I just learned that one of my best friends purchased a giant 10 cylinder SUV. Because it so large and will be used in her business, she will probably qualify for it all to be paid for by U.S. taxpayers through one of Congress’ more ridiculous give aways to the rich.
On the same evening I heard this news, I took a ride on another friend’s new boat that sports not one but two engines (plus a gas powered generator) so that its behemoth of fiberglass can be thrust down the Ohio River at nearly fifty miles per hour. The owner also just bought a great big SUV (not quite as large as the other) so he could tow the boat “to the lake on occasion.”
Some amongst us would celebrate these obviously affluent consumers for boosting our economy since collectively these items required an expenditure of nearly a quarter million dollars when the boat was new. Economic development people will tell use that their expenditures will be turned over several times and create numerous jobs and that is good.
A downside does exists, however. At nearly the exact moment I was hearing this news, other news was also being made-record prices for oil were being posted on the world market. But that was not all. Other news revealed that government in Russia had seized the assets of the largest oil company in that country and that the instability in Iraq has caused significant uncertainty for that country’s sizable contribution to world oil supplies.
Today, oil prices exceeded $46 for the first time in our history.
From my perspective, all of this creates one huge economic and environmental collision that could leave our economy nothing more than wreckage on the Interstate Highway to the Future. Let me explain:
My friends’ largess will result in an ever-increasing consumption of decreasingly available fossil fuels. We cannot escape that fact. All the easy oil is gone. We are already sacrificing our kids protecting oil interests in the Middle East. Two American wars have already been fought and we have yet to see an end to that. How many lives we are willing to waste so we can drive 10-cylinder truck to work is anyone’s guess.
I must admit that riding down the river on a boat that has air conditioning has a certain appeal but when I think of the amount of fuel it consumes to drive those two engines and generator, I worry about my son, on an even larger Navy ship in the Persian Gulf, as he is put into harm’s way so one 140 pound woman can drive a 350 horsepower vehicle to work and I can feel the wind sweep across my scalp on the river.
But I also worry about the increasing consumption we Americans feel is our birthright. Most of the oil we consume today is used so we can waste it, literally. The engines in use today are better than they were twenty years ago. They pollute less to be sure. Unfortunately, they are still grossly inefficient meaning that the energy they consume is far greater than the energy they create.
My friends could not care less about efficiency, but they are starting to pay a real price so they can consume at an inefficient pace, squandering the oil that might take their son’s to work someday.
Just a few percentage points of extra efficiency might gain a reliable source of fuel for their grand kids but instead they feel a need to consume huge quantities today, as if there may be none left tomorrow and of course, they are right. They mock me because I am concerned about these things, because I worry about the war, because I worry about the health effects of the benzene that is released from their big cars and trucks.
I must admit, I am a boater, too. In fact, I love my boat and although it is laughable in a size comparison with my friend’s boat, it does consume its share of gasoline. I try to mitigate that problem and still gain the benefits of being on the water but no matter how I try, my guilt remains.
They call me crazy for being guilty. After all, I have consumed less than thirty gallons of fuel this summer doing my normal drifting and beaching routine. But that is still thirty gallons some poor person will not have available at a reasonable price to use to get to work.
Now that China is in the gasoline market (I read a story the other day which said they Chinese were wild about Buicks), it is going to be really rough on some people to afford the increasingly reduced amount of oil that is left in the world. Since oil is a world commodity and consumption is catching on worldwide as well, someone with limited resources, say an American soldier, paid less than $2000 per month, will find it ever more difficult to even drive a car.
That would be OK if we had planned and executed a good system of mass transit but through most of the American heartland mass transit is held in disdain and those who can use it find it exceptionally limited and somewhat debasing to their self esteem for cultural reasons that remain in force.
Of course conservation is also a dirty word. We are Americans, we should be able to waste all we want if we can afford to. Even that bastion of environmentalism, the Sierra Club recently alerted one of the their energy listserves not to mention conservation, lest we conjure up an image of Jimmy Carter sitting next to a Whitehouse fire, dressed in a sweater to keep warm while admonishing people to conserve energy during the crisis in 1979.
It seems that conservation is downright UnAmerican. After all, we are consumers of energy, not conservators. Our whole twentieth century heritage was based on our ability to waste instead of conserve and that doctrine continues today by people who have the gall to call themselves “conservatives.”
Simply put, the gurus at the Sierra Club told us in direct language that conservation is not politically correct and will scare people, making them think their world will collapse if they make an attempt to reduce their waste of energy.
So, we have created a culture of waste.
Recently, I was in a meeting of my state Air Pollution Control Board, the group that makes the rules about who can pollute and how. We were discussing my group’s efforts to have statewide rules to reduce mercury from coal-fired power plants. Mercury is causing retardation and developmental problems for young children and fetuses and coal plants are the number one unregulated source of mercury deposition in the U.S.
It was early June and the temperature was nearly 90 degrees outside. Inside the government building in our hearing room, there were only four people in short sleeve shirts. The rest, including almost all the Board members were wearing coats, not only to be stylish but also to keep from shivering. I found it ironic that I was there in my shorts and short sleeves trying to persuade these men in suits that mercury was gradually reducing our children’s intelligence. I stopped short of mentioning the obvious connection between their un-summery attire and the need to produce more coal-fired electricity so they could wear suits in a room that was being cooled to 68 degrees.
Our whole philosophy seems to be make lots of money so that we can waste resources shamelessly. Consume until you burst or get buried in your own waste.
My friends with the big cars and boats are not evil or stupid. They are just thoughtless. When they made their purchases they did not give a second thought to what they might be doing to their children or their children’s grandchildren.
That is what is wrong today. We have no conservation ethic. We feel no constraints to our consumptive behavior.
A solution does exist. No, we do not have to quit consuming oil or anything else, but we had better start consuming with the knowledge that what we consume today will have ramifications at some point in the future. Our needless waste today will be someone’s inability to find work tomorrow.
Resources are limited. If we live to waste, we may deprive our children of their ability to merely consume.
I am a conservative. I do what I can to conserve natural resources and my own resources. I consider every purchase I make, considering its impact on my kids and their kids. Some times my choices are hard but by giving myself a choice, I at least am giving my kids a chance.
Waste not, want not. Think before you consume.
JOHN BLAIR is a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer from Evansville, IN and also serves as president of Valley Watch, Inc., a regional environmental health advocacy group. He can be reached at: Ecoserve1@aol.com