THE Gulf crisis has again highlighted America's Achilles' heel of energy-profligacy. President Bush has asked Energy Secretary James Watkins to mount a public campaign to urge Americans to conserve, with initial focus on lowering highway speeds, inflating tires properly, and improving the gas mileage of cars. But longer-term solutions must be set in motion now, enabling the US to shift its economy to an energy-efficient, sustainable basis. Several opinion surveys show that large numbers of Americans are willing to make the needed changes. So what is missing? There is a lack of leadership in laying out all the options, coupled with large, rigid industrial sectors still running on waste, and still slowing the transition from polluting economies based on fossil fuels to the dawning solar age of economic and environmental sustainability.
After the oil shocks of the 1970s, the US achieved steady energy-efficiency gains through better standards for appliances and auto mileage, the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit, and tax credits for solar and renewable energy technologies. But in the '80s we faltered, reverting to even greater reliance on foreign oil.
Yet even in the 1980s, a survey by Americans Talk Security (ATS) showed that Americans were ahead of their ``leaders.'' According to Dr. Alan Kay, director, ATI's Survey No. 10 in October 1988 showed that 90 percent of Americans thought our dependence on oil imports was a serious threat to our national security. By wide margins they approved of strategies to decrease dependency on Mideast oil, ranging from building up our strategic reserves to further developing domestic and alternative sources. In the same 1988 poll, 41 percent of Americans were even willing to pay more for oil from non-Mideast suppliers.
Now is the time to face the future: The dream world of cheap oil may never return. The world's present demand for oil, 64 million barrels a day, is growing 1.5 percent per year, adding another 10 million barrels a day to demand by the year 2000.
The long-delayed transition to solar-age economies is now at hand. Although it will not be painless or cost-free, this new course is the best and most palatable prescription for Americans and all other industrial, fossil-fueled economies.
The transition to sustainable solar-age economies includes:
``Greening'' our tax code - levying fees and charges on the new economic ``sins'': pollution, waste, obsolescence, and resource depletion. Such levies might include a carbon tax to prevent excessive buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global warming. Already, 70 percent of the American people approve such a carbon tax, according to a June 1990 survey by Martilla & Kiley/Market Strategies.
Increasing energy-efficiency standards for appliances and cars. Here the same survey shows Americans sharply critical of foot-dragging by both industry and government.
Restore tax credits and government programs to encourage investments in alternative, renewable-energy technologies, and remove subsidies that currently favor non-renewable energy, such as oil depletion allowances.
Encourage, subsidize, and, where necessary, mandate waste-recycling programs. Fifty-three percent of Americans are now separating cans and bottles for recycling. By a margin of 55 percent to 43 percent, Americans already believe that recycling should be mandatory.
Strengthen pressure for a national energy policy. Entrenched interests in existing energy systems are still blocking the emergence of budding renewable-energy sectors and companies in wind, solar, biomass, hydrogen, and tidal energies.
Widespread debate and public opinion surveys are needed, based on such alternative options. As more surveys spell out the conservation and renewable-energy alternatives and relate these options to the future health of our economy and the expansion and job opportunities in the rapidly growing sustainable, environment-enhancing sectors, Americans will stay abreast of needed policy changes.
A hopeful sign of such shifting opinion is that June 1990 poll by Martilla & Kiley/Market Strategies: The conventional wisdom that we must choose between economic growth and a clean environment was rejected. While 72 percent of Americans said that they would be willing to sacrifice economic growth in order to preserve the environment, fully 82 percent said that by creating a cleaner environment, we can actually help create jobs and raise income levels. All this seems to show that Americans are readier to move beyond oil dependency to a solar-age economy than are their leaders.