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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.

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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.

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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."

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