Ilana-Davita, in her comment on my earlier post about conspicuous consumption, suggested that it might be the first of a series of posts on life choices in a shared world. Consider this the second in the series, if you like.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and make an incredibly obvious statement: it’s time to get ourselves weaned off oil.
The horrific spillage contaminating the Gulf of Mexico, with its impact on the environment and implications of corruption and negligence at the corporate and government levels, is one good reason. This disaster is only the latest in a series of screw-ups that shows that if the collection of oil cannot be done in a more secure, responsible manner, perhaps it’s time to find a cleaner source of energy.
I’m not demonizing oil and other fossil fuels for their contribution to air pollution. According to Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner in Superfreakonomics, the flatulence, exhalation, and manure from cows, sheep, and other ruminants are responsible for 50 percent more greenhouse gas than the entire transportation sector, generating methane, “which by one common measure is about twenty-five times more potent as a greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide released by cars (and, by the way, humans)” (authors’ italics). But the continued production of motor vehicles, particularly by American companies, that churn out the highest pollution coupled with the poorest fuel efficiency is inexcusable. (I’m continually disgusted when reading the magazine section of the Jerusalem Post to see American SUVs, which consistently score at the bottom of the emissions ratings scale, beginning to make their way to the market in Israel.) And the excuse, “We’re only making what people want” is rubbish. Are people really attracted to inefficient cars that cost more money to fill up and churn out more greenhouse gases? Wouldn’t they be even happier with a reasonably sized car that got 100 miles per gallon? Or are the auto companies just sticking with an antiquated formula of making large vehicles with the same engine design and saying to hell with fuel efficiency and cleanliness?
I read years ago that the technology existed to make cars that could get over 50 miles per gallon. And on a Google search this morning, I found a website for a company that claims to have the technology (replacing the time-honored piston engine for a more efficient design) to make an engine that can get over 100 mpg. In the short term, redesigning engines to increase fuel efficiency seems to be a worthwhile goal. So does improving cities’ and countries’ public transit systems, walking more, and searching for ways to utilize renewable sources of energy to replace fossil fuels in the long term.
But there is a further thing to consider when examining the issue of fossil fuels. Levitt and Dubner discuss the concept of the externality. An externality is “what happens when someone takes an action but someone else, without agreeing, pays some or all the costs of that action. An externality is an economic version of taxation without representation.” The example the authors give is that of someone turning on the air conditioner in his home, creating externalities in the form of black smoke belching forth from the power plant that generates the electricity to run the air conditioner, as well as the environmental effects of mining and trucking coal to run the power plant, and the dangers to human life and limb of coal mining.
An externality of oil dependency often cited by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is that of lining the pockets of oil producing countries, many of which are located in the Middle East. These countries are in many cases ruled or controlled by oil magnates who, in the absence of a popular mandate to rule, ingratiate themselves with the more extremist, Islamist element of their society by contributing large sums of cash to jihad-preaching madrasas (study halls) or, in more extreme cases (like that of Iran), actually fund terrorist activities including training combatants and purchasing weapons. In a dramatic but not unlikely example, an American who pulls up at a gas station and fills the tank of his gas-guzzling SUV (which he drives almost exclusively locally, getting the worst possible mileage) is putting money into the hands of oil companies that purchase crude oil from Saudi Arabia, which funds Islamist madrasas, some of which indoctrinated the 9/11 bombers who then went on to fly American planes into American buildings and kill thousands of Americans (as well as other nationals). Or, in a more contemporary example, that same American who, after nearly nine years of war in Afghanistan and a fruitless manhunt for Osama Bin-Laden, STILL owns an SUV and fills it up weekly, is putting money into the hands of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad who uses it to finance his Republican Guard which terrorizes the population and keeps him and the mullahs in power, pays street thugs to batter and kill peaceful protesters who oppose the government, and also supports, through training and weapons purchases, two terrorist organizations: Hizbullah, which has taken over southern Lebanon and keeps the government of that country in constant turmoil, and Hamas in Gaza, which spends the money not on its own people, building a state with an economy, quality housing, and agriculture to feed its population, but instead uses it to fight a never-ending war to try to destroy Israel.
If the nutters who fill these flotilla boats headed for the blockade, who claim to care about Gazans, were to forgo the Mediterranean cruise and examine their own energy consumption habits and lobby in their home countries for alternatives to fossil fuel dependency, they would be working toward a REAL solution to help the people in Gaza, as well as reducing carbon emissions, improving sectors of the world economy, spreading democracy to parts of the world where people want to be free, and furthering world peace. For people who clearly love a good cause, does this one sound worthy enough?