Lessons We Should Have Learned Years Ago
“Tonight, I want to have an unpleasant talk with you . . . the energy crisis has not overburdened us, but it will if we do not act quickly . . . this is the greatest challenge that our country will face during our lifetime . . . It’s a problem that we will likely not be able to solve in the next few years and it is likely to get progressively worse through the end of the century.”
President Jimmy Carter, Address to the Nation on Energy, April 18, 1977
And with those words, Carter, just three months into his presidency, sealed his fate as a lame-duck president. Many came to associate the word “malaise” with his presidency. You know, doom and gloom, not feeling very good. Or, to put it another way, truth.
Many Americans say they want solutions to energy and climate change issues, but few are willing to sacrifice. Don’t tell Americans they will have to give up their big cars or pickup trucks. Don’t tell Americans they have to cut back on their hamburgers. (Yes, that’s right. Clearing forests to create land for cows, the production of meat in slaughterhouses, and truck transport of that meat are all big contributors to greenhouse gas emissions [GHGs]. But I’ll save that for another discussion.)
Later in the speech, Carter went so far as to say, “Many of these proposals will be unpopular. Some will cause you to have inconveniences and to make sacrifices . . . Those who insist on driving large, unnecessarily powerful cars must expect to pay more for that luxury . . . A policy that does not ask for changes or sacrifices would not be an effective policy at this late date.”
Carter told many truths in that speech. He correctly pointed out that, as soon as the gas lines of 1973 went away, it was easy for people to think the crisis was over and go right back to their old ways. He told us that Japan and Europe had out-produced us in making smaller cars. Finally, Carter also correctly noted that the United States was the most wasteful nation on Earth.
What? A president insulting us like that? How dare he?
But the simple truth is that the U.S. accounts for 25% of GHG emissions even though we’re just 4% of the world’s population. Now China, going through its own industrial revolution, has surpassed us in GHG emissions. We showed ’em how to industrialize and they are doing it the way we did it! Ours is the gift that keeps on giving. We must be so proud.
Carter did create the Department of Energy and had a 10-part proposal to meet his goals. The proposal offered plans for government, industry, and consumers. Congressional Republicans, unhappy with the associated tax and happy with a recent oil surplus, chipped and chipped away at it so that the ultimate changes were a shadow of what was proposed. (Sound familiar? Build Back Better, anyone?)
Forty-five years ago, Carter wanted us to transition away from big oil. Had we but listened, we might not be in the predicament we’re in today.
Back then, he asked us to turn down the thermostat, wear sweaters, carpool, get smaller cars, insulate our homes better, and move to solar energy. My father, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who always voted Republican, grew up in Maine, so he was always mindful of the importance of the natural environment. He took advantage of Carter’s tax break and got a solar panel for our roof, which gave us hot water for the remainder of our time in that house.
By 1979, full Carter malaise had set in, illustrated by his “Crisis of Confidence” speech in July. Carter, a true Christian and Sunday School teacher, talked about energy as a kind of mission, saying that we needed to have “moral and spiritual confidence” to address the issue and, without it, it would be a “loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”
So many Americans claim we’re a Christian nation but, apparently, the last thing they wanted was a Sunday School teacher lecturing us about our moral imperative.
In November, the year-long Iran hostage crisis began, and so began Carter’s long goodbye, his final year. The revolution in Iran had reduced oil supplies and caused gas prices to rise again. (Sound familiar? Ukraine, anyone?) Even before this unfortunate event, Carter warned us about how our oil dependence would create more scenarios like it.
Let’s face it. Americans do not want to change their lifestyle. We have become accustomed to the fact that we can have whatever we want, whenever we want it, as long as we can pay for it. (But are we paying for the pollution we are foisting on the rest of the world? Reparations, anyone?) We feel it is our right.
Europe and Canada have always paid higher gas prices than we do, and yet they seem to have a good middle-class lifestyle. I guess because their governments invest in their people in other ways. Lower drug prices, for example.
To that moral imperative, we have always had an obsession with self-indulgence and material goods.
If you don’t believe me, look who Americans voted for, by a wide margin, in 1980: Mr. Feelgood himself, President Ronald Reagan. The former actor from sunny California made us feel good about ourselves and later gave us the memorable slogan “It’s morning in America.” (I always called it “Mourning in America,” but I digress.) Consumerism and opulence increased in the ’80s and it became known as the Me Decade.
And you may recall how many celebrated their patriotism after 9/11 — by buying their own personal Hummers! Like having a private tank! I can’t imagine what the gas mileage was on those things.
Today, I see small cars but also as many big SUVs and trucks as ever. I’m aware that those with large families or those who live in rural areas and need trucks for their jobs or businesses, farming, or clearing brush or what-have-you need bigger vehicles, but I think there are many more of them on the road than are actually needed.
I will close this essay with more words from President Carter’s 1977 speech:
“If we wait, we will constantly live in fear . . . we could endanger our freedom as a sovereign nation . . . By acting now, we can control our future rather than letting the future control us.”
Again, that was 45 years ago. And yet, here we are again.
Sadly, prophets seldom get elected. Or re-elected.