The independence America really needs

Story highlights

  • Meg Jacobs: because fuel is cheap, record high number of Americans will drive this holiday weekend
  • Dominance of car culture and lack of leadership on energy policy hurt our nation, she writes

Meg Jacobs teaches history and public affairs at Princeton University. She is the author of a new book, "Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s" (Hill and Wang). Unless otherwise noted, facts included here reflect that book's research. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. Follow her on Twitter @MegJacobs100.

(CNN)This Independence Day, according to the American Automobile Association, Americans will set a new record: more than 43 million Americans will travel during the holiday weekend. Because of low fuel prices, Americans are taking to the roads -- 84% of those travelers (more than 36 million Americans) will be driving to their holiday destinations.

With the average cost of a gallon of gasoline at just over $2.00, filling up has not been this affordable in over a decade. A tank of gas is nearly 50 cents cheaper than last July Fourth. "Whether they're traveling by car, plane, train, or cruise ship, it will be exciting to see so many Americans celebrating our nation's freedom with their friends," said the AAA's CEO Marshall Doney in a news release.
    Although few Americans will be thinking of costs of our car culture as they take to the roads this July Fourth, maybe they should.
    Meg Jacobs
    Even as we face a sluggish economic recovery from the Great Recession, even as incomes remain stagnant, Americans seem to take comfort from the open road. Our citizens own more cars and drive more miles than any other country on the planet.
    The dramatic expansion in America's automobile ownership in the first half of the 20th century rested on one simple fact: the existence of cheap, abundant fuel. The United States, as the greatest producer of petroleum, eagerly adopted a "fill 'er up" mentality. The romance with the open road -- whether it's Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," John Steinbeck's "Travels With Charley," or the hit country song and movie "Convoy" (to name but a few) -- was all possible because gasoline was cheap.
    And Americans' love affair with the car was no accident -- it was a feat of modern business and government.
    It started in 1908 when Henry Ford pioneered his Model T and forever changed the modern world by making car ownership accessible to everyday Americans with middle-class incomes. By 1927, Ford turned out its 15 millionth car. Around the same time, Ford's competitor Alfred Sloan, president of General Motors, introduced the annual model change, ushering in a new consumer ethos that promised, as the GM motto said, "A car for every purse and purpose." If you did not have enough to buy a car, then the newly created General Motors Acceptance Corporation made financing possible, giving rise to an entire new consumer lending industry.
    After World War II, Americans became a truly car-dependent culture when the GI Bill gave veterans low interest loans with no down payment necessary to move to single-family homes in the suburbs -- beyond the reach of public transportation. President Dwight Eisenhower's federal highway program, justified by the Cold War need to disperse citizens from city centers in the event of a nuclear attack, was the largest public works program to date. With one-third of all workers belonging to unions, Americans saw their wages double in a generation. By 1960, Americans owned one car for every three people.
    Then, in October 1973, with the Arab embargo of OPEC oil exports to the US, all that changed. The twin oil shocks of the 1970s -- the first in 1973 and the second in 1979, both triggered by unrest in the Middle East -- made it clear that American demands for energy exceeded its supply. Americans would have to end their love affair with the car.
    Or so it seemed. As it turned out, rather than ask Americans to change their fuel consumption habits, our country's leaders -- beginning in the 1970s and continuing today -- have consistently promoted public policies to sustain them. As Americans lined up at the gas stations during the Arab embargo, President Richard Nixon urged Congress to roll back environmental and other restrictions to allow for an increase in coal, natural gas, offshore oil, and nuclear power. The Keystone pipeline of Nixon's day was the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which had been bottled up because of environmental concerns, but sailed through weeks after the embargo began. The fracking revolution means that we are now achieving domestic production levels of oil and natural gas not seen since before Nixon first came into office.
    Meanwhile, leaders have never fully embraced a push for conservation. President Jimmy Carter tried; he put conservation the center of his energy policy, calling on Americans to change their wasteful ways. The result of this push to cut back did lead to lasting improvements, including greater energy efficiency in industry, transportation, and residential use.
    It would be hard today to imagine a car like the 1977 Lincoln Continental, which got seven miles per gallon. But conservation remains far from a mainstream value. Even as their refrigerators use fewer kilowatts of electricity, Americans have come to rely on an ever-growing number of gadgets, Congress has failed to pass a carbon tax, and even with gas prices at a low, it seems unlikely that we will get a substantial bill to induce greater conservation. In the meantime, low prices only fuel increased consumption, including higher sales of SUVs.
    In addition, we have been slow to switch to renewable energies. During the 1979 oil shock, Carter installed 32 solar panels on the White House roof and promised that by 2000, the country would get 20% of its energy from the sun. Although the future for renewables like wind and solar looks promising as the cost declines and technology improves, we are still far from fulfilling the promises of the 1970s with solar accounting for 5% of electricity used. Today, though they grace many an ad campaign and remain a hot item for celebrities, hybrid cars still make up only 2% of the American car market.
    Finally, Americans have been and remain willing to rely on military force to secure energy resources from the Persian Gulf region. As of today, there are approximately 35,000 U.S. military personnel in the region.
    And instead of declaring our independence from a dominant car culture and its negative effects on us, millions of us fill our tanks and pile into the car for a holiday road trip.
    Greater independence from automobiles will save money, lives, and the environment -- while promoting innovation and economic growth. We need national leaders who support public policies to induce greater efficiency, conservation, and a transition to alternative energies while scaling back our military commitments as a backup energy policy.
    "Where energy is concerned," said Richard Nixon, "we the American people shall be the sole masters of our fate." As we celebrate the 240th anniversary of the country's freedom, we would do well to reconsider what the true costs are of our excessive reliance on the automobile.