No silver bullet

Those of us of a certain age remember the presidency of Jimmy Carter. While Carter’s post presidency was far more successful than his actual presidency, Carter also had a bad habit of not telling us what we wanted to hear. In the midst of rampant high inflation, oil shocks and other systemic problems most of which were decades in the making he asked Americans to sacrifice. He told us we needed to change ingrained habits to ensure a brighter tomorrow. He talked about the urgent need for our country to establishing energy independence from the Middle East. He told us to turn down the thermostats in the winter and turn them up in the summer.

Americans did not cope well with these suggestions. I cannot remember a time when my fellow citizens were in a sourer mood. It was no wonder then that when Ronald Reagan proclaimed that it was Morning in America, his message fell on receptive years. Living with the reality of the energy crisis and the fundamental changes underway in our economy at that time was no fun at all. Our politicians were convenient targets at whom we could vent our rage. Out went Jimmy, in came Ronnie. Out went fiscal discipline, in came Voodoo Economics. We would grow our way to prosperity by charging it to the U.S. Treasury. We would delude ourselves that we were prosperous the same way that Blondie deluded herself that she could afford all those shoes because there were still checks in the checkbook.

Reagan exploited a fundamental truth about Americans: in peacetime, the electorate can tolerate a few servings of spinach only. For the eight years of his administration, the spinach diet disappeared and was replaced by the jellybean diet. (Ronnie loved those jellybeans.) To ensure we would not be eating spinach, he strengthened our relationship with Middle East oil suppliers, i.e. Saudi Arabia. All that cheap oil did help grow our economy, which in time perked up the national mood. The Saudis seemed very happy with their new fleet of American fighter jets, not to mention our growing military presence in the region, even though we were technically infidels. It is now clear that this strategy to keep America growing through access to cheap oil had a downside. It tied us intimately to the intractable problems in the Middle East.

In case you have not noticed, the Middle East, never a calm region of the world, is hardly a more secure place than it was twenty-five years ago. In fact, it is arguably in more turmoil than it has ever been. The umbilical cord between the Middle East and us, driven by our insistence on its oil, is now so big and so thick that cutting it is unthinkable. Moreover, the fundamental issues in the Middle East have not been resolved either. In fact, we have exacerbated the Middle East’s problems. We have given oppressive and authoritarian states (Egypt and Saudi Arabia in particular) the means to keep their people oppressed. I strongly suspect that there is a direct connection between the continued oppression in these states and the rise of Islamic Jihadist movements. Osama bin Laden, after all, is a Saudi who had no sanctioned outlet for his grievances. He was told to stuff it or go to prison or possibly be executed.

And so we get in higher and deeper, to the point where we make ghastly half trillion dollar mistakes in hellholes like Iraq trying to undo our mistakes. As if the carnage in the Middle East were not enough to distract us, there are these other problems that make issues like terrorism seem rather trivial. Global warming and its consequence, overpopulation and a ravaged environment, is probably the biggest problem that humanity will ever face. We recognize the need to do something serious to address it, but we are not sure what should be done. Whatever solutions are required, what we have done so far clearly has not worked. It looks like we need a long-term strategy to really address global warming, we need it now, and it must be dramatic. In many ways, these issues are the same issues we tried to address a quarter century ago. Only now having spent twenty five years ignoring the problem, the cost and pain involved in fixing the problem has mushroomed, much like the costs of occupying Iraq.

Americans are beginning to understand, grudgingly, that it is time to eat the spinach again. Since Republicans seem incapable of it, the Democrats will have the unenviable task of leading on these issues. It remains to be seen though whether Americans are willing to accept the pain and sacrifice necessary for genuine energy independence and real solutions to global warming. Thinking back to the Carter years, I am not hopeful. In fact, in our SUV addicted nation, I think we will give up our guns before we will give up our Hummers. Instead, we will look feverishly for that silver bullet that will allow us to live our first world lifestyles without actually having to pay for it.

