George W. Bush — who knew a thing or two about addiction — was right about one thing: America is addicted to fossil fuels.
Looking at the recent headlines, it’s becoming clear that history, Gaia, and our neighbors have all had enough. Look around the room. Look at their faces. They mean it: they’re staging an intervention.
Denial is no longer an option. Twenty-nine miners are dead in Virginia. A record-breaking flood has put much of Nashville underwater. A volcano of oil in the Gulf of Mexico is spewing death into the nation’s richest fisheries.
The line of truth that runs through all these recent disasters is thin, bright, and uncompromising. Our insane addiction to carbon-based fuels is literally killing America. It’s not abstract. It’s not some fate that awaits us in the future if we don’t mend our ways. The devastation is happening here and now, shouting at us from every new headline in the papers, forcing us to take serious stock of what our addiction has cost us already, and will continue to cost us every day we don’t reckon with it.
Some of our best people — strong and competent soldiers and workers — are dying, every day, to feed our addiction to coal and oil.
Vast areas of our land and water are being destroyed, every day, to feed our addiction to coal and oil.
An enormous cartel of carbon-based industries has taken over our government, corrupting our democratic processes and raising an army of would-be brownshirts, to feed our addiction to coal and oil.
We have indebted ourselves to the world’s worst tyrants and empowered our biggest economic competitors to feed our addiction to coal and oil.
We have put ourselves at the mercy of terrorists to feed our addiction to coal and oil.
We have sold off the greatest democracy in modern times, forfeited our most noble principles, and shredded the most astonishing political document in history to feed our addiction to coal and oil.
We are willfully mutilating the breathtaking beauty of this continent to feed our addiction to coal and oil.
We are killing this exquisite blue planet, creating an ecological genocide that extincts 100 species a day and will in short order put an end to 100,000 years of human civilization, to feed our addiction to coal and oil.
Look, people: we are doing precisely what addicts do. They wantonly, thoughtlessly annihilate their marriages, their children, their finances, their careers, and their communities — in fact, pretty much everything they touch — out of their single-minded focus on feeding their addictions. As a nation, we are behaving exactly the same way — not caring who we hurt or what we destroy, as long as we get to devour our next barrel or carload of the black stuff. In the end, like all addicts, we will also destroy ourselves.
This run of recent news is a massive intervention — history’s way of sitting us down and letting us know, beyond doubt, that the bottom is now coming up fast and hard upon us; and we’d better fracking pay attention, because the party is over. The price of our irresponsibility is suddenly going way, way up — and that rise is just getting started. Because, increasingly, our enablers are refusing outright to enable, excuse, or support our self-destructive behavior any more.
The only solution left, if we’re ready to get real about this, is to take that first, hardest step, and admit that we’re addicted, and that this is no longer acceptable. And we need to do it right now, right here, not next year or in 2020 or when the last fish is caught and the last beach is gone. We’re the last ones in the world to recognize what everybody around us already knows, which is that our addiction is out of control. From here, there’s only one way this goes — unless we commit ourselves, right now, to restoring true sanity and balance to our national relationship to energy.
Recovery means we’re going to be struggling with the addiction moment by moment, day by day, for a long while. It also means that we’re going to have to take our eyes off the barrel, and keep them fixed firmly on the better carbon-free future ahead.
It means a lot of other things, too.
It means we don’t replace the Deepwater Horizon with another oil rig, but with an offshore wind or wave generation farm instead.
It means we face the hard reality that oil has always been an insanely dirty, destructive, corrupt business, and nothing we can do will ever change that. Drill, baby, drill cannot help bu lead to a lot more spill, baby, spill — the Sierra Club estimates that Obama’s offshore drilling plans will result in one coastal oil spill per year, on average, forever. We can have oil, or we can have fish and beaches and wetlands. But we can’t have both.
It means we don’t just get tougher about coal mine safety; we start shutting down the mines. This will be wrenching for the miners; but they’ve been a dwindling minority for so long that there are already more workers in the US wind generation sector than there are working in the coal industry. That’s where the jobs of the future are, and we need to be creating more of them.
It means we amend the tax code to encourage companies to invest in energy-saving technologies.
It means that we reconsider our obsession with cars and planes, and consider going back to our first love — trains. (We’re not about talking pokey old Amtrak. We’re talking about sexy, sleek electric maglev trains that go 300 mph and run in near silence on overhead rails so thin they fit into the center median of an interstate, and cost a tenth of what a subway track does per mile. We’re talking about hauling fresh tomatoes from California to New York in a totally carbon-free 10-hour overnight hurry that FedEx will envy. We’re talking about becoming the world’s next railroad barons as we build them for ourselves; then build them for the world. What’s not to love?)
It means we start seriously investigating biochar as a truly effective and viable carbon-capture-and-sequestration technology — one that also restores our topsoil, reduces our reliance on petroleum-based fertilizers, and improves our watersheds…while also creating carbon-negative energy generation.
