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The real energy crisis

By Jack J. Woehr
web posted May 28, 2001

"The aim here is efficiency, not austerity," said Vice President Dick Cheney regarding the energy crisis while addressing the Associated Press annual meeting on May 8th. He added that conservation, while perhaps "a sign of personal virtue,"  does not make for sound or comprehensive policy, rejecting the notion that Americans should be told to "do more with less."

While Mr. Cheney made two valid points, it seems to me that commentary on his proposals has focussed on the less interesting of his points to the exclusion of the more weighty. Conservation can indeed be a personal virtue. And if there is anything America seems short of these days, it's virtue.

For instance, I figure that a little virtue could save America about 40,000,000 gallons of gasoline per weekday. No particular effort required, just a little virtue. Here's how I figure:

TrafficLet's say that there are 40,000,000 vehicles engaged in the daily commute. That's not a precise statistic, but it's somewhere around there, give ten million one way or the other. If each of those vehicles save one-half gallon of gas each way, that's 40,000,000 gallons. To save one-half gallon of gas each way each day is easy, and furthermore will facilitate the traffic flow. All Americans have to do is ease up on the pedal, stop tailgating, observe the "two-second rule" separating their car from the car ahead, thin out the jam by gentle coasting as traffic slows, cease rushing ahead with the pack of fools just to screech to a halt again when the pack tightens up. The commute would be easier, the overall average speed would be actually higher due to absence of stop-and-go situations, etc.

Then on the weekend, a little virtue can save another 5,000,000 gallons of gas.

Mowing the lawnLet's say there are 40,000,000 lawn mowers going every day of the weekend, each consuming 1/4 gallon of gas. About half of them represent exercises in laziness. Half  the lawns could just as easily and satisfactorily be mowed using a push mower, with health benefits accruing to individual engaged in exercise and not engaged in breathing the acrid and noxious fumes of a two-stroke engine, to say nothing of "secondhand engine smoke" inhaled by family and neighbors.

So far we have saved forty-five million gallons of gasoline per week without doing anything more drastic than improving the quality of our own lives. That's what virtue is supposed to do, isn't it? Enlightened self-interest is still self-interest.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a crusader hoping that by posting my screed to the Internet my words will take wing and transform the hearts of a nation. Viewed against the backdrop of human history, it's much more statistically likely, so to speak, that Americans will careen heedlessly onwards engaging in the pointless, unpleasant, self-defeating, conspicuous over-consumption of petroleum resources. You try pulling up to someone at the next light and asking him or her to please slow down. I'll visit you in the hospital. Or tell your neighbor to turn off the damned lawn mower. Or ask the motorboat operator on the tiny lake why they don't let everyone else enjoy nature more by sailing instead of motoring.

How's the driving where you live? Out here in Colorado, about 40 per cent of the drivers chronically travel 15-25 miles per hour over the speed limit, coast through stop signs and right-turns-on-red, run red lights shamelessly, and fail to yield to other traffic or to pedestrians. While earning my living as a taxi driver some decades ago, I discovered that in urban traffic, those who speed and break the laws and those who obey the traffic laws get to their destinations within seconds of each other. You just can't beat enough lights or weave through enough congestion to make much of a difference in less than about a 25- or 30-mile journey.

When I was learning to drive, only naughty teenagers and drunks failed to stop at stop signs, or sped chronically, or ran red lights. For an adult to receive a traffic citation was a matter of shame and embarrassment. One could even get a ticket for being stopped at a red light having one's front automobile bumper protruding over the crosswalk area.

America sure has changed. Disregard of the simplest, most fundamental rules of good behavior while driving is so endemic that our traffic police are reduced to merely halting the most outrageous conduct, that is, when their time is not otherwise occupied at serious yet avoidable traffic accidents. This could be argued to present evidence that nowadays many, perhaps most adults, view their personal concerns as invariably trumping the rights of their fellow citizens. The universal "nonnegotiable demand" of the full grown yet eternally childlike of our Empire is "Get out of my way!" It bodes not well for democracy.

Years ago, in conversation with a foreign service acquaintance, I uttered a contemptuous critique of American policy with regard to the dictatorships of Central America. My interlocutor's reply was quite telling.

"Jack," he said, "in those nations where we gingerly pick the creeps we support, there is no general concept of national comity. The universal motto of the adult male is '¡Vivo Yo!', 'I live!' and screw everyone else. Such societies cannot possibly have democracy." We may be compelled to admit that it's becoming difficult to tell what separates our social system from theirs in this respect.

Yes, Mr. Cheney spoke sooth. It's futile for the government to prescribe morality and austerity to the public. Look at the inglorious results of the War on Drugs, if you want the proof. Sure, Uncle Sam could play Uncle Joe and create a command economy to regulate the disposal of our natural  resources. As James Madison pointed out, "If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." It's a shame, but the command economy doesn't work because no angels have run for federal office in living memory, and the rest of us can't figure out what command to give. So if the public wants oil, drill we must until national decline or rising seas put the hiatus to our prodigality.

Still, we would perhaps do well to consider the possibility that Mr. Cheney was right in both respects. The real energy crisis in America may turn out to be a shortage of moral energy.

Jack Woehr lives in Fairmount Colorado, where he mows his 1/3 acre with a push mower just as his grandad did, but only when his wife reminds him to do so.

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