Commentary: No Sacrifices, Please

Conservation is too painful for this generation

In April, 1977, President Jimmy Carter tried to rally the nation with his call to treat the U.S. energy crisis as "the moral equivalent of war." He later harangued Americans to lower their thermostats, don warm sweaters, and alter their lifestyles to help reduce U.S. energy consumption.

A quarter-century later, Vice-President Dick Cheney offered a strikingly different message. "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis all by itself for sound, comprehensive energy policy," he said in April, 2001, articulating a Bush Administration doctrine still intact today. "Our strategy will recognize that the present crisis does not represent a failing of the American people."

The difference in these two approaches illustrates the stark change in the debate over how to deal with America's insatiable appetite for energy. Carter-era calls for sacrifice have yielded to widespread belief that new energy sources, greater oil and gas production, and smarter power use are the nation's best hope. Technology, rather than self- restraint, has become our savior.

This shouldn't come as a surprise in a culture where TiVo (TIVO ), quick weight-loss products, and the wonder of overnight shipping promise instant gratification with minimal effort. Likewise, when it comes to breaking our habit of consuming more energy than we produce, most Americans want all gain and no pain.

It's not that consumers can't conserve. During the 2001 electricity crisis in California, an intensive public-awareness campaign and financial incentives helped spur a 6% drop in electricity use. But it took soaring prices and rolling blackouts to induce that behavior.

Instead, it's far more common to see conservation measures toned down because they cost (or merely inconvenience) voters. For example, the federal 55 mph maximum speed limit, set in the 1970s to curb gasoline use, was raised in 1987 and finally repealed in 1995. And a bill by Senator Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) to expand the gas-guzzler tax to cover light trucks, including some popular SUVs that would likely incur the levy, died last year.

Even proposals that might make a near-term difference in energy usage seem doomed if they require too much sacrifice. Take "feebates," one interesting scheme that would assess fees against buyers of vehicles that get poorer-than-average gas mileage while giving rebates to owners of cars with better-than-average mileage. But feebates could end up penalizing individual consumers (rather than auto makers, as today's fuel standards do), probably one reason proposals have made headway in only three states. They're even opposed by some conservation fans, who worry that poor families, who often require larger cars, would be hurt.

The lesson here: America's flirtation with "green" only goes so far, especially when consumers, rather than companies, are asked to shoulder the burden. Indeed, seriously conserving energy is a bit like tithing in church: a laudable goal that few actually practice. So while future technology may not be the only (or even the best) solution for America's energy deficit, it is certainly the least painful.

By James E. Ellis

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