Friday, May 23, 2008

The High Price of Doing Nothing

Here on the eve of the Memorial Day weekend, the beginning of summer when people traditionally take long weekend vacations - mostly driving or flying to their destination – and gas prices keep going up and up and up. The whole country is complaining (except for oil and gas companies) because it’s affecting everybody’s bottom line.

I can’t help but wonder what things would be like if we had acted over the past decade to wean ourselves from an oil-based transportation system. But instead of proactive planning, our national leadership took the position that we should let the “market” determine our energy policy. Whenever the idea of raising gas mileage standards on cars was advocated, American automakers fought back and blindly pumped out the SUV’s. And when the notion that the federal government should incentivize the development of alternative energies was presented, oil companies cried foul and Congress caved. Aided and abetted by a backward-looking Administration and a Congress hostile to visionary thinking, no action was taken (until last year’s upping of CAFE standards) to begin lessening this country’s dependence on oil.

As a country, we’ve drifted aimlessly – no rudder, no oar - oblivious to the consequences of our actions. The status quo prevailed as world dynamics changed; and the dynamics changed drastically. Now here we are.

Some say “it was impossible to see this coming.”

Just one problem: we did see this coming.

In the 2000 election, the candidates’ positions were clear. And yet, the issue of energy independence and moving away from an oil- and gas- and coal-based economy was given very little play in the press, and was not taken seriously by the American public.

Al Gore famously went on Saturday Night Live a couple of years ago and opened the show (from an alternative universe) as president addressing the American people from the Oval Office. Among other things, Gore deadpanned about how, because of his insistence on aggressively pursuing alternative energy, there was now a glut of oil and gas prices were at record lows. Gas was 19 cents a gallon, and oil companies were hurting. He urged the public to help out the ailing oil companies because 'if it were the other way around, I'm sure they would help us.'

Hyperbole aside, if indeed we had aggressively pursued a proactive energy policy over the past 8 years rather than leaving things to chance, we would not now be in the grips of a gas crisis. Low mileage vehicles, sprawl, and the lack of alternative energy options have backed us into a corner and, increasingly, is lowering our collective standard of living.

What if in 2000, instead of deriding candidates over how many times someone said “lockbox” (it sounds so silly) or hyperventilating over “exaggerations,” we engaged in a national discussion about the issues that surely would affect our lives in a meaningful way in the years to come. And what if we had considered who best would lead us in the complexities of a changing energy economy?

People said "it’s either jobs or the economy." They have been proven wrong. Turns out green collar jobs expand wildly when the environment is respected and preserved. Alternative energy-related jobs are now expanding as other sectors loose jobs.

This year we have another chance. Will we rise to the occasion, or will we get bogged down in ‘who I’d rather have a beer with’ and risk another national hangover?

Here’s a link to Gore’s satirical opening to SNL. Enjoy!

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