Having just finished reading "A Declaration of Energy Independence: How Freedom from Foreign Oil Can Improve National Security, Our Economy and the Environment," by Jay Hakes, my mind is spinning with all of the issues that this brings up. Hakes was the head of the Energy Information Administration at the U.S. Department of Energy during the Clinton administration, so he knows a fair amount about the topic.
He makes a pretty good case that not only will shaking the U.S. reliance on foreign oil help in all of these ways, but that it is possible. He points out that after measures put into action after the oil shortages in the 1970's, the U. S. actually did cut its reliance on foreign oil by half…for a short while. This was accomplished through a combination of government resolve to solve the crisis and the public's willingness to adopt some simple conservation measures. People actually did drive less and at slower speeds; they turned down their thermostats in the winter and up in the summer; they began to install solar water heaters.
Of course times have changed, and now we are painfully aware of the costs that we face from not having continued to boldly deal with these issues. The true cost and burden of our reliance on oil (not just foreign oil) will be paid by future generations. There is little doubt that the Iraq War is a battle for control of oil resources, for which we are paying dearly in dollars, blood, and tarnished reputation. There is little doubt that global climate change, fanned by our burning of fossil fuels is wreaking havoc with rising sea levels, loss of crops, loss of biodiversity, and increasing severity of storms.
Hakes points out that because of the time lag that often occurs between when tough mitigating measures are adopted and when their effects are noticed, there is frequently little resolve among politicians to act because unpopular measures usually don't bring votes, especially if voters don't see positive results.
It has taken a few centuries for us to get into this mess. For over 99% of the time that Homo sapiens has been roaming earth, we have done just fine without burning fossil fuel. Even during the great leap into agriculture from hunting and gathering, we relied solely on our labor, with the help of a few beasts of burden. Then, as ecologist William Catton writes, "Homo sapiens attained a kind of superhumanity by learning to convert the heat energy from fire into mechanical energy by means of various engines." This discovery has jettisoned humanity into the industrial age, and we have comfortably settled into this new way of life, congratulating ourselves on our modern ways.
Now, with the peaking of fossil fuel supplies and increasing world-wide demand, there is only one direction for the price of oil to go: up. With spiraling prices, all aspects of our economy will be affected. The cost of living in this modern world will continue to increase.
But this simple fact may ultimately be our salvation, because economics will force us to find alternative ways of living, and these will inevitably lead us to cleaner, renewable forms of energy. The inexorable laws of economics will eventually force us to address these thorny issues, even when politicians and an unwilling public dig in their heels to avoid change. It will cost too much to do otherwise!
Of course we can choose to cushion the blow of economic and climatic upheaval by making wise decisions now. We can invest in renewable energy now. We can drive cleaner, more fuel efficient cars now. We can walk. We can grow more of our own food. We can make our homes more energy efficient. We can buy only what we really need. We can do all of these things…and we will be much healthier for it!