Driving to work recently, cruising at 5 mph below the speed limit as my personal protest of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, I watched an outsize luxury SUV accelerate at breakneck speed past me only to abruptly jam on the brakes at a stoplight. There, I caught up just long enough to scowl at the driver for wasting so much gas before the vehicle unleashed its 400 powerful horses and launched into orbit again as the light greened.
I wondered, "Will we ever learn? Will we ever get it?"
To be truthful, what I was really thinking was "Why are we so mind-bogglingly stupid?"
We - Americans, that is - represent 4.5 percent of the global population, yet we devour about 25 percent of the world's resources, and pollute the planet in similar disproportions.
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We drive gas hogs while the rest of the world walks, pedals, motor-scoots, drives small cars, or uses mass transit. We occupy air-conditioned mansions while Europeans, South Americans, Asians, and Africans live small.
And with every finite resource we extract from the Earth, with every molecule of carbon dioxide we emit as we burn oil, coal, and natural gas, the planet devolves into a tattered, denuded shadow of itself, and civilization's future becomes more tenuous.
Enter the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon disaster, both a vivid demonstration of our arrogance in employing technology in nature as well as an entirely expected outcome of risky oil extraction methods.
At the same time, though, it is an opportunity that would allow us to reaffirm a value that we have not witnessed since World War II, one that we claim as the heart and soul of being an American: uniting to repel a major threat to our security and overall well-being.
And we are squandering it.
"Getting it right" means more than cleaning up the oil or implementing more "safeguards." It does not equal using this debacle for partisan political gain. "Getting it right" means neither boycotting BP nor drilling in ANWR.
"Getting it right" instead means implementing a program of Manhattan Project proportions to reduce our use of oil and other fossil fuels, while expanding clean alternative energy sources.
We must raise fuel efficiency standards to 50 mpg by 2015. According to the US EPA, every 3-mpg increase in fuel economy saves about 1 million barrels of oil per day and reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 140 million tons annually. Increasing fuel economy by 4.8 mpg eliminates the need for the 1.6 million barrels of oil a day produced in federal and state waters of the Gulf. I achieve gains of that magnitude by keeping my tires properly inflated and driving ecologically.
We must build and subsidize mass transit, institute a carbon tax, and place moratoria on new coal and nuclear power plants (but expand research on safe nuclear power).
Once WE "get it right," we must work with developing countries to reduce their fossil fuel use.
Do we have what it takes? Frankly, I doubt it. President Obama and the Congress dither instead of acting. Citizens are indifferent or, in the case of tea partiers, ignorant and hostile. Shockingly, more of us don't accept the truth of human-caused climate change. And what at one time was perhaps a most noble profession, journalism, on a national scale is fast becoming an obedient lapdog of corporate America.
Sadly, at this point in history demanding American Action, we instead get American Idle.
Abel is a local college professor, environmentalist and author.