Sunday, June 20, 2010

What Else I Wish Obama Had Said


In Tuesday night’s speech President Obama sought to assure the nation that he was on top of the situation with the BP oil spill and that the company would be held accountable. As a result BP has been forced to set up an multibillion dollar emergency fund for victims of the spill. He also used the speech as an opportunity to emphasize the need for the U.S. to push more aggressively toward developing clean energy sources. As far as it went, I was satisfied and impressed with the President’s resolve. So what follows is not meant to be taken as a criticism of President Obama, but I must admit that I wish he said more.

I wish Pres. Obama had taken the occasion not only to push for clean energy, but also for calling us to simplify our lifestyles. While I am not aware of the current percentages, I do know that as 5-6% of the world’s population, the United States consumes well over half of the world’s natural resources. This need for natural resources, such as petroleum, causes us to go to war in the Middle East, to seek resources in previously protected and restricted wilderness areas, and to push further out into the ocean floor for oil. Had the accident that occurred in the Gulf occurred on land, there would have been no deaths, the well could have been capped immediately, and the unfolding environmental disaster in the Gulf would not have happened. The environment and the world at large can not afford us, nor can it afford countries like China and Brazil trying to emulate and catch up to us in terms of lifestyle.

By stopping at calling for clean energy and not also a change in life style, President Obama implied that we can keep on living our exorbitant and wasteful lifestyles, as long as we have “clean” energy. His options in addition to wind and solar energy, are nuclear power, which we still have not figured out how to “safely” store nuclear wastes for thousands of year, and so called “clean” coal, which many experts say is an oxymoron. What the world and the environment need is for those of us in the developed world to reduce our carbon footprint, by driving our cars less, eating locally grown food (rather than having things shipped from all over the world), and building communities that are eco-friendly rather than wasteful.

A few years ago I attended a conference at the University of Pennsylvania with the title “Building Cities After the Age of Oil.” This collection of scientists, architects and urban planners shared ideas and models for building communities that were walkable, and energy efficient, and that utilized clean energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal. They talked about having gardens on the tops of houses, capturing rainwater for cleaning, building more public transportation, relying less on cars, and finding ways to store and save energy in neighborhoods. While much of the technical discussion was over my head, the message at that conference was clear: we know how to build green cities and green communities, what we lack is the political will.

I have no idea if President Obama sees the need for simplifying our lifestyles, but if he did, calling for a reduction of our consumptive lifestyles would be politically risky. I still remember then President Jimmy Carter during the gas crisis of the late 1970’s. He called on Americans to turn their thermostats down to 68 degrees and put on sweaters as a way of reducing our energy consumption. He is still ridiculed for that statement 30 years later, but he was right then and he would be right now.

The world can not afford our lifestyle, nor our pursuits to support that lifestyle. We would have no reason to be militarily involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, were it not for oil and our addiction to it. We would have no need to be drilling further and further out in the ocean, were it not for our need for multiple, often gas-guzzling automobiles. As President Obama contemplates allowing for more offshore drilling, the current crisis should give us pause to ask if that is truly necessary. Now the critics will bring up the economy and the fact that it could be economically disastrous for some. The disaster is upon us, the question is: will we get the message its trying to give us?

There are numerous resources that can help us learn how to simplify. The place to start is with ourselves, to (in Gandhi’s words) “be the change we want to see.” Two resources that I have found helpful are Simple Living.Net and the Sabbath Economics Collaborative , both of which provide practical guides for living more simply, justly and eco-friendly. However, simply Google-ing “simple living” would reveal any number of other resources.

As the experts at the conference stressed, the issue is not that we don’t know what to do, or how to do it; we just lack the will. Every day the oil oozes out into the gulf and pollutes the shore line, we should be reminded that the birds, fish, vegetation, and the world at large can not afford us. It is not just BP that must mend its way. We too must look closely at how we are living.