Proud, patriotic & green

As war with Iraq edges closer, conserving oil and resources has become the new mantra of flag-waving Americans, who argue that true security will come only when the US stanches the flow of foreign oil.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The nation's green movement is taking on shades of red, white, and blue.

In ads, articles, and websites, environmentalists have pulled a page from President Bush's patriotic playbook, selling their cause of energy conservation against a backdrop of national security.

One online video, created for Greenpeace by cartoonist Mark Fiore, plays the Marines' Hymn while flashing scratchy images of US government posters from World War II. "When you drive alone, you drive with Hitler," admonishes one. The video then cuts to a modern cartoon character slapping a flag on his SUV before driving away from home, water running, lights blazing.

Recommended: 8 steps to US energy security

Another website, launched by an 80-year-old Colorado woman, asks readers to "make history" by pushing for energy-efficiency legislation. A headline on her Smart Energy site, comparing the effort to the race to develop the atom bomb during World War II, calls it "a Manhattan Project for our times."

And the "Patriot's Energy Pledge" promises signers of this online petition that they can serve their nation by keeping their car tires filled, riding the subway, or buying a Toyota Prius.

Energy security "is an issue that has percolated very quickly to the top over the course of the past 15 months," says Jon Coifman, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental group in Washington. "People are saying, 'We want to meet our needs for mobility and transportation and hauling the soccer team around, but we don't need to make ourselves dangerously dependent on foreign oil to do that.' "

In some ways, this message is old hat. During World War II, citizens eagerly answered the government's pleas to use less gasoline and other household items. In 1973, Americans sat endlessly in lines at the pump during the Arab oil embargo. And a few years later, President Carter spoke somberly to the American people, calling the battle for energy independence "the moral equivalent of war."

What is different this time, however, is that the calls for conservation are more bottom-up: Many come from ordinary citizens, hoping that if they speak loudly enough, their leaders will listen. And their disparate voices seem to be tapping into a very real - and unmet - need for some Americans to be asked to do their part in the war on terrorism.

"People are sensing that there are threats to this country, and they want to respond with something beyond going shopping - which was what we were asked to do after Sept. 11," says iconoclast columnist Arianna Huffington.

Ms. Huffington should know. When she wrote a column last month for Salon, somewhat whimsically calling for an ad campaign linking energy waste to terrorism, more than 5,000 e-mails poured in. Many asked how they could support the ads, which Huffington suggested might follow the lines of this one, designed by "Got Milk?" adman Scott Burns.

Opening: Camera zooms in on a man at a gas pump.

"This is George," a kid's voice-over begins.

Camera shifts to pump: "This is the gas George buys for his car."

The ad follows the oil money's path - from gas station to oil company, from oil company to Saudi Arabia, and eventually to Al Qaeda and 9/11.It closes with a wide shot of bumper-to-bumper traffic: "The biggest weapon of mass destruction is parked in your driveway."

Huffington finished her column with a rhetorical question: "Anyone willing to pay for a people's ad campaign to jolt our leaders into reality?" And offers poured in. She says she heard from Republicans and Democrats, from students and businessmen, even from the unemployed. Wrote one reader: "If you're serious, although I'm just a working guy driving a truck, I'd gladly donate a thousand dollars to support the ad campaign you suggest."

Within two weeks Huffington had deposited $30,000 in a nonprofit account and accepted the pro bono services of a director and producer. The hypothetical ad campaign is poised to become a reality.

"I think [the column] touched a chord because of that link between patriotism and what are we really being asked to do," Huffington says. "The fact is, we're not being asked to do anything. We're at war. During the Second World War, people were asked to conserve. People truly do want to do something."

Don't tell that to Jerry Taylor, director of natural-resource studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "People who think the American people want to be told to do things got their butts kicked in the last election," he says.

Recent history lends some credence to his argument. Many political analysts date Mr. Carter's slide in popularity to the famous 1977 speech in which he dressed in a sweater to symbolize the virtue of lowering the thermostat.

