Editorial: Gas shortage proves we’re not so good at collective action

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 13, 2021

On a regular basis, it seems, the country is getting a lesson in its ability to collectively act for the public’s benefit, particularly when people are worried about scarcity.

The recent example is a shortage of regular gasoline. After a cyberattack on Friday shut down a major oil pipeline running through North Carolina, drives past gas stations have come with views of pump handles covered in plastic bags or signs indicating empty tanks. Shortly after a tanker truck made a stop, the view included lines of cars waiting to fill up.

The regional shortage, however, contrasts with the fact that there’s no actual shortage of gas in the country. If people filled up their tanks as usual, the supply at local gas stations and incoming deliveries via tanker trucks likely would carry the region through to the pipeline’s restoration.

Panic buying, though, has led people to fill their tanks earlier than usual, bring extra containers in case the pipeline outage persists and create artificial, regional shortages. As a result, people who might otherwise need gas for their daily work, already running low or making a trip that requires a stop are more anxious than usual about a routine task. You will be able to find gas, but it might require a trip to an out-of-the-way gas station.

The good news is that Colonial Pipeline, the company affected by the cyberattack, said it restarted its line at about 5 p.m. Wednesday. It will take several days to return to normal.

A primary lesson here is one a bipartisan swath of policymakers has already identified — a need for improved cybersecurity. Improvements are necessary in the private and public sector.

There’s also a lesson in collective action involving a single goal: we’re not very good at it.

The goal for regular gas should be making sure we don’t exhaust the supply when there’s plenty to go around.

One year ago, shelves were barren in toilet paper and paper towel aisles as panic buying set in at the start of stay-at-home orders. Sure, there were supply chain issues, but they were exacerbated by panic buying, which can be as simple as purchasing an extra 12 pack when you’ve already got a 12 pack waiting at home. Store clerks probably got tired of being asked when the next shipment was scheduled. Customers got tired of walking to the toilet paper aisle to find empty shelves.

In the previous year, the country also learned it’s not very good at stopping global pandemics from spreading, with quarantines, mask wearing and vaccines being shunned by significant portions of the population

We’ve been assigned many group projects in the previous year and received questionable grades on just about all of them.

It’s a tall task — maybe as tall as Mount Everest — but we can avoid future failures to collectively act by reconnecting with one another and rebuilding community bonds that have broken apart since March 2020. The Salisbury-Rowan community can get a head start by looking for ways to reconnect with neighbors, church members, civic clubs, school groups, family friends and acquaintances. If people start to care a little more about the well-being of the people who live around them, the country will improve its ability to achieve common goals.