JUST when US politicians thought they'd proven America's invincibility by their cold war victory, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein steps forth to reveal our hidden vulnerabilities. The latest Middle Eastern crisis reignites an energy debate that began nearly 20 years ago with the 1973 Arab oil embargo. But since energy fuels so much else besides machines, the decisions we now make about it will affect virtually every aspect of our lives - and the very future of the planet. Three paths diverge from this point, two in the same general direction. The third moves off toward an altogether different destination.
The first, a ``hard energy'' path, is a straight-line continuation of current US policy - heavy dependence on Middle Eastern oil (presently half our supply) and a rapidly growing and likely long-term commitment of US armed forces to protect American access to it. Once marvelously cheap, the price of such a policy is rapidly becoming prohibitive.
To begin with, there is the cost of maintaining ground forces in the Persian Gulf that may soon rise to 250,000 men, as well as a vast naval armada and a substantial air arsenal - at a total conservatively estimated at $10 million a day and rising fast. Then there are the political costs - growing Arab resentment of American intervention in the region (already evident and likely to spread rapidly over time); a consequent rise of fundamentalist fervor and its attendant irrationalities; and a heightened danger of armed conflict with the probability of a wider war involving Israel and its many adversaries.
Then there are the longer term and still more damaging costs to American society itself. As debts and deficits mount in delayed response to the Reagan rearmament, increased military spending is a disastrous diversion of increasingly precious resources from the urgent tasks of rebuilding a declining industrial base, reforming a decaying educational system, and constructing an affordable housing stock. The hidden costs of continuing to neglect these underpinnings of national security will be ever increasing drug use, random violence and social unrest as the anger and frustration of those deprived of basic needs continue to fester.
The other hard energy path takes us towards reduced dependence on Mideast oil, increased domestic oil production, and exploitation of coal and nuclear options. This course appears to solve the problem of vulnerability to the volatile politics of the Middle East. But it does so only at the cost of creating new and substantial hazards back home. Increasing domestic oil production would require plundering the splendor of the few stretches of still pristine California coastline (and igniting fierce resistance from local residents) and polluting the most fertile Atlantic fishing grounds. The reward for this grand larceny would be meager indeed - in the case of the entire California coast a mere 10 days of average US oil consumption.
Mining coal would wreak grave damage on the land, while burning it would only accelerate already menacing global warming trends. And reviving the nuclear option would encounter stiff resistance from a public grown skeptical of the industry's claims of cost-effectiveness and safety that have repeatedly proven false and deceptive. It would also intensify the unmanageable problem of disposing of spent nuclear waste that no one wants in his or her backyard.
The final option is the ``soft energy path,'' to use the expression of its leading advocate, Amory Lovins. There is, however, nothing soft-headed about this eminently sensible policy. The largest and more readily available option here is simple conservation, finding ways to use less energy and to lose less in its production, distribution, and storage. The second great source, worthy of urgent development, is renewables - solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, and others - all of which are relatively gentle on the environment.
After very modest investment during the Carter Administration, this path was wholly abandoned during the Reagan years. The entire worldwide budget for research and development for all renewables now amounts to just two-thirds the cost of a single Stealth bomber. Yet 15 years ago the US Department of Defense calculated that by replacing just one-fifth of its remote gas generators with solar panels, the economies of scale thus achieved would drop the price per watt to match conventional sources of energy.
Taking this path would be easier on the environment and the economy (no need to maintain vast military forces abroad). But it would require more of consumers - a definitive change of lifestyle. ``Living better with less'' would need to become our national motto.
Given the clear bias of current US leadership in government and business in favor of the first two ``hard'' paths, they are likely to predominate in the near term. But as the costs to the American environment, economy, and society rise, it is virtually inevitable that both leaders and the public will be compelled to reconsider their choice. Polls show that significant majorities of American citizens are in fact ready to cooperate and even sacrifice in order to live healthier lives and restore an imperiled environment. It's time our leaders caught up with them.