The Opportunity in Crisis

The dust had settled over New York City, and a nation mourned. We, as Americans, lost a part of our identity after those savage attacks on a September morning. We were vulnerable to an unprecedented degree, and as a result, we acted the part of a fearful nation that shuts itself off from the rest of the world, and jeopardizes its status as a beacon of hope and inspiration.

But, something else happened as the debris was swept off and America began to rebuild: we were one nation, ready to tackle the challenges – any challenge – that faced our great nation. America has always been at its best when it is innovating, and working as one to defeat the prevailing threat of the day. For this reason, the post-9/11 America presented a unique opportunity, one that the Bush Administration failed -epically, in my opinion- to seize.

As economist Tom Friedman puts it in his Hot, Flat, and Crowded:

“After 9/11, I and others argued that we needed to institute a $1 per gallon gasoline tax – a “Patriot Tax” – in order to weaken the very forces who perpetrated that mass murder and to rebuild America’s transport and energy infrastructure…The price of gasoline would have gone up at the pump, but that would have stimulated the American economy to get a jump on the world in moving toward more fuel-efficient vehicles and renewable energy…Instead, he summoned the nation for a massive tax cut, simultaneously making us more dependent on China to finance our deficit and on Saudi Arabia to fill up our gas tanks.”

I’m sure most of you remember: George told us to “go shopping,” insistent that America’s out of control petroleum consumption is a virtue, and a staple of American liberty that must be defended against all enemies. How dare anyone suggest that we sacrifice for the benefit of our country? But he missed it: we would’ve rallied, and sacrificed to make this country better. All he had to do was sell it as a direct attack on the wallets of terrorists, just as he sold us on Iraq.

As Friedman puts it, “a disaster is an inexcusable thing to waste.” Well, we have been given a new disaster, and a new President. Fortunately, this disaster hasn’t claimed the lives of thousands of Americans, but instead poses one of the biggest environmental catastrophes in American history. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico not only threatens countless species and effects the surrounding environment in ways we haven’t even begun to realize, but also jeopardizes the livelihood of many Gulf Coast small business owners. Yet again, we have been given an opportunity to grasp the realities of our addiction to oil.

Obama is doing a commendable job with damage control, and appears to be getting tough with BP, but it’s not enough. His statement this week was:

“We have ordered BP to pay economic injury claims, and this week, the federal government sent BP a preliminary bill for $69 million to pay back American taxpayers for some of the costs of the response so far. In addition, after an emergency safety review, we are putting in place aggressive new operating standards for offshore drilling. And I have appointed a bipartisan commission to look into the causes of this spill. If laws are inadequate, they will be changed. If oversight was lacking, it will be strengthened. And if laws were broken, those responsible will be brought to justice.”

Though encouraging, these words sadly seem to present the same type of dead-end reactionary response, instead of the message that Americans desperately need to hear:

Our addiction to oil is slowly killing us.

9/11. The oil spill. Whether it’s the mass murder of Americans or the calculated destruction of the only planet we have – these are the types of things facilitated by the stranglehold of fossil fuels.

Obama’s recent statements on energy reform hint that he understands the opportunity at hand. But I fear that the message is in danger of being lost in the abyss of political rhetoric. Knowing the G.O.P. will create a frenzy at even the mention of another tax has muffled the President’s voice on the matter, fearing backlash at the polls in the rapidly approaching November. But in the face of disaster, the response that proves we have learned our lesson is the right response. It is ludicrous that demanding Americans sacrifice to remedy our ailment equates with political suicide.

Of course, “we can’t end our addiction to (oil) overnight,” but real, sweeping change begins in the consensus of Americans. And there just may be enough anger about this disaster among Americans, that we are ready to face our harsh reality and be given our options. The message needs to be sent to Obama, but just as importantly, to his opposition: we are ready to stand together for energy reform.

To demand bold action to end America’s dependence on oil, start here.