Back in the '80s, saving the world seemed so easy. I have a Polaroid picture of myself wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and a self-satisfied grin after my kindergarten class sang along to a cassette tape of "We Are the World" for all of our parents. In first grade, my school went out in the playground and created a human chain for 15 minutes as part of Hands Across America. At home, my mother used to cut the plastic rings that hold six-packs before throwing them in the garbage so marine wildlife wouldn't get caught in them when our trash got dumped in the ocean. Each week we gathered up all of our bottles and cans and newspapers and magazines and brought them to the local recycling center. I felt proud as I took the bundles from the backseat of the car and threw them into the giant receptacles. We didn't realize then that even if all of our friends and neighbors across the country were doing the same things, we wouldn't even make a dent in the problems we'd been causing since the Industrial Revolution.
In 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen (now an advisor to Al Gore and a professor at Columbia University) testified before Congress about climate change. The idea of global warming, which I'd heard about in science class, was about as distant and farfetched as the idea that the sun was going to expand and swallow the earth in five billion years. We could recycle and plant trees and sing songs until we were blue in the face but what was required to reverse course was fundamental change at the federal level. There would need to be massive changes in the way we function as a society. Entire industries would have to recalibrate to those changes. Some businesses might even go out of business. (The sun turning into a red giant was another problem altogether.) But no politician was going to legislate the loss of jobs, and it's clear little has been accomplished in the two decades since Hansen went public with his concerns.
Today, Hansen is being called a "prophet," a word now apparently reserved not for someone who magically predicts the future but one who simply relays information that is unmistakable. The realities of carbon dioxide emissions, of which we are the number-one source in the world, are literally hitting home and we're being forced to make the changes we should have made 20 years ago—albeit reluctantly. I'm too young to remember the oil crisis of the '70s. For me, filling up the gas tank when I was a teenager was always just a nuisance—one more of time than money, usually—and living in a city with a mass transportation system as an adult has often kept me disconnected from rising gas prices. These days, though, you don't even need to turn on the news to feel the pinch: Even for city dwellers, the cost of food, electricity and transportation have all risen significantly.
If you're someone like Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who's been a longtime "skeptic" of climate change (but who no doubt believes in God, despite a notable dearth of available scientific evidence) and claims that people like Gore and Hansen "have been trumpeting man-made climate doom since the 1980s. But Americans are not buying it," he'll need to see it to believe it. Trouble is, his agenda is such that the reality is happening right in front of his face and he still chooses not to acknowledge it. These individuals are in a growing minority, but they exist—and most disturbingly, in the same positions of elected power that contributed to this crisis in the first place. For seven years the White House has been rewriting science, editing press releases and omitting entire portions of government reports, including those co-written by Hansen, to downplay the threat of climate change—all in the name of Big Oil.
There has been much debate over how big a part, if any, the oil futures market is having on the current price of gas. Unless you're an economist, a Wall Street trader or a beltway legislator, it's probably hard to wrap your head around the deregulated speculation explanation, which includes something called the Enron loophole (allowing traders to speculate on the oil futures market, thereby increasing prices even when demand hasn't reached those levels). There have been more excuses for the recent rise in oil prices than the ones fabricated by George W. Bush to justify his war in Iraq, and the myriad of possible factors makes the question of what to do to solve the problem and protect the integrity of any future alternative fuel markets nearly incomprehensible to the average person. So it's up to our elected officials to take on the responsibility. Just don't expect it to be John McCain, who voted against the Enron loophole back in 2000 but whose current advisors were responsible for its passage in the first place and have actively lobbied on behalf of the oil industry to keep it alive:
Regardless of the factors, it shouldn't come as such a shock that a limited natural resource that has been steadily increasing in price for decades should suddenly spike in the wake of the fifth year of a failed war many believe was waged for oil (at the very least, partially and/or peripherally), an increasingly volatile hurricane season that threatens U.S. refineries, and the voracious thirst for fossil fuels in developing nations like India and China. The idea of sucking Earth's molasses-thick marrow out of the ground and pumping it into our SUVs has always seemed gluttonous to me. We've drunk the milkshake, indeed. Watching our elected officials scramble to find quick fixes for the crisis while the oil companies continue to get fat on record profits is even more obscene. We've spent the last two decades mainlining, and finding new ways to get our fix—whether it's exploiting our occupation of Iraq or drilling offshore or warming Alaskan caribou land with a nice, cozy pipeline in an attempt to compensate for rapidly maturing oil fields—isn't a long-term solution when it's already widely accepted that long-run survival requires that we get off the sauce almost entirely.
Many have lamented the fact that the American people were never asked to make a real sacrifice in the aftermath of 9/11 and the wars that have followed. It was only a few years ago that there seemed to be a big, gratuitous Hummer on the road for every Prius bought by some eco-friendly consumer. It was naively assumed, by outspoken liberals and true conservatives, that our children and our children's children would be left to bear the burden of debt incurred by Bush's irresponsibility. But the economic impact is hitting home harder and faster than even the most cynical could have predicted. The terrorists have succeeded in ways unfathomable even to them. Enemies of democracy know better than anyone how intrinsically our system is tied to capitalism; the only way to defeat a beast too large and powerful to take down with one blow is to slowly bleed it to death with a thousand tiny jabs.
Even if alternative fuels, smaller vehicles and higher mileage standards lower gasoline consumption in the U.S., the effect will be offset by the rest of the world's increasing demand. Less than a third of households in China own a car. That figure is expected to rise dramatically in the coming years, and when it does the island on Lost might be the only place in the world where you'll be able to find a polar bear. (According to a new report, the North Pole could be ice-free as early as this summer.) We need to be priced out of the market—and $140 a barrel isn't high enough. It won't be enough until the only cars on the freeway are the ones left by the side of the road with empty gas tanks. It won't be enough until our economy is completely crippled and we are forced to do what we should have started doing back when my kindergarten class was singing about making a choice and saving our own lives.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.