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Living Large in America

Cars and Cows

by GEORGE WUERTHNER

The family of a friend of mine used to say they were “living large” whenever they were enjoying something that was a bit decadent like having two desserts after dinner or buying something frivolous that they really didn’t need like another TV set for the bathroom so they wouldn’t miss a single moment of their favorite sit-com even when Nature called.

Living large could easily be a term that applies to Americans—not only to the increasing girth of our stomachs, but also our excessive consumption of global energy resources. Yet no one in America’s political system–not Republican, not Democrat–appears willing to say that living large by excessive consumption of fossil fuels is killing the nation’s economy, killing our people, destroying our national security, and increasingly cooking the planet. 

This morning oil futures reached $135 a barrel. Across America people are complaining about high gasoline prices at the pump—but high pump prices are just a symptom of a major policy failure and lack of leadership. Americans are suffering a much deeper cost in economic and social security as more of our dollars are exported to pay for expensive fuel, reducing the buying power of the dollar, and helping to give greater political power to authoritarian producing nations like Venezuela, Russia, and Saudi Arabia which in turn gives them greater influence over America’s economic and national security.

The Bush/Cheney Administration, always looking out for their oil company cronies’ profits instead of the national interest, have used high pump prices to imply that environmental regulations are slowing energy development on public lands, which could—they suggest—ensure our energy freedom. They give lip service to things like auto gas efficiency, or the promotion of mass transit, but continuously push policies that will enrich energy companies at the expense of ordinary Americans.  

Meanwhile the Democrats are no better. In Washington DC this week Congress held court with the oil company executives. The CEOs were grilled about record profits while Americans suffer high fuel prices at the pump. Vermont’s liberal Democratic senator, Patrick Leahy, accused the companies of profiteering at the expense of hapless Americans. Not withstanding that the oil companies are likely profiteering, Leahy seems unwilling to accept that Americans are partially responsible for their own vulnerability–as if we didn’t know for decades that global oil supplies were maxing out and demand was rising as other countries like China and India develop. Did that stop us from buying large gas guzzling cars or building houses that sprawled out into the suburbs?

Meanwhile, Leahy’s Vermont counterpart, Senator Bernie Sanders, along with other liberals like Senator Hillary Clinton, has joined with conservative Republican Senator John McCain in pandering to American voters by voicing support for lifting the federal gas tax as a means of reducing costs at the pump. At least Barack Obama has the good sense to oppose such a plan, noting that it would only save the average American a few dollars a week.  And Vermont’s lone Congressman, Peter Welch, another so-called progressive, introduced legislation to temporarily halt storing petroleum in the strategic oil reserve, hoping to increase supplies sufficiently to reduce gas pump prices. This is exactly the opposite of what this country needs. Rather than reducing the cost of gas we need higher gas price not so we enrich the oil companies or despotic regimes like Venezuela, Russia and Sandi Arabia, but because it will encourage greater energy conservation.  

Maybe the reason liberals like Leahy, Sanders and Welch are focused on reducing fuel prices is that residents of Vermont drive more per capita than any other state. Many people in the so-called progressive state of Vermont love to live large on five acres in the country, far from where they work or shop thus indirectly contributing to its reputation as the “most rural” state in the nation. But to live large means driving a car to work, driving your kids to school, driving to do all the mundane things we do daily, from buying groceries to going to the bank.

All of the proposals by our representatives are just stop-gap measures that address the symptoms. They don’t address the central causes of our current energy crisis. I have yet to hear any serious discussion by mainstream political leaders about changing the way we live. Where is the leadership? Even “straight talking” John McCain is afraid to tell Americans the party’s over. We can’t drive our way to energy freedom.

Even the food we eat is energy-intensive and not sustainable. We expend nearly 10 calories of energy to get back one calorie of food energy—mostly because we use oil to subsidize food production and import it from throughout the world. Plus America uses the bulk of its cropland to grow livestock feed, instead of crops that can be consumed directly by humans. We have 90 million acres in corn production—an area the size of Montana—with the vast majority of that corn feeding cows and other animals, not people. And nearly as many acres are in soybeans—yet less than 2% of all soybeans are used for things like tofu and other soy-based food directly consumed by humans. The bulk of all soy, corn, and many other grains are fed to livestock—to supply our “living large” meat and dairy diet.