But others say Carter's mistake was couching energy use in terms of sacrifice rather than common sense. "[Carter] unfortunately used the term 'conserve' and appeared in a sweater and made people think that energy conservation meant starvation or discomfort," says Amory Lovins, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Golden, Colo.

Carter may have lost the next election, says Mr. Lovins, but the energy policies he introduced had an impact. More fuel-efficient cars helped lead to a 15 percent drop in oil use between 1979 and 1985, Lovins says. Oil imports fell 87 percent.

"If we had kept on [following Carter's policies] one more year, after 1985 we wouldn't have needed a drop of oil from the Persian Gulf," says Lovins.

Instead, in the Reagan era those gasoline standards, known as corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standards, were rolled back. Gas mileage declined. Oil imports soared.

Now, with Americans more focused than ever on the Middle East, environmental groups are seizing on the opportunity to renew the debate. The NRDC recently published "Dangerous Addiction," an in-depth report on America's oil dependence. The Union of Concerned Scientists produced a similar report, "Energy Security," with a slick cover showing hybrid cars and an SUV parked in front of a wind farm. Solar energy panels in the shape and color of an American flag fill the foreground.

Both reports propose incentives to buy hybrid vehicles and use more renewable energy. But their strongest recommendation is raising the CAFE standards: up to 40 m.p.g. by 2012 and 55 m.p.g. by 2020 - roughly twice today's average for cars. It's a step, the groups say, that by 2012 would shave 18 percent off current consumption projections. And, they emphasize, it wouldn't demand sacrifice.

"Honda has been making noises about a 400 horsepower sports van that gets 42 m.p.g.," says Mr. Coifman of the NRDC. "Toyota has a hybrid minivan on the market in Japan. And even in conventional vehicles, there's an awful lot of room for improvement."

Critics, like Cato's Taylor, scoff.

"A lot of Americans want to do something to support our war against terrorism," Taylor says, "and an easy target is SUVs. But it's a misplaced target."

Auto-industry folks say tougher fuel- efficiency standards would hurt American car companies and encourage production of less-safe, lighter vehicles. The Bush administration tends to push a different solution: more domestic drilling, in places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Which, perhaps, is why today's energy-conservation messages - spicy, homespun, and sometimes downright humorous - are emerging from the grass roots.

Take the campiness of the World War II-era propaganda in the Greenpeace video (which can be found at www.greenribbonpledge.org). It opens with a black-and-white declaration in capital letters: "Doing Our Part At Home In The Battle Against Evil!" Scratchy lines run down the screen as the "newsreel" rolls.

"[Humor] is the best way to lead people into what you're trying to teach them," says Mr. Fiore, the cartoonist who created the video. "With animation, you can get away with something that, if you wrote it down, would sound heavy handed."

The "Patriot's Energy Pledge" at www.SaveABarrel.org plays it straighter. But the pledge, adorned with red, white, and blue, also has traces of humor. As it admonishes citizens to follow the speed limit, Revolutionary War fifers march across the top of the screen.

A coalition of economists, environmentalists, and businessmen, led by energy experts Larry Rockefeller and Peter Fox- Penner, developed the pledge. Despite no marketing budget, 40,000 people have signed.

For her part, Liz Moore of Lakewood, Colo. would settle for 400. After three months, her resolution at Smart Energy (www.energysmart.net) has just 250 signers. But Ms. Moore couldn't be more optimistic.

The site has given Moore, who worked in the 1980s for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a new sense of purpose. "There's an awful lot of fear, and anger, and negative stuff floating around, but we don't have any place to channel it," she says. "In a time like this, if you can make the connection to, yes, this is about oil, then you can be energized to go out and do something constructive."

Although her efforts were slowed by a death in the family, Moore has big plans. "It seems to me that [America] could help the world with [energy]," she exclaims. "We're geniuses at inventing things! We could produce the cheapest energy-efficient products. The opportunities are just everywhere."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...