I've been thinking a lot about solutions and have come to the conclusion that it is almost entirely up to individuals making changes to influence the masses. This isn't going to be a top down change, I feel that it has to happen from the grassroots level and work its way up.
I overheard a conversation the other day about gas prices. They were discussing the high gas prices and how there are alternatives available, but the government was keeping them out of the hands of the people. They called it a conspiracy, a cooperation of the government and big oil companies to make lots of money. I am not big on conspiracy theories, but let's take a look at this idea.
Gas prices are high, that is correct. I have never taken an economics class, but I have certainly heard of supply and demand. If the demand for gas is really high, shouldn't the gas companies be able to charge whatever they want? Sure, there is competition between companies and Americans will choose to get the most value for every dollar spent (in the fuel industry I think they'll usually choose one of the cheapest). If you take out the competition it is bad. If you add huge government subsidies, that too is bad (and already occurring). Big oil companies recently made presentations to congress about their large profit margins. While I think government needs to pull the money out of oil subsidies, I would otherwise agree with the oil companies. Let them charge what they want. If people are going to pay it, why shouldn't they?
Another complaint that I overheard was that there was technology available to drastically increase fuel economy and keep everyone in their cars without using all the gas, etc. They claim that the government stomped that out early. I agree, the fuel efficient technologies have been available for many decades, but I don't think it was the government that stomped it out (I've heard stories otherwise, but nothing concrete). Do you know who I think stomped out the fuel efficient developments? You and me. Did you buy one to support the development? Me neither. How is a new innovation going to make a profit if nobody buys it? They won't. That's why they aren't around.
When fuel prices hit $10/gallon (or hopefully before that) there will be more pressure to find alternatives and people will be willing to experiment a little to get out of the cycle of rising gas prices. I think that financial pressure for innovation is a good thing, we should let it happen. People will make changes if it seems like a good investment and if it becomes 'cool' (someday I hope to discover what that really means, I've been avoiding up to this point in my life).
OK, I want to throw something else out there. Alternative transportation methods aren't flourishing because they aren't financially attractive or popular. I want to simplify this a little more. I read a recent article in Reader's Digest about fuel economy. Sorry, I can't find the article online to provide a link, but the article was about a competition to see who could get the best fuel economy. During the competition they all used hybrids, but one of the contestants usually drives a regular economy car and gets over 100 mpg. So how does he get tremendous gas mileage? Did he redo the engine? Does he use a special fuel? No. He drives to conserve gas, the car is entirely stock. He doesn't accelerate quickly (he takes his foot off the brake and lets the car slowly pick up speed pressing only slightly on the accelerator). He tries not to use the brakes (when he sees a stop sign some distance ahead he takes his foot off the accelerator and lets the car slow down gradually). He has removed the extra junk from his car (you know, the stuff that rolls around in the trunk that you never use). He doesn't drive fast (keep the car at 50-55 mph and you'll get far better gas mileage than at 70+). (And he sometimes turns the car off when he's going down hills and doesn't need to use the engine.)
I am not sure about this guys social life, but I'm guessing he's not the 'coolest' guy on the block. He drives like a little old lady. He never guns it, he slows down miles before the turn that he needs to make and he drives slow enough to slop people down on the interstate. Those are all simple changes that are completely accessible to EVERYONE, but there are very few people who drive that conservatively. Why not? I hear a lot of complaints about fuel prices, why aren't people taking steps that are readily available to them to decrease the money they need to spend on fuel? It's not 'cool'. People are unwilling to make certain sacrifices to see the changes they want to.
I think that is why people still shop at Wal-Mart, even though they know they are supporting inhumane treatment of foreign workers. That is why people buy more 'stuff'. That is why the country is going the direction it is. Remember, we have a government 'of the people, for the people'. There was a time that I didn't believe that, I felt distant from the system. I still feel distant from the system, but the more I see public policy at work, I see the government following the desires of the public. We don't want sacrifice. We want everything we've always had and more. Then we complain that the government is letting things slide? We are the government! We are the reason that the city makes tons more money from taxes at Wal-Mart than the neighborhood shop. Our desire for our own 1/4 acre is the reason we have problems with sprawl. We are the traffic that congests the roads and demands transportation improvements.
I don't doubt that there is corruption in our government, but I think our government appropriately reflects the people it governs. I think it's an unfortunate reflection of the people, but it is a true reflection. If we want to see changes in government, we have to change. So the solution to 'the problem' is to make changes yourself and to encourage as many others as possible to make the appropriate changes as well. I still think it's important to be in regular communication with city planners and to participate actively in local government, but it's always up to the people.