As a freshman congressman in 1955, I regrettably voted with my colleagues for the Interstate Highway Program. All of us acted on the shortsighted assumption that cheap oil was super-abundant and would always be available. This illusion began to unravel in the 1970s, and it haunts Americans today. Petroleum is a finite resource and the most precious, versatile resource on the planet. Cheap oil played a crucial role in the development of American power and prosperity, and sustains the military machine that dominates the world today. As world oil production reaches its apex and begins its inevitable decline, it will have a radical impact on everyday American life. It will take bold political leadership and awareness on the part of individual citizens to craft a creative response. I watched with admiration in 1974 as my friend, President Gerald Ford, persuaded Congress to adopt a 55 mph speed limit to reduce our reliance on imported oil. He also got a law passed to mandate production of more fuel-efficient automobiles. The American people will tighten their belts if a president forges a national strategy to stretch the life of our oil reserves and to adjust to a long-range plan of energy conservation.
Despite an utter lack of leadership from the White House, a few progressive states and cities are building light-rail systems to serve urban residents and commuter trains to connect their communities.
You also must contend with the carbon dioxide problem. Once it is released into the atmosphere, this gas has a long life (approximately 100 years),spreads over the entire globe, and acts as a blanket that warms all parts of the Earth. The United States and China produce more than 40 percent of the CO2 in the earth's atmosphere. Consequently, these two nations have a moral responsibility to lead any global campaign to develop new technologies to cut CO2 emissions. I recently proposed that these two countries join in a 50-50research venture and assemble teams of engineers and scientists to work together to develop technologies to capture carbon as it emerges from coal-fired power plants. These teams would perfect technologies to isolate carbon and transport it through pipelines to storage sites in the deep ocean or in depleted oil and natural gas fields. The success of such international cooperation could spur development of new supplies of renewable energy. These same teams of scientists could also devise technologies to capture the deadly pollutants that shorten the lives of millions of people in all parts of the world.
Even though scientists can solve many technological problems, a word of caution is in order. I learned during my government service that even the most gifted researchers can't perform technical miracles. The skilled engineers at the Interior Department built the first direct current line to transmit huge blocks of electricity from hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River to Los Angeles by simply flipping a switch. But the same engineers couldn't develop a cheap technique to desalinate seawater. One further example will dramatize my point. In the summer of 1969, after our astronauts completed their roundtrip to the moon, most Americans were overwhelmed by the promises that became the mantra of that exciting moment. The slogan, "This proves we can do whatever we want to do," influenced the mindset of Americans and generated a vision of a future with no limits. A gusher of extravagant prophecies followed, predicting that a new planet of superabundant resources had magically come into existence. Though scientists regarded such predictions as Alice-in-Wonderland speculation, they were generally ignored; dissent was not welcome during this moment of triumph. Americans believed --falsely -- that technologists could perform miracles that would solve any future energy problems. Ignored was the nation's ever-increasing dependence on oil produced by other countries. Worse yet, this new vision offered assurances that our own oil wells would never run dry, and it has persuaded many of our nation's current leaders that global warming is a myth.
Having said that, technology may help solve some of our current problems. Some of the world's best architects and designers are working on changing the design of buildings and cities, which, they believe, will reduce requirements for electricity by as much as 50 percent by 2050.Such advances won't be enough, however. Americans must cast aside our notion that we can continue our wasteful consumption patterns. We must promote a consciousness attuned to a frugal, highly efficient mode of living.
Stewart Udall served as Secretary of the Interior during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He and his wife Lee live in Santa Fe, N.M. This column first appeared in High Country News (www.hcn.org),which covers issues facing the American West.