Usually, the NYTimes is admirably progressive in its analysis of climate change and sustainability issues. It has recently, for example, come out in opposition to energy -intensive corn ethanol, and has brought up the idea of a national carbon tax several times.
But even the paper of record isn’t immune to shortsighted conventional thinking every once in a while. Guest columnist Ronald E. Minsk’s op-ed Praying at the Pump in yesterday’s edition sees our oil addiction through an exclusively economic lens – and therefore proposes an exlusively economic solution. “Simply put,” Minsk writes, “our oil addiction undermines our well-being because the volatility of oil prices threatens our economy.”
No, silly, our oil addiction undermines our well-being because it’s threatening our very ability to survive on this planet. As last year’s Stern Review and this week’s ballyhooed IPCC Report make abundantly clear, global climate change induced by continually rising emissions would bode far worse for the economy than what we’ll endure when the price of gas shoots past $5.00 a gallon. A world of massive weather changes resulting in hundreds of millions of environmental refugees is not so unforseeable given our current path; in order to stave off as much chaos as possible, it’s in our best interests to start making changes now – starting with mechanisms for reducing our carbon emissions and transitioning to renewable energy.
But Minsk’s agenda for breaking our addiction to foreign oil involves not investments in alternative fuels or plug-in hybrid technology, which he says would still leave us vulnerable to price spikes. Instead, his answer is to merely find a more secure supply for our addiction, shifting from “autocratic regimes in the middle east” to oil extracted from within our borders: “if we cannot find a way to increase production and inoculate ourselves from oil-supply interruptions, we are either going to have to develop cars that need no oil, or learn to live with the risks of the global market.”
Which is absolutely right. Would an oil shock like the OPEC embargo of 1973 put a damper on our already shaky economic growth? Sure. Would it affect millions of Americans whose lifestyles depend on cheap oil? Undoubtedly. But the fact is that the price of oil has never reflected its true cost to our society, and the sooner the correction comes, the less painful it’ll be. Increasing domestic production would indeed keep gas prices prices down – thus encouraging greater consumption and hastening peak oil, not to mention the disastrous effects on our atmosphere.
Perhaps Mink’s error lies in not appreciating the extent to which change is necessary. It’s not just our addiction to foreign oil that we need to break – it’s not even our addiction to fossil fuels in general. It’s our addiction to consumption, to ever-expanding growth that blatantly contradicts the natural law. We can’t even begin to tackle this problem until thinkers and policymakers like Minsk take the first step: recognizing that our current way of life is fundamentally unsustainable. Only then can the real work begin of transforming the way we build, make, and consume – and ultimately, the way we see ourselves embedded in the biological fabric.