And now increasingly, some of these grains like corn are also feeding our cars as land is cultivated to grow bio-fuels at the expense of human and/or even livestock food. What does Congress do in face of rising energy costs? It passes a giant farm bill that, among other things, gives even larger subsidies to farmers to produce crops largely utilized for livestock feed and bio-fuel for vehicles.  

Worse yet, our collective transportation and living choices are now starving people around the world. As bio-fuel demand has grown, food costs are rising for everyone, in part, because the US and other countries are now planting bio-fuel crops for fuel production instead of growing food for direct human consumption. Not to mention that higher fuel prices are also driving up the cost of fertilizer (produced from natural gas) upon which the vast majority of the world’s food production depends. Indeed, we are living large at the expense of the world’s poor.

Capitalizing upon rising fuel prices, Bush /Cheney released a report this week suggesting that if all federal lands were opened up immediately to energy development we could drill our way out of high oil prices, ignoring that even at the maximum full production of all known reserves, America would not be able to produce more than a fraction of the petroleum it consumes. America’s known reserves are a mere 21 billion barrels of oil, with perhaps only 6 billion or so recoverable. At current rates of consumption we would use our entire known reserves of petroleum in less than three years—even assuming we could recover it all.

By way of comparison, Saudi Arabia alone has known reserves of 260 billion barrels, and not surprisingly Saudi Arabia is our second largest supplier of petroleum after Canada. Plus Iraq and Iran both have at least 100 plus billion barrels of known reserves as well. That is why Bush/Cheney wanted to have a military presence in the Gulf—to ensure control of oil supplies. Despite all the flag waving, the so-called desire to bring democracy to Iraq (but not the fiefdom of Saudi Arabia?), and talk about weapons of mass destruction, in truth Saddam Hussein had to go if America were to continue living large and maintain its valued “American way of life.” Every day soldiers die in Iraq not protecting democracy but protecting our energy-extravagant lifestyles.

The best national defense isn’t to build military bases in the Middle East or even drill for more oil in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. Rather we need the equivalent of a Marshall Plan aimed at significantly reducing America’s use of energy—not just finding more energy.  Note that I did not say reduce “dependence” on fossil fuel by replacing fossil fuel energy with other sources of energy like nuclear, solar, wind, hydro or bio-mass. We can not secure our economic and national security by greater energy exploitation. And while we should continue to encourage alternative energy sources, none can match the energy savings that a massive energy conservation effort could engender.

The only real way to reduce all energy consumption is through energy conservation—to consume less energy and all other resources. And this will entail a major change in the way we live. Living large isn’t an option any more. Our country needs to invest in making homes energy-efficient by granting homeowners and businesses interest-free loans or even outright federal grants to pay for energy conservation measures like insulation, new windows, passive solar heat and water, small wind generators on roof tops, and other measures that could turn our homes into energy producing machines, instead of energy sinks. Grants and loans are far less expensive than maintaining a military presence in the Middle East. We need to mandate energy efficiency in cars and work towards eliminating them altogether by investing heavily in mass transit, not more highways. We need to make our communities more desirable by building bike paths, parks and protecting or creating green space, so that people want to live in our towns, not out in the sprawling “country.” We need to move towards a healthier vegetarian diet that does not consume the majority of farm land with livestock feed. And we need to grow more food in our yards (reduce the size of lawns) and in nearby farms, not trucking produce across continents and oceans.

None of these proposed changes require new technology. Rather they are all options available now. Blaming corporations for profiteering or blaming environmentalists for slowing energy development will not solve our energy crisis. The only ingredient missing is the political will power and leadership to move the country in the right direction.  I’m willing to bet that if we made these changes, most people would actually find they like the kind of life it creates—more livable communities, healthier air and water, healthier bodies and lifestyles, and a more secure global political stage. It’s time to start living well  instead of just living large.

GEORGE WUERTHNER is an ecologist, writer and photographer with 34 published books, including Wild Fire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy and Montana, Magnificent Wilderness and, most recently, Thrillcraft: the Environmental Consequences of Motorized Recreation.