Any pundit, such as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, who continues to advocate an elevated gas tax as a solution to foreign oil dependency or global warming is fundamentally unserious. When Hillary Clinton called for releases from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve during the 2008 election, it became blindingly obvious—yet again–that no politician is willing to deliberately raise gas prices on the American consumer, however valid such a policy might be. Obama’s decision at the end of June to release 60 billion barrels of crude oil from the Reserve further confirms that Democrats are just as determined as Republicans to cushion Americans from pump price shock.
This political reality suggests that environmentalism is also a fundamentally unserious movement. Environmentalists (and I consider myself one) pretend to embrace the virtues of self-abnegation, but do so only up to the borders of their consumption comfort zone. If truly “caring for the environment” required anyone to give up his core lifestyle, the response would be: “Sorry, no can do.” The lifestyle changes that people are willing to embrace—recycling; driving a cool Prius; possibly, in a few cases, taking one’s own bags to the farmer’s market—are things that we are already willing to do. If saving the planet required us to turn off our computers and wireless devices, or running the electricity just 8 hours a day, no one would do it. The backlash against the upcoming fluorescent bulb rule among undoubtedly leftie designers and other members of the cultural elite illustrates the exact location of the sacrifice line that people will not cross: the one that asks them to give up what they value. (“I have a light-enough carbon footprint in the other aspects of the design, so I can allow myself a lighting splurge,” explains a Washington restaurateur in justifying his use of traditional bulbs–a completely ungrounded assertion: how does he know his “carbon footprint” and what it allows for?) The breathtaking hypocrisy of an Al Gore and the entire Hollywood elite, voracious consumers of every energy-hogging transportation, communication, and labor-saving device evolved by human ingenuity, or the wealthy’s resistance to unsightly “renewable energy” infrastructure in such prized backyards as Nantucket Island, are simply larger-than-life examples of the gap between rhetoric and conduct which we all suffer from. The difference between the carbon footprint of Ford Expedition-driving, NASCAR-attending, Rush Limbaugh-cheering, enviro-hating Red-Blooded Americans and the staffers of the Natural Resources Defense Council is only at the margins, at best. NRDC and Sierra Club staffers are just as reliant on an entire web of energy production and delivery for their 21st century lifestyles, their homes have been just as carved out from pristine nature, as any of the yahoos they despise. Putting a solar panel on your roof or occupying a “green” building can’t begin to restore the massive alterations of nature that our civilized life, with its asphalt roads, power lines, and dams, has already exacted and continues to exact.
The alternative Democratic technique for showing sensitivity to the environment when it come to global warming—imposing higher fuel efficiency standards on the car industry—is a coward’s strategy. Obama’s proposed new CAFE standards are a highly inefficient way to lower gas consumption; the most efficient way would in fact be a gas tax. But since that would require asking Americans to sacrifice up front, it is far more politically palatable to pretend that the real villains are corporations who are somehow forcing Americans to buy cars that they don’t want, as the NRDC’s Roland Hwang preposterously argued on Warren Olney’s To the Point today, and to make the costs of lowering gas use presently invisible to the consumer and voter.
As a California nature buff, I am horrified by (what I would deem) unnecessary electricity and water use: leaving appliances, including computers, on when you are not using them; running your air conditioning when you are not home, or, frankly, even when you are; and the worst: letting precious water run unused in showers and taps. And yet if someone told me that I had to give up swimming in order to be conservationist when it comes to water or energy–that swimming is an unnecessary frill–I would rebel. We conserve only what we are prepared to do. Does that make the instinct useless? Perhaps. And yet it feels like a salutary virtue.