And. most of all, recovering from this addition means we need to commit to take specific steps, today, that will take us to a different future.
The Five Percent Solution
One very reasonable step might be The Five Percent Solution (the name is a play on a book about Sherlock Holmes’ addiction) which Adam Siegel describes here. We simply decide, as a matter of personal, regional, and national policy, to cut our carbon output by 5% a year, every year, until we hit zero. At that rate, we’d be down to about 10% of our current production by 2050, and at zero by 2060. The climate scientists tell us that this should probably be fast enough to keep the planet from parboiling by 2100. The technology to do this much — and more — is already well within reach.
We’ve proven before that we’re extremely competent at conservation, once we put our minds to it. Whenever we’ve committed to energy or water conservation goals in the past — even goals that were far more aggressive than a mere 5% — we’ve almost always overshot them with room to spare. Time and again, we’ve learned that it’s really just a matter of making up our minds, and doing it. Once you open yourself up to this kind of change, the opportunities to cut output suddenly appear everywhere you look.
The five percent solution is critical to our emotional and spiritual recovery as well. Like most addictions, ours has been accompanied by industrial-sized quantities of self-loathing. We’ve been using carbon-fueled consumption to mask and self-medicate for a lot of existential pain. Getting ourselves straight has to include confronting and resolving that pain directly. And that means deciding to do something right for a change, and then see that decision all the way through.
We’ve done this before. Back in 1960, John F. Kennedy committed the United States to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. It’s hard to imagine now what an outrageously daring proposal that was in its time. A lot of the technology needed for a moon landing didn’t even exist yet (though NASA had a pretty clear idea of what would be involved, and some confidence that the missing inventions could be created within the time frame). The window he gave was impossibly short — just nine years. And the goal itself was the stuff of science fiction. It skirted the very edges of what might be humanly possible.
And yet he also projected supreme confidence that we could do this. We very quickly believed it ourselves; and it fueled a lot of the optimism of the 1960s. The space challenge crystallized a certain vision of American greatness. It made an irrefutable statement about America’s technological and intellectual leadership. As we were reminded over and over through the decade that followed, it wasn’t just about beating the Russians (though that certainly mattered). It was about showing ourselves and the world exactly what we were made of. We were convinced (probably rightly) that this was the thing that, a thousand years from now, history would remember us for. In the year 3000, we reckoned, children would be taught that “The Americans were one of the greatest nations in history. They were the first humans to go to leave the earth and explore space, starting with the moon.”
If that’s all they ever knew about us, it would be a legacy we could be proud of.
How the mighty have fallen. That strong, confident sense of our own potential is far behind us. At this late stage, our self-worth has degraded to the point where, like a lot of addicts, we think can only command respect by either buying off or beating the crap out of anybody who dares to cross us. That’s an ugly self-image, rooted in an ugly kind of power. It’s made us mean and abusive. It’s led us to financial and foreign policy ruin. It’s made us the world’s town drunk — blustering, bullying, out of control, and scary, unless we’re passed out and oblivious, which we often are.
Any real and lasting recovery is going to have to address that deep soul pain. It’s going to have to heal the damage, defuse our grandiosity and restore our humility, repair our connections to each other and the world, and get us back to where we can see ourselves as positive contributors to history and the human enterprise again.
Committing to a vision of a carbon-free America, accomplished at a very visible 5% per year for the next 50 years, could go a long way toward restoring our own faith in ourselves. It could revive JFK’s old 1960 definition of “American greatness” — the one that said that we deserved to lead not to the extent to which we could become the biggest bully, but to the extent that we could establish ourselves as the smartest, most creative, most innovative, most democratic people on earth. Climate change is an existential challenge that, well met, can absolutely re-define who we are, both in our own eyes and in the eyes of the rest of the planet.
Stepping up to that the five percent solution in a positive and inspiring way will have some immediate practical and political benefits, too. For one thing, it will put a fast end to the pseudo-populist whining from the right, embarrass resistant corporatists into getting on board, and rally the country around a truly positive and inclusive vision of its own future. For another, it would put progressives, once and for all, on the moral offensive as the guardians of the true American vision.
What — are you against American greatness? Are you not willing to sacrifice for a stronger, more secure, more independent, more resilient nation? Are you one of those small-minded, stingy whiners who don’t believe in your country, and aren’t willing to invest in great things?
If so: shame on you. Also: please shut up.
This kind of turnaround is well within the reach of any truly visionary. President Obama could do it tomorrow — and would, if he was willing to live up to even half his promise. It would, absolutely, be his defining JFK moment — the moment that we foreswore our addictions, reclaimed our national soul, seized this day and our entire future, and put ourselves back on the path to greatness.
We should want the second line in those 3010 history books to read: “Forty years later, the Americans were the foresighted visionaries who led the world off carbon-based fuels and put a stop to global warming, thus saving civilization.” Today could easily be the first day of the rest of that marvelous history. But that will only happen if get our heads out of the barrel, reclaim our greatness, and become the country the world knows we can be.