The long haul

Sixteen Tons. What do you get? Another day older, and deeper in debt.

—Merle Travis

Big to-do in the New York Capital on Thursday with truckers clogging the streets with a rally to protest taxes and tolls and the high price of diesel.

Before you shout irony at the idea of protesting gas prices by driving and idling, you need to remember one thing: You might argue with their methods, but we’re talking blue collar families. We’re talking workers that were sold the American Dream, and of course I am paraphrasing David Simon here, that if you worked hard and did your job, then America has a place at the table for you, that you can make a proud living wage. And, again paraphrasing David Simon, that’s not so true; your life is actually worth less every day, as Simon has frequently said.

You might argue that $5 per gallon gas (and $6 per gallon diesel) can help wean the country off environment-killing and unsustainable oil (foreign and domestic), much the same way that $8 per pack cigarettes can help wean smokers off of their own killing habit. And I would agree with you.

At some level, it’s a good thing, especially if it forces people to give up their showboaty and unnecessary SUVs and sprawling McMansion existence (though I disagree with the biofuels bandwagon).

And as this AP article points out, drivers can recoup some of their fuel costs through adjustable surcharges — but there’s apparently a lag, which creates a cash-flow problem that many of them cannot ride out (excuse the pun) until the money comes in.

However, kicking the oil habit will be fruitless if government does not strongly step in to increase mass transit and to increase the use of rail in hauling goods, which is vastly more energy efficient, emits less greenhouse gas (PDF) and is generally safer than trucking. Trucks would still be needed, but for shorter trips — hauling from rail sidings to the goods’ destinations. By far, trucking consumes the most fuel out of any other form of transportation.

But what of those driving the trucks?

In many ways, America (and that means you and me as much as the government) has sold them a bill of goods that trucking was a viable way to earn a living. And for years perhaps it was viable, if not overly lucrative.

Now what? Those that can get out, are leaving (AP article again).

But how many more American workers is our Economy going to simply cut loose in (paraphasing Simon again) the Triumph of Capitalism over the Individual?

The truckers’ case is somewhat difficult, in that their industry was based on a large dose of destroying the environment, through emissions, through oil consumption and through both reaction to and encouragement of sprawl. That said, you can’t begrudge a person making a living — man gotta eat.

And you and I, friend, share some blame, too. American’s recent conspicuous over-consumption largely helped fuel the boom in the shipping business. Up until a year or two ago, the economy (and the purchasing of goods hauled by truckers) was booming despite mounting credit use among consumers — it was unsustainable growth, a bubble as ripe for popping as the housing bubble has been.

Though reflexively, the truckers’ approach may seem like bullying tactics — we don’t get our way, so we’re going to make life miserable for everyone else, block traffic, stop the flow of goods, blockade Manhattan, etc. And some protesters’ choice in language attacking the very people who buy the goods who keep them in business seems, at best, counterproductive.

You need only check out the protests in Spain and France to see how ugly it could get, to say nothing of the conflicting emotions produced — sympathy for the truckers’ plight and ire drawn from their bullying approach.

Despite that, once you get past the emotions on both sides, our question today is what do you do with the truckers?

Far be it from pointing out my own hypocrisy, but I’ve whined about the loss of newspaper jobs since I began this blog (and long before that). That industry is as much a dinosaur-in-the-making as the fossil-fuel-using trucking industry.

Perhaps the news industry is too big, and too obsolete (in the era of online information). I tend to feel the same way about gas-guzzling delivery systems in the face of cleaner technologies such as existing systems (rail) and yet-to-be-developed models (green trucks? less consumption (gasp!) by consumers?).

I don’t have the answer to this. Worker re-training? Seems like small consolation. And with powerful political forces involved and invested in the status quo, both in the halls of our legislatures and in certain still-powerful unions, you’re not going to see trucks disappear entirely anytime soon.

You will probably see more protests about high-priced diesel, and perhaps some pandering by re-election-minded pols with the adoption of gas tax relief “holidays” (which will cause a need to compensate with taxes elsewhere and encourage oil companies to step in and profiteer, to say nothing of consumers getting a shock with the sudden spike in price when the tax holiday expires).

Perhaps all that can be done is to discourage the next generation from getting into that industry, as harsh as that may sound. And I mean that about both trucking and about newspapering.

———

Quick quote: “A single intermodal freight train can remove as many as 280 trucks from the highway system while using significantly less energy than highway travel in the process.” (PDF)

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