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Peter Cheney tested a Porsche Panamera and a Smart car to discover what reaction each car would generate with the public.
Peter Cheney tested a Porsche Panamera and a Smart car to discover what reaction each car would generate with the public.

Road Rush

Gas-guzzling guilt doesn't keep him off the road Add to ...

The lifespan of the common field cricket can be measured in days. Until recently, this meant nothing to me. Now it dictates part of my life: each week, I commute across the city of Toronto to buy two dozen live crickets for Peaches and Yoshi, my son's pet leopard geckos.

Out of idle curiosity, I used a spreadsheet to calculate how far I'll end up driving if our geckos make to the age of 15 (which is not uncommon.) The answer: about 15,000 kilometres.

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According to my rough estimates, this will take about 750 litres of gas in a Toyota Prius, and at least 3,000 in a large SUV. All this for a mission that seems patently absurd: feeding a pair of lizards that were meant to live in the deserts of south-east Asia, where their cricket supply would arrive on its own hind legs.

Worldwide, drivers consume more than 18 million barrels of oil every day. And I am part of this petroleum bacchanal. The vast majority of my driving miles are pointless and indefensible. I cruise up to Markham to look at radio-controlled helicopters, and make the 3,000-kilometre round trip to Georgia to fly gliders. My wife and I once drove to Montreal and back just to make our infant daughter fall asleep - she had colic, and the drone of our Volkswagen was the only known cure.

A friend of mine who lives in the rural U.S. owns six cars, and he gave his teenage daughter an SUV so she could get around. In the past two years she has racked up more than 60,000 kilometres on missions like finding a new skirt, tracking down a specific shade of eyeliner at distant malls, or visiting friends who moved two states away.

I'm not much better. I once went through two tanks of gas in a single day lapping a Porsche Turbo at Mosport. Not long afterwards, my son launched the car through our garage door, which generated several hundred more kilometres of driving that shouldn't have been necessary: the door repairman came and went, as did the insurance adjusters, a masonry contractor, and dozens of curious friends. The wrecked door had to be carted away on a truck and the Turbo had to be transported to a distant repair shop - twice.

Carbon guilt was upon me. So I tried to cheer myself up by checking out Elvis Presley's fuel consumption figures. Now here was a guy who knew how to drain the oil fields. He bought dozens of gas-hog Cadillacs (giving many away as gifts), and when his dog got sick, Elvis flew him from Memphis to Boston on the Lisa Marie, a private jet that he had decked out with a teak-panelled office, solid-gold faucets and queen-sized bed.

According to my rough calculations, each of Elvis's runs to the vet would have used about 8,000 gallons of fuel. Next to The King, I am a vehicular ascetic (fuel-sipper Honda, downtown lifestyle, three bicycles). But now I had descended into moral relativism.

I have to face the facts. It's been 20 years since I used public transit on a regular basis. And I'm commuting across Canada's largest city to buy crickets so they can be eaten alive by a pair of lizards. What a long, strange trip it's been.

In the pre-industrial world, virtually all of the energy came from renewable sources. Windmills drove the pumps in Holland, and North American settlers read by tallow candles. But the rise of the automobile and cheap oil has made things easy. We don't freeze in unheated rooms, and with keys and a credit card, I could be in Mexico three days from now.

Our life is gasoline-powered. I spent 10 years driving my son to hockey arenas. Britney Spears has a fleet of Cadillac Escalades that stand ready for impromptu Starbucks runs any time of the day or night. Dubai built an indoor ski resort out on the blazing sands.

But what are the alternatives to an oil-powered lifestyle? I once knew a guy named Tundra who swore off driving because he thought cars were an insult to the environment. When he decided to move from North Carolina to Georgia, he walked. (It took him a few weeks.) I admired Tundra's dedication, but the limitations of his philosophy emerged over time. Tundra walked everywhere, but he did allow his luggage to ride in a car with degenerate, oil-burning sell-outs like myself. (It made sense, since we were going anyway.) After a while, Tundra started getting in the car himself, but there were conditions - he'd ride along if you were going the same place he was, but the trip couldn't be instigated by his needs.

The process reminded me of an Orthodox Sabbath workaround - like permanently lighted stoves and elevators that go floor to floor without their buttons being pushed, so you can stay pure but still have cooked food and avoid the stairs. Then Tundra crossed the line. He was out of liquor - he asked me for a ride to town. We jumped in my truck and headed off to the liquor store, sacrificing some gasoline on the altar of free love. It went downhill from there. Last I heard of Tundra, he'd gone back to North Carolina, this time in a car.

Despite his backslides, Tundra still used a lot less gas than most of us, and I did admire him. But with two kids and a journalism career, there's no way I could live without a car. And truth be told, I love driving, even with the carbon guilt.

With any luck, we'll come up with a new energy paradigm that will save the polar ice caps. But who knows? I've talked to a lot of smart engineers, and none of them see the answer yet. Electric cars have better well-to-wheels efficiency than gasoline-powered ones, but they still consume a lot of fossil fuel, since that's how most electrical power is generated. Could biofuels replace gasoline? Maybe. But I'm told that growing enough biofuel to replace gasoline would take every cornfield in North America and then some. So where will the food come from?

Tough questions. No easy answers. And I just noticed that we're down to our last few crickets again.

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Follow on Twitter: @cheneydrive

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