By the early 1970s I had already read Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, had viewed a few documentaries relating to the carrying capacity of Earth, and had many discussions with friends and fellow students about the environment. I formulated several conclusions regarding exponential and geometric growth of the human population. This was also the time when I had relocated from the Midwest to the San Francisco Bay Area. All of these factors were waiting in my mind for a “perfect mental storm”.
Then it happened, US backed Israel was attacked by a coalition of Soviet backed Arab states. The ensuing Israeli victory increased tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Worse, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, OAPEC retaliated with an oil embargo. Their quarrel with the US was centered on the American decision to supply Israel during the Yom Kippur War.
The embargo directly affected American drivers. Not only did fuel prices drastically increase, but there were also many shortages. In car-manic California, some temporary measures were enacted to deal with the public panic. The state administration issued prohibitions regarding “topping off” ones gas tank. There was the institution of even/odd fill-up days. The line-ups of vehicles to obtain gasoline were legendary.
You could only purchase fuel on even numbered days if your license plate tag number ended with an even number, on odd numbered days with a license plate tag ending with an odd number. My plate number was 255 KNC, so I could only buy gasoline on odd numbered days. I still vividly remember the early hours of one of those odd numbered days.
It was still dark when I had got off work from my job in Palo Alto and began the homeward commute on the Bayshore Freeway back to San Jose. My little Chevy Vega only had a low capacity fuel tank and the indicator gauge showed “E”. I needed gasoline in order to make it back home. Every off-ramp from the freeway was filled with parked cars and trucks waiting their turns to refuel. I correctly figured that the lines would be even longer closer to San Jose. So, I entered the next Exit Lane then parked in line to wait to use the off ramp.
Perhaps an hour later, my place in line was near the center of an overpass bridge. I remember watching the rush hour traffic on the highway below. It was a constant, slow flow of vehicles in all six lanes. The passing headlights and tail lights gave the impression of two large rivers. Like rivers, the flows speed up or slow down, but the’re never-ending.
I was probably parked on the overpass for at least 15-minutes. I continued to ponder the endless lines of traffic and the fact that I was sitting in a stalled line. I experienced the situation with the mind of a Nebraskan. Aside from a few roads around Omaha
and Lincoln, there is nothing even slightly resembling urban California traffic in Nebraska. Even though I’d been living in San Jose for quite awhile, the overpass view was a revelation.
I suddenly felt claustrophobic and trapped. I really wanted to be home, in bed. Instead, I was stalled in the middle of endless rivers of cars. My own car was nearly out of gas. I had to wait it out. The very first panic attack of my life soon closed in. I closed my eyes and breathed slowly and deeply for a few moments. Finally, I could open my eyes. I didn’t dare look down towards the freeway.
I spent the time thinking about the hundreds of thousands of people sharing the stretch of highway. Where were they all going? Where did they live? What were their lives like? How many were the heads of households? How many were single. Were these thousands of people happy, bored, frustrated, fulfilled, thankful, or ungrateful? How many of them could understand my current state of mind or point of view?
Then, I thought about the many other metropolitan areas across the United States, those in Mexico and in Canada, then the major centers in South America, Australia, Africa, Europe, and especially in Asia. I imagined Large traffic jams of vehicles and the people inside of them. There were the people left behind in homes and in schools.
What were the individual realities of all of these millions and millions of people? Many were wealthy, most were desperately impoverished, but many were OK and reasonably getting along. Hopefully, most of them were not stranded on freeway overpasses.
Finally, my car was near the driveway of a Chevron station. I thought about all the vehicles in the Bay Area getting fill-ups that day, only the ones with odd-numbered plates.
Potentially half of all the cars and trucks would need several gallons of gasoline. What about the cars in Sacramento? How long were the lines in San Diego and Los Angeles? Were there long gas lines in Chicago, Dallas, New Orleans, and New England? The population needed to buy millions of gallons of fuel. Their vehicles would consume it all. There would be more clouds of air pollution. Many California cities had already announced poor air quality days. Where does all the smog go?
At the very entrance to the gas station, I turned the ignition key to start the engine for the final approach to the pumps. All I heard was the grind of the starter motor. The car’s tank was completely empty. Two kind strangers and I pushed the Vega past the incline, onto the flat driveway.
Several minutes later, the tank was full. Then, with my head still full of thoughts, I rejoined the slow moving traffic on the Bayshore Freeway.