Shtipoof No. 1: pushing around empty steel boxes

If "shtipoof" shows up a year from now on the list of 2009's newly-coined words, I hope you remember that you read it here first. From now on, shtipoof stands for Stupid Habit That Isn't Part Of Our Future. As we wake up to the new realities of economic life, we're going to notice them all around us.

Shtipoofs have two important traits. The first is this: examined on their own, they make absolutely no sense. If you had the job of creating a viable social or economic system from scratch, shtipoofs wouldn't make your first cut. We do them only because we've "always" done them, and because companies with persuasive marketing campaigns will do almost anything to keep them going. If you're wondering whether a common American habit is a shtipoof, imagine what a visiting researcher from Mars, an interplanetary anthropologist here to figure out the human species, would think. If Martians have a jaw, and something you say makes it drop — if after carefully listening to your explanation, this Martian researcher says "You people do what?" — you probably have a shtipoof.

The second thing about shtipoofs is that we don't need them. That's the point that matters most as we smash up against the reality that as a nation we're much less wealthy than we thought. Nobody can exactly list the changes we'll have to make to ride out the storm, but shtipoofs are the low-hanging fruit. They're habits that pamper us, that cater to our convenience and indulgence. They accommodate the Easy Life, but they don't have much to do with living the Good Life. Some people have already given them up without having to. Now we all have to.

Here's a classic shtipoof. There are roughly 250 million cars and trucks on U.S. roads. Each day most of us climb into one of them and propel its one-to-three ton mass down the road by vaporizing gallons of a substance so prized that we send out armies to kill and be killed for it. We usually burn up this fuel all by ourselves, with one to eight empty seats around us. And most often we do it immediately in front of, in back of and next to others who are burning the same precious fuel to move other heavy, mostly empty steel boxes down the road, often to places very close to where we happen to be going. At certain times of day in the Rogue Valley, and most of the day in some urban areas, we spend almost as much time burning this fuel while idling at a dead stop as we do actually traveling. Which is to say that in the process of going nowhere at all, we're converting millions of gallons of fuel every day into noxious vapors, greenhouse gases and additional pressure to mine the planet and roll tanks into other countries.

"You people do what?"

That's a shtipoof. As spectacularly easy as it's made our lives, we don't need it. People all over the world who like luxury as much as we do have figured out alternatives, and there's no evidence they feel the least bit cheated.

We don't have to think up the alternatives ourselves. They've been unfolding for years, and 2008's mega-spike in gas prices (yes, it really did happen, and yes, it will again) has stirred all kinds of creative juice. Now some of it's flowed into Ashland CarShare, whose launch (see the Dec. 13 Tidings article "Sharing the load") was marked by the lease of new Toyota Prius. After their driving records are screened, Ashlanders can reserve time to use the car for a fee based mostly on driving time and mileage (check out Programs in other cities — there are about 20 around the U.S. — estimate that CarShare members spend about $50 per month to drive, often 10 percent of what they did before. Studies say a Bay Area program results in 30,000 fewer vehicle miles on the highway and 25 million fewer pounds of carbon dioxide emissions each year, and that each car-share vehicle keeps six to 15 private vehicles off the road.

Results that dramatic suggest that car sharing brings with it a cluster of small changes: more thought and less impulse before hopping in the car, more efficiently planned trips, more effort to put warm bodies in those empty seats — habits that aren't stupid, and are part of our future. Think we can handle them? It's not as if we have that much choice.

What do you notice that would drop a Martian's jaw?

Jeff Golden is the author of "As If We Were Grownups," "Forest Blood" and the new novel "Unafraid" (with excerpts at

Share This Story