05/27/2011 10:55 am ET Updated Jul 27, 2011

A Small Victory

Evidence-based conclusions. What a novel idea. OK, so we faced a long trip. No question, the environmentally responsible thing for the two of us to do was to drive. Our Prius wasn't available, but what to rent! Shopping, I found a wide range of options: Take what appeared to be the cheapest total price, even if my mileage was "average" (say 25 mpg, which is generous)? Or persist until I found a company offering the Prius. We've experienced 50 mpg and like it.

Lots of rental places lag customer demands for hybrids, but a bit of searching landed me at Enterprise. It prides itself on having a fleet of Prius cars here in Atlanta -- and given Atlanta's poisonous air, we need all the help we can get. Obstacle: the total rental figure quoted was higher than for a compact, averaging maybe 25 mpg. End of subject? NO!

We ran the numbers, which predicted it actually costs LESS to rent the Prius, when factoring in the cost of gas and the distance driven. AND we'd have the satisfaction of cutting our "carbon footprint" for this trip in half -- HALF! -- while rolling down the road in a active demonstration of our commitment to cleaner air and more responsible energy policies.

With no love for Big Petro and lots for Small Earth, we rented the Prius.

Here's how it worked out: We drove the anticipated 2,000 miles. We averaged 49+ miles per gallon, in spite of horrible driving conditions and an unexpected side trip into New Jersey (!). Gas prices had risen to AT LEAST 50 cents HIGHER a gallon than we'd figured, sometimes more. So clearly, in doing the right thing for our planet, we'd eased the pain at the pump.*

Here's the trip's unexpected "Aha!" In spite of hate radio and traditional media's dire reports, the United States -- all of them -- harbors a great many very nice people! We encountered them all over. Listening widely, we got acquainted with folks who may have blinked at our accents but were glad to visit -- in hometown diners and back road groceries, from roadside stands to weary night clerks offering shelter from the storm.

Sure, there are still the unrepentant racists like the guy from Missouri venting his spleen at Harper's Ferry, mad as hell that the Confederates lost the war they started. Still.

In addition to being nice, they're smart!

The guy supervising the mid-range motel's breakfast bar reassured me that, "Those people up there on TV just want to rev up people's adrenaline, they're not interested in telling us what's really going on." Hence, he mutes the obligatory television whenever he can. Better for all concerned, is his blunt conclusion.

Plus kindness repeatedly proved itself colorblind. "Is that your contact lens case?" worried a darkly complected older lady with whom I was sharing a highway rest stop. And ageless: "I really like your hair ... do you know your barrette's loose?" asked a teenager walking down the street.

The overwhelming majority of us are ready, willing and able to embrace our fellow citizens, to help and be helped, to share a smile in the face of genuine adversities. We were glad we'd saved gas -- and money -- renting the Prius. It was worth a great deal more to get reaquainted with my fellow sovereigns.

*It's worth remembering -- in the '70s, President Jimmy Carter strongly pushed for a reasonable gasoline tax. Put those extra dollars to use on behalf of all of us, he urged. The idea was roundly rejected. So what happened? Prices went up anyway and we're now approaching what the rest of the world pays to consume the stuff, because they do tax themselves. But in the U.S.? All our extra dollars now go to foreign lands and to Big Petroleum's obscene profits. Nowhere do we see the actual, true costs -- countless, terrible side effects bleeding us all of a great deal more than "just" money. Denis Hayes directed President Carter's National Renewable Energy Laboratory which Ronald Reagan abolished in one of his first acts as president.