I cycled to work in Bristol yesterday past a petrol station webbed in red and white tape, dry as a mormon wedding. There is something pretty dystopic about empty petrol stations, like abandoned factories or early summer mornings when no-one’s about. So pivotal are functioning petrol stations in maintaining the mundanity of the everyday environment that – particularly as a non-motorist (no superiority intended) – for myself at least they usually go unnoticed. But trussed up and vacant this particular forecourt gave off a vague and foreboding sense that something wasn’t right.
Of course, actually, everything is fine (at least for now). There will be no petrol strikes over Easter and the car-juice will carry on flowing. Yet somehow we’ve ended up in the midst of nationwide panic-buying of petrol, to nobody’s benefit (and in one lady’s case to her serious detriment). Apart from the blindingly obvious fact that Francis Maude is seriously incompetent and probably won’t be let loose in front of the public ever again, what does this fiasco tell us?
That we’re consumed by petrol. This sounds obvious, and maybe it is. But just think about what’s happened: a national fuel crisis is underway not because we don’t have enough petrol sloshing around, but because enough uncertainty was caused to get people scurrying out and stocking up just ‘in case’. Now the problem is that the fuel we do have is sitting idle in the tanks of those who got there first.
Which is really the point – what did people think would happen if they didn’t rush out and fill up? Granted, many people would have weekend plans hindered by an empty tank – a few unfortunates would have crucial journeys scuppered if they didn’t get a move on – but really the idea that for most people the world would grind to a halt without petrol for a weekend is ludicrous. Inconvenient perhaps, disastrous, no. Yet here we are in a ‘crisis’.
I think there are three lessons we can learn here. The first is the inherent instability in a supply chain of a vital commodity run on a ‘just-in-time’ basis: simply the idea that it might be under threat is enough to cause an actual breakdown in supply. The second is that we are unprepared, in general, to contemplate being without fuel on demand. And the third is that we are unprepared, full stop. This ‘crisis’ might be Maude-induced, but future crises will be real. We continue to gobble up natural resources, and fossil fuels in particular, without even noticing. As prices and political stakes rise, it is very likely fuel and energy crises will proliferate over the coming decades. We should address the instability in the resources we rely on and we must contemplate life without the personal consumption of fuel we are accustomed to. And if we want to prevent the dystopia hinted at today, we need to be prepared. Full stop.