's cheapest for decades, were bound to rise. Crude oil is going for record amounts per barrel these days, a futures market driven in part by the twin realizations that, first, fossil fuels are a finite resource being rapidly consumed, and, second, that in consuming all that fossil fuel we may be condemning humanity and countless other species to death by slow cooking. Human ingenuity may be able to compensate for global warming; there is not the slightest doubt, however, that we will someday, likely sooner than later, face a scarcity of irreplaceable oil. Of course the cost is going to go up.

But tripling in six years? That takes special effort. It takes the world's largest corporations freely gouging prices and raking in record profits. And it takes a national political leadership that thinks it's all dandy, including a failed-oil-prospector president and his ex-Halliburton CEO co-president, and his foreign policy leader who has a Chevron oil tanker named after her, to name only three. They love high oil prices, making all that money for the friends that will be taking good care of them in 2009. Loved it enough to start one war in Iraq, and even as that has turned out to be a catastrophe for all involved not holding petrochemical or arms industry stock, are threatening another in Iran.

They can do it because they Do. Not. Care. About. You.

How much don't they care? Consider how pinched Seattleites are by real-estate prices, and then think of the effect if your $300,000 dream home in 2001 were now only purchasable for $1.8 million. Oil is every bit as basic as housing in its economic impact on ordinary Americans, and the ripples, mostly unremarked upon by wealthy politicians and wealthier network anchors, are being felt by every household in not just gas, but the cost of transporting every single consumer good - many of them made with oil-based plastics - to your friendly local MegaStore. Ditto our food.

But gas is the most annoying, because at the retail level gas is most clearly priced based not on what it costs to produce, but on what the market will bear. Gas in Western Washington is at least half a dollar more expensive than in most of the country's midsection, simply because there's more money in the economy here. (California's the only place in the U.S. that's worse; it's broken $4 a gallon there in some cities.) This also leads to capricious pricing, as when it just jumped 70 cents a gallon in the past couple months for no particular reason, or when the Oil Administration and its a new Goldman Sachs Treasury secretary managed to knock off nearly $1 a gallon from gas prices just before last November's election.

That little trick didn't sway voters then, and it's even less likely to in the future. The other reason "they can do it" is because too many of us have let them. Too many of us are Dianes, not paying attention to decisions being made that affect us - uninterested, powerless feeling, disgusted or all three.

But it's one thing to tune out the steady drip, drip, drip of death tolls from Iraq or the drumbeat of corrupt politicians being subpoenaed. It's another to pay $50 every time you have to fill up a tank. It focuses the mind. And it leads to two inescapable conclusions.

First, our fossil fuel-based lifestyles are not, in the long term, sustainable.

Second, the political class - of any party - now profiting mightily from our discomfort should never be let anywhere near the levers of power again.

I'll bet even Diane would sign off on that.

Seattle writer and activist Geov Parrish may be reached at the address or edress listed below. Go ahead, write.

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