Over the past few months, Grist has had some great pieces on biofuels, hydrogen power, and plug-in hybrids. Unfortunately, it’s as if we’ve been debating the different types of low-flush toilets while ignoring the agricultural water subsidies that are responsible for 90 percent of the wasted water in America. Essentially, we’ve been distracted by supply-side opportunities and have dropped the ball on the demand side, which is exactly what the oil and car companies want.

Here are some basic facts.

Americans use approximately 150 billion gallons of gas a year. The current average fuel economy for the U.S. fleet is in the low to mid-20s mpg. Put simply, this is a national disgrace. We can put a man on the moon and rovers on Mars, but somehow we’re still stuck with 1920s car technology because of corporate inertia and a lack of leadership. With oil proceeds going to terrorists and their state allies, and global warming increasing, there is no excuse not to significantly raise these standards to at least the low to mid-30s. The technology exists to do this, but we need a government mandate because individuals don’t prioritize fuel economy in their purchasing decisions.

If we were to raise standards to the mid-30s we would save approximately 35-40 billion gallons of gasoline a year, which would more than offset any increases in the price of new cars (over the medium-term for sure). To put things in perspective, this savings in gasoline is more than twice the amount of biofuel we could get if we dedicated every last acre of arable land in the U.S. to ethanol production. In addition, we would get cleaner air and help to generate jobs in the industries of the 21st century.

I do not subscribe to the view that the Democrats and Republicans are identical with respect to special interests. I believe that there is a historic opportunity to significantly raise CAFE standards if we the people make it an issue. The national security crowd would be on board, as well as the environmental community. This must begin with each and every one of us calling our representatives and senators. We also need to urge all of the presidential hopefuls to take a stand as well. Conservation isn’t sexy and doesn’t make headlines, but it’s the most important thing we can do to reduce oil consumption.

Excuse me while I start making the first of many calls to Washington.