Overcrowding at the gas pump

In today's world, being a 'rugged individual' won't help address real problems.

Are you infuriated these days when you pull into a filling station and see the high prices? If so, I implore you not to spew curses at the cashier, or drive away without paying. News reports of "gas rage" incidents are now popping up in several states.

I'm also urging all Americans not to become fixated on the current oil controversy because it's only a doorway that leads into a larger discussion we need to have about the priorities and expectations of our 21st-century lifestyles.

There are numerous other starting points for this discussion. A recent story in USA Today reported that apartment rents around the country are expected to increase by more than 5 percent this year. And a Reuters dispatch from Beijing quoted the Chinese state media as saying the polluted Yangtze River is rapidly dying.

Yes, I may seem all over the map but my point is an old one: Everything is connected. This point often gets lost in the news because information is usually presented in itemized form. Most stories are covered as discrete topics. The challenge for the news audience is to find the connections and consider their implications on society during the next 50 or 100 years.

The hot-button example of the moment is immigration. Many estimates claim the number of undocumented aliens currently residing in the US is 11 to 12 million people. But while most debate focuses on jobs and border controls, here's the connection to the bigger discussion: Immigration impacts population, which has economic and environmental consequences, and those consequences can affect how we live and work each day.

I'm happy to mention population growth because it's an issue that has virtually disappeared from our collective consciousness. Every man, woman, and child in America aspires to a high standard of living, but the numbers are working against the notion of total personal fulfillment. There aren't enough resources for all of us to have everything we want, in the quantities we would prefer.

Here's a great scenario: All banks suddenly declare, "We're going to provide free financing so that every apartment-dweller can buy a new home!" Great idea, except most cities don't have any open space left for thousands of new homes.

The playing field will keep shifting even as we have the discussion. Right now a new group of college graduates is moving out of dorms, looking for housing, and starting their own pursuit of the American dream. Thankfully, no one has yet suggested building huge walls around every campus so those kids won't be competing for our jobs.

I have known people whose approach to life was totally self-oriented. They claimed to be following an American tradition: Whatever you can get is what you deserve. Don't worry about others. If you're not a winner, you're a loser.

I'm positive the "rugged individual" approach isn't useful anymore, but finding an alternative that satisfies everyone will be tricky. Are we entitled to ample supplies of cheap gas? What about clean rivers? How much material comfort does a person need to feel satisfied every day? Complicated questions for a complicated century. Let's try to keep the discussion reasonable. Flying into a rage definitely won't help.

Jeffrey Shaffer writes on American culture.

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