Who's got the power?

As Americans become more detached from their power sources, sacrificing for an invisible grid holds less and less appeal. But the stakes are high.

It came as a nasty shock to many Americans this month that there's a grid behind our bulbs.

A century ago, and more, we knew where our power came from. Burning logs in a wood stove, burning coal in a steam engine: They were smoky, filthy, parts of our daily lives.

Now, the closest most Americans get to the sources of their light, heat, and locomotion are three-pronged plugs and self-serve gasoline.

"That's one of the hallmarks of a wealthy society - we don't have to see how our basic needs are being met," says author Dan Rottenberg. Though that's a welcome sign of prosperity, it's also a danger, he says: When people get too far removed from the sources of their power, or water, or food, they're far less likely to sacrifice to preserve them.

A stormy debate over who will make such sacrifices is raging in Massachusetts' Nantucket Sound.

Last week, a federal judge struck a blow to opponents of a proposed $700 million offshore wind farm there, who fear the consequences of such an installation for ocean views and local wildlife.

But the problem is broader than Cape Cod, and deeper. According to a recent Gallup poll, a majority of Americans - 56 percent - believes the United States is likely to face a critical energy shortage within five years. Energy forecasters agree.

The question, then, is: Who will shoulder the burden of solving this projected shortage, and what do they have to lose?

Sacrifice for beginners

Americans, says environmental policy expert Sterling Burnett, do not like the idea of sacrifice. Sure, "The Puritan Dilemma" is still in print, fad diets are selling well, and every year a certain number of high school juniors head off to the woods because they want to live deliberately. But for most of this affluent society's SUV and suburban tract-home owners, the concept of self-denial for some greater good has absolutely no resonance, says Mr. Burnett, a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.

In the 19th century, during America's westward expansion, the building of the railroads, and the Industrial Revolution, he says, those who supported the growth of mining and industry knew they were making environmental sacrifices to fuel that growth. But "people then looked at power as progress," and progress, in the rawest terms, meant personal gain, Burnett says. "I'm not sure how willing people ever were to sacrifice for the public good."

Rozanne Weissman, of the Washington nonprofit Alliance to Save Energy, says public reaction to the phrase "energy conservation" is a case in point. For the majority of voters, she says, the phrase conjures "sacrifice, deprivation, Jimmy Carter in a cardigan telling you to turn down the thermostat." Americans may revile cardigans, but not nearly so much as they resent being told to turn out their lights or spoil their vistas for the sake of a more certain energy future.

But they do like to be told they're smart. Ms. Weissman says products, programs, and politicians that have substituted "energy efficiency" or "smart shopping" do dramatically better than those urging abstinence. "So the environment is not a primary motivator," she concludes, "but if people can help themselves first and help the environment too, they feel they're being smart shoppers and good citizens."

David Theroux, president of the Independent Institute, an Oakland, Calif., nonprofit, says the best solutions to environmental problems often come down to basic economics. "You have to create situations in which people have incentives to do good and not do bad," he says. "Appeal to their ability to make choices, yes, but give them good choices to make."

Tilting at windmills

But self-interest and the sometime desire to "do good" are not always easily reconciled, as the battle over Cape Wind shows. The proposal to install 130 wind turbines in the Nantucket Sound's picturesque shallows has whipped up a gale-force opposition composed largely, and unexpectedly, of environmental activists. Supporters say the towers would supply nearly three-quarters of the electricity used on the Cape and islands. Opponents say they would harm local wildlife, fishing, tourism - and ruin the view.

Last Thursday, a federal judge ruled in the project's favor, finding that Massachusetts had no jurisdiction to block construction in federal waters five miles off Cape Cod. Opponents say they will appeal the decision.

This anti-wind contingent, many of them well-heeled Cape residents like US Sen. Edward Kennedy, former news anchor Walter Cronkite, and historian David McCullough, have gotten a lot of grief this year. Their objections to the project, as portrayed by media outlets from the Cape Cod Times to The New York Times, come across as self-serving, conflicted, and patchwork - causing critics to question their motives.

The Cape Wind controversy isn't about the environmental issues under debate, argues University of Delaware environmental anthropologist Willet Kempton, "it's about how people think about intrusions into their community."

Alan Nogee, director of the energy program at the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, agrees. "People have always preferred to avoid energy projects in their own backyards - most of the time for pretty good reasons: because of harmful emissions from these facilities," he says. Because Cape Wind poses no human health risk, Mr. Nogee says opposition to the project is probably the product of NIMBY, or "not in my backyard," syndrome.

Maybe so, says Isaac Rosen, executive director of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, but "without NIMBYism, the Love Canal, the Hudson [River], wouldn't have gotten cleaned up. Sometimes it's the capacity of a community to stand up and say, 'No, we treasure this too much,' that defines that community."

The power of memory

Then again, an energy distribution crisis like this month's blackout "is exactly a problem of people not looking farther then their own backyards," says Bill Sweet, who writes about energy for the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers' monthly magazine. Sometimes, he concedes, that shortsightedness is a function of poor information: "People don't realize how interconnected we [and] the grid have become." The failure of the power grid, he adds, exposed an old and overloaded system whose upkeep and reliability has suffered greatly from Americans' unwillingness to tolerate new power lines in their own backyards.

Mr. Rottenberg, author of the forthcoming book "In the Kingdom of Coal," says the blackout also revealed how starkly little Americans know about their most important utilities. [Editor's note: The original version of this article misstated the name of Dan Rottenburg's forthcoming book.]

"I grew up in New York City; I thought food came from a supermarket. Most people think electricity comes from a light switch," he says. "These are things we take for granted because ... we can afford to forget them."

In fact, 23 percent of Americans cite "forgetting" as the main reason they don't make energy-efficient choices day to day, according to the Alliance to Save Energy.

For millions in New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Toronto, and Ottawa, though, the blackout was a clear lesson in how little we can afford to forget.

Staff writer Amanda Paulson contributed to this report.

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