Two summers

Two summers ago, I had the good fortune to be cast in two plays at the Virginia Shakespeare Festival. In each case, I had a small, but juicy, role – Brabantio, the angry father in the first act of Othello, and Vincentio, a confused and angry father at the end of The Taming of the Shrew.

I felt very fortunate. The Virginia Shakespeare Festival is a strong, professional company that performs at William & Mary’s Phi Beta Kappa Hall. The facility is a good one, with an ample shop for constructing the Festival’s always elaborate sets, and an adequate costume shop whose staff works miracles with wardrobe.

The theater space itself is a bit old-fashioned: A traditional proscenium stage with ample fly spaces, wings and traps. But if it’s dated, PBK has a distinguished history. As an undergraduate, Glenn Close performed often on that stage. And one memorable night in 1984, in that theater, I saw a student production of John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God, directed by Lou Catron, which still surpasses, in my mind, anything I’ve seen on Broadway, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival or on any other famous stage.

At any rate, I was thrilled to be offered work at the VSF in 2008. Because of my responsibilities at home, I chose to commute to Williamsburg, accepting a slight bump in pay in exchange for not using campus housing. It seemed a good deal at the time.

Then came that summer’s soaring gasoline prices. With every trip to Williamsburg, I saw my paycheck disappearing into the pumps at Wawa. Whatever artistic satisfaction I might have gained from that summer, I certainly didn’t get ahead financially.

Well, this summer, I’m back at VSF, playing the small but satisfying role of Cardinal Wolsey in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. Commuting again, too, if at far more reasonable prices.
But it’s hard to take much satisfaction from the drop in fuel costs between 2008 and the present. I’m not spending less per gallon because some brilliant new government policy, or some dramatic shift in Americans’ personal choices, has lowered our national demand for fuel.

Far from it. After a presidential campaign in which neither major candidate said a word about sacrificing for the common good, we Americans still consume fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow. The main reason gasoline prices are lower in 2010 than they were in 2008 is that we’re in a global recession, which has resulted in sharply lower demand.

Which is to say, of course, that whenever the economy recovers and full employment returns, the price at the pump will be back above $4 per gallon, or, given China’s steadily growing demand, something considerably worse.

I haven’t heard the AM radio ranters or the mainstream media pundits saying much about this inevitable consequence of an economic recovery.

AM radio, for all its posturing as the tribune of the downtrodden American middle class, has always been the voice of unrestrained corporate greed. Thus, their unending calls for more drilling – here, there, everywhere – as though arithmetic increases in supply could meet the challenge of geometrically expanding demand.

And the mainstream media, which hasn’t entirely recovered from its infatuation with candidate Obama, is hesitant to suggest anything that would cast doubt upon the President’s economic leadership.

Which leaves you and me. Because we remember the summer of 2008. Because we understand the basics of supply and demand. And because we know that the people who dominate our economic and political systems don’t want us thinking about problems that don’t suit their agendas.

The simple fact is this: Barring collapse and/or revolution in China, global energy demand will continue to increase exponentially over the next few decades. Even if we abandoned all concern for the environmental consequences, we simply cannot drill our way out of that.

The technologies that will eventually ease the pressure are still in development, underfunded by both government and the capital markets, because these technologies are not monopolized by the multinational corporations that thrive on the obsolete economics of petroleum-burning, individually-driven motor vehicles.

For the near term, our choices are two: We can do what I did in the summer of 2008, essentially swapping our paychecks for enough gasoline to get to our jobs, or, we can develop an economy based on conservation, continuing to live pretty much as we have, with the exception of driving so much.

To put it another way, we can choose to be slaves to our driving habits or remain a free people with a different transportation system.

This is our choice, and it will affect our politics from now on at the national, state, and local levels. The sooner we make up our minds, and here, I refer especially to Chesterfield County, the better chance we have of leading the way into an inevitable future.

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