Ripple Effect

I just opened the newest edition of “Transport Topics,” the weekly news journal of the trucking industry, published by the American Trucking Associations, and I almost wish I hadn’t.

Despite an encouraging lead headline reading “June Truck Sales Rise 9.5%,” the rest of the headlines are quite sobering. These are the other stories on the front page: “Diesel Rises 3.7C to $4.764, Setting Record,” “Smaller Fleets Seeking Buyers As Strategy to Avoid Bankruptcy,” and “For-Hire Carriers Endured a Painful Year.”

And the misery continues throughout. In a 32-page issue, well over 20 pages have some sort of negative industry news, including bankruptcies, falling profits, layoffs, sagging stock prices, cutbacks, plant closings and the worst of the worst: peak oil.

That, of course, is the driver behind the tidal wave of bad economic news. Whether you believe the world has reached or even passed the moment of peak oil or not, you can’t deny that skyrocketing energy prices—in particular high gasoline and diesel fuel prices—are crippling virtually every aspect of our economic activity.

And the bad news is starting to strike close to home with alarming frequency as well. Here in southern Wisconsin, we’ve already been hit hard by the news that came out in June that the General Motors assembly plant in Janesville will be closing by 2010. The plant, which is currently producing GM’s full-sized SUVs, has cheated the hangman before, but this time it appears that GM management is permanently, irrevocably reducing production of large trucks so that they can pump out more high-mileage Cobalts and plug-in Volts for what may soon become a “post-carbon” economy.

Today it was announced that Stoughton, WI-based Stoughton Trailers is shutting down its facility in Brodhead, WI, and laying off 184 employees. Brodhead, sad to say, is just a few miles down the road from Janesville.

A company spokesperson says the September 17 closing is temporary, but in this climate who wants to bet the farm on that?

I could write a dozen columns about who and what is to blame for this mess we find ourselves in, but what good would it do? isn’t it better to focus our energy and creativity on dealing with the problem at hand?

I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes, which was uttered by the poet T.S. Elliot: “Success is what we make of the mess we’ve made of things.” So, now that we’re here, what do we do about it?

Do we appeal to the better natures of BP, Shell and ExxonMobil, and ask them to show mercy on us? Yeah, right. While many of us can reduce our driving and thus our fuel consumption in our personal lives, it’s not an easy thing to do in our professional lives. And freight haulers can’t downsize to smaller vehicles.

We can cut back spending on nonessential items to compensate for rising energy prices — how about skipping the morning stop at Starbucks on the drive to work and using the money you save to help pay for... er, the drive to work? Oh wait, Starbucks is closing 600 stores, so that decision may already have been made for you.

Drilling at ANWR isn’t going to bring down fuel prices, nor is opening up new areas of our coastline to offshore oil exploration. Starting a war in Iran—let’s not even go there.

We are stuck, as a nation, as a society, and as a world, and the way it looks we are going to stay stuck. And, despite the sentiments of certain Senators, this pain is not psychological, and America is not a nation of whiners.

So, what do we make of the mess we’ve made of things? I confess that I’m stumped. But I really hope I don’t remain stumped for long. We’re not heading off the cliff yet, but it’s approaching rapidly...