New crises demand new modes of thought.
In the early 20th century, scientists were baffled by the paradox that the speed of light never changes, even if the observer is rushing toward the light source. Einstein resolved the crisis by redefining time from a constant to a variable.
In the mid-20th Century, America was struggling to escape its centuries-old legacy of slavery and segregation. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement found us all a way forward, by redefining racism as an assault on the souls of whites as well as blacks.
Today, America's and the world's prodigal use of fossil fuels is creating twin crises: a climate crisis from emissions of heat-trapping pollution into the atmosphere, and a security crisis self-created by the industrial world's thirst for other people's oil.
We can solve both crises, but only if we relinquish deep-seated beliefs about fuels and energy. And the attitude we must fling overboard first is our sense of entitlement to cheap energy. We need to recognize that energy does not cost too much; in fact, it doesn't cost nearly enough. To preserve Earth's climate, and wrest political authority from the corporate oil barons and petrodollar sheiks, we must conserve fuel massively and permanently, starting now.
The United States, the biggest consumer of coal, oil, and gas by far, probably needs to cut back by 75% within just two decades.
Yet so long as energy is cheap it will never be conserved, except in token and totally inadequate amounts.
Energy-efficiency standards are often held out as the alternative to higher fuel prices. Standards have proven modestly valuable in some sectors, and going forward they can be a helpful supplement to price-based conservation.
But by themselves, standards will never come close to achieving the necessary reductions in energy usage. For every activity that is brought under efficiency standards, dozens of others will elude regulatory control, either through industry "gaming" or due to the creative unruliness of consumer capitalism, forever finding new ways to burn fuels.
(Cases in point: the "light truck" loophole to CAFE standards that spawned the SUV plague, and the advent of flights-by-the-hour air travel that consumes even more fuel per passenger.)
The lesson should be clear: whether the resource is muscles, water, fuel, or time, we humans squander what's plentiful and husband only what's dear.
To be sure, few people in public life have yet articulated the need to make energy expensive. One prominent advocate missing in action so far is Ralph Nader, the activist icon and two-time Green Party candidate for president.
Dumb me. I went to the Zappa Plays Zappa concert last month. Great show, with Dweezil faithfully channeling his dad Frank. But I felt kind of dorky lugging my bicycle helmet around the theater.
You see, I had made the 10-mile round trip between lower Manhattan, where I live, and the Beacon Theatre on the Upper West Side, by bicycle. Burning a gallon of gas to go 20 miles makes 20 pounds of CO2, so I figure that by biking instead of taking a taxi I prevented 10 pounds of climate-altering greenhouse gases from going into the atmosphere. That may not be much, but it's something.
But now I'm told that for 6 cents I could have been just as "climate-neutral" as I was by pedaling ten rather sweaty miles. Just a nickel and a penny could have purchased enough wind-generated electricity to keep the coal-fired power grid from burning a few lumps of bituminous and releasing 10 pounds of CO2 -- the same climate-altering amount the cab ride would have made.
Says who? The very popular, and now supposedly climate-conscious, Dave Matthews Band.