Dear Reader

This fall, the presidential election dominates the news.(A)

This fall, the presidential election dominates the news. It is painful to watch character assassinations and ridiculously simplistic reductions of complex issues in a media designed for sound bites. But for a couple of weeks my husband and I are in the mountains of Vermont, hiking the hills, biking, and kayaking and blessedly isolated from the rage of the presidential campaign. Almost no chain stores interrupt the bucolic coziness of the small towns, the food is often local, organic and well prepared, the people are friendly and the hills green and lush. Amazingly, there are few political signs. One long-time resident theorized that the lack of signs reflects the fact that Vermonters simply live in their own world, run it as they see fit and will quietly vote for whom they want.
The current events of the larger world creep into daily life at the gas pumps, though, where the price of regular gasoline is about $1.89 a gallon, up over 40% from a year ago. Although still cheap by world standards, the magnitude of the price hike is hurting tourism and even the farmers’ market sales. In our interdependent world, vital elements like transportation, shelter (heating and cooling) and food are produced or controlled far from our homes. Vermont needs the tourists who drive or fly here to enjoy the outdoor recreation, the local culture and the feeling of escaping from the hassles of the rest of the world. Even Ben & Jerry’s, a company that has insured that black and white cows will not go unemployed, could not bring back the self-sufficient family farm of my grandfather’s day.
Any campaign discussion of the true cost of our petroleum addiction fades behind news of terrorist acts and the fears they provoke, but I have some old press clips with me. One is an article from Forbes magazine dated October 28, 2002, a few months before the U.S. attacked Iraq. In an interview, Fadhil Chalabi, who at that time directed the Centre for Global Energy Studies in London, predicted that Iraq’s oil reserves could exceed those of Saudi Arabia and that production of this oil could “take off quickly”, and if “a U.S.-led force succeeds in ousting Saddam these (American and British) oil companies will come in as soon as the fighting has died down”. He also predicted that “the price for West Texas Intermediate (would go) from $30 today to $15”. The last time I read a paper the price was $45. On June 30 of this year, the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article on policing petroleum. According to this article, about 30 U.S. warships patrol the Persian Gulf and surrounding waters in an attempt to protect the 16 million barrels of oil that pass out of the Gulf daily – the military is spending an average of $4 to $5 per barrel for petroleum security.
In the village not far from our temporary home, there is a Mobil station, one of the few “chains” allowed to penetrate the picturesque landscape. Exxon Mobil is not hurting. Last quarter alone, the company earned a stunning $5.79 billion in net earnings after taxes, up from $4.17 billion a year ago. The latest earnings of this oil company were 3.7 times the 2003 total tax revenues of the state of Vermont.