The bright side to four bucks a gallon

It’s hard even to suggest this because I’ve been burned so often. Disappointment was my frequent companion from the ‘70s through the ‘90s, then pretty much moved in full time in the Oughts, when Dick Cheney told America conservation was a matter of personal choice, not a reasonable way of reducing energy consumption.

We’ve awakened the national conscience before with our consumption habits, but only briefly. One old criticism, that we are “5 percent of the world’s people using 25 percent of its resources” has become a cliché. These spurts of responsibility, though, never have lasted long.

This time, things seem somehow different. What if—dare we hope?—what if we really mean it?

What if the American consumer, if only because of persistent pains in the wallet, were to look at the world through adult eyes? What if he or she were to say, if only inwardly, “Maybe we really can’t do this anymore?”

Experts used to speculate that would happen when gas got to $2 a gallon. That milestone blew past almost unnoticed.

Then it was $3 a gallon. That, too, passed with no real change.

Now, though, it looks like $4 a gallon may have been the long-debated tipping point. Over the last couple of months, as prices tickled that once-unthinkable number, Americans reduced the miles we drive by billions compared to 2007. Sales of sport-utility vehicles and large pickups are in the toilet, while those of smaller cars are angling up. General Motors is reviving its once-moribund electric car effort, and Toyota is scratching for batteries to meet demand for its hybrid Prius.

There’s a negative side, at least from some angles. If you want to trade in the direction that used to be known as “down,” to a less wasteful vehicle, you can expect to get your pockets thoroughly vacuumed as you dump your gas guzzler. Less fuel used means fewer tax dollars for road construction, partly balanced by reduced traffic and reduced wear from oversized vehicles. With luck, foresight and political courage (hey, I can dream), we might compensate further by raising taxes, which would have the dual benefits of discouraging consumption and providing funds for maintenance, upgrades and, who knows, even real, clean, attractive mass transit.

Or, you know, we could just keep on doing what we’ve been doing. No reason to slow down just because we’re getting closer to the cliff.