In today’s USA Today, I read that Honda will release a limited edition hydrogen powered car next year. Great news: it will not pollute the air at all! You will refill your tank at special gas stations equipped with hydrogen pumps. While hydrogen powered cars will not emit any pollution, all that hydrogen is going to have to be manufactured and transported from somewhere. Ideally, it would come from a nonpolluting sources such as hydroelectric plants and wind farms. To make a long story short, hydrogen powered cars probably are not a silver bullet either. At least in the short term producing the hydrogen to run them would probably contribute to global warming. If we use renewable sources of energy, like feedstocks, to produce hydrogen, we may drive up the cost of food, and cause people to starve. We are already seeing the effect from using corn for energy. Corn is being used to create ethanol. As more corn is used, demand for corn increased, and prices rise. As a direct result, rising corn flour prices in Mexico are deepening the poverty of many Mexicans and causing more Mexicans to go hungry. With hydrogen powered cars, our urban skies may eventually be cleaner, but it will not solve the global warming problem. Instead, trying to solve one problem will likely cause additional unforeseen problems. Someone will probably pay a price for every clever strategy we concoct to solve these problems.

There are unlikely to be any silver bullets for us on the global warming issue. Technologies like hydrogen-powered cars, while better than doing nothing, are merely tinkering around the edges. Real solutions are likely to be too painful to adopt. To address it we must consume much less energy than we do now. We must stop our population growth and eventually reduce our population to levels that the earth can handle. We must live in denser neighborhoods. In short, a few servings of spinach will not suffice just like a couple week on the Atkins Diet won’t make you a thin person for life.

I expect that Democrats have learned from the Carter years. I think they will give these issues attention, but not enough to alter the dynamics between the needs of people and the needs of the planet. Instead, they will choose a middle ground. Arguably, it may be the better of two bad choices. Turn the screws too tightly, and the Republicans get back in charge, which if their history holds true suggests we will go back to giving lip service to the global warming problem. That will be toxic to our species and to our planet.

Hillary Clinton epitomizes this middle ground. She is expressing hope and optimism that we can address global warming, energy independence and all the other issues our nation is grappling with. To me it sounds like a new version of Morning in America. Hope is a necessary ingredient to drive change, but more than hope is needed. These actions, however much hope they may inspire, are doomed and fall short of what is needed.

What is needed is massive and painful societal change. I have some ideas that are unlikely to go anywhere. However, if they were enacted they would demonstrate to the world that we are serious about global warming. Mind you that these are only first steps. How many of these would you personally commit to in order to address global warming?

  • Limit tax deductions for dependents to two dependents per household.
  • Tax homes that exceed a reasonable square footage, say 2000 square feet.
  • Limit trash collection to once a week.
  • Prohibit the use of power mowers. If we must have power mowers, ensure they use catalytic converters like our cars use.
  • Require all houses to undergo annual energy audits. Fine those that do not meet strict efficiency standards.
  • Limit power consumption from carbon producing sources to a given number of kilowatt-hours per household per month. Exempt households that receive their energy from clean power sources.
  • Put a surcharge on energy use to be used for the development of more clean forms of power.
  • Prohibit new development on undeveloped land.
  • Limit the number of automobiles to one per household.
  • Pay per pound of garbage collected.
  • Provide tax credits for households that have certified systems that keeps temperatures at 65 or below in the winter and 80 or above in the summer.

Yeah, I know. Most if not all of these ideas are dead on arrival in Congress, even if my party, the Democratic Party wins control of all branches of government. As President Carter found out, this will be too much spinach for the national stomach to digest. While other actions show good intent, only actions like these will lead to meaningful change.

The reality is that our golden era of energy gluttony has passed. This new era in which we will arrive either sooner or later will not be as comfortable, but we and/or our grandchildren will have to get used to it. It is either that, or as is suggested in the movie The Last Mimzy, the future of the human race and of the planet looks unimaginably bleak.

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