Archived Sections, Commentary

It's time to get serious about stewardship of resources

Fossil fuels are going away, and so is our wasteful lifestyle — let’s hope!

When I was in college, one of my professors told us that the notion of raising the rest of the world to the American standard of living was sheer nonsense. Flatly, and rightly, he declared there are not enough natural resources in the world to provide an automobile for all 6.5 billion people on the planet. His comment implied that, if populous nations like China, India and Indonesia were to raise their standards of living, ours would, by necessity, have to fall.
I see my professor’s ‘prophecy’ being fulfilled. We Americans aren’t liking it much. We could have prepared ourselves years ago, but America has become like a junkie that has to sell its very soul to get its daily fix of oil.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman believes it will take a genuine crisis in American thinking before we finally wake up to what is really happening to us. The world will no longer tolerate America’s excessive consumption.
During a visit to China last year, our tour guide told us that over 30,000 cars are sold each month in Beijing, just one of that nation’s huge cities. With more and more populous nations now becoming major consumers of automobiles and petroleum, how can we expect to see significantly lower fuel prices in the future? The cost of gasoline could double or triple in the coming decade.
All of this is based on the simple law of supply and demand. As world oil reserves dwindle and demand grows, I think $100 for a barrel of oil is inevitable. It’s likely our U.S. “car culture” will have to change dramatically.
I’ve traveled to Europe twice. Their model is a good one. They deliberately slap a $2-3 tax on each liter of gasoline sold. This accomplishes several things. It discourages frivolous waste of gasoline. It encourages the purchase of smaller and more fuel-efficient cars. And, the tax money collected makes possible amazing public transit.
When I visited in Malmø, Sweden, some years ago, over 200 clean, quiet, electric trains daily went past our relatives’ suburban home. Trains, buses, trolleys, taxis and bike paths run all over Sweden with great efficiency. This is a model America would do well to study.
Minnesota has made a good start with the introduction of light rail in Minneapolis. If that line ran out to Eagan and Apple Valley, a person would have to fight to get on it in the morning. It’s fast, safe, relaxing, reasonably priced and highly fuel-efficient. What is there about this transit alternative that is not to like?
It has been said that, if any politician endorsed higher taxes on fuel, he or she would never get elected. I would suggest this is precisely the action we must soon take. I would be the first to vote for such a courageous politician. We need leaders in both Washington and the private sector who will help our nation transition into an entirely new way of thinking about how we transport ourselves.
Mass transit is only part of the solution. We need to be promoting energy conservation, smaller and more fuel-efficient automobiles, car pooling, battery-powered hybrid vehicles and all sorts of programs that support a wide range of fuel sources, including hydrogen.
I am sure America will survive its transition to better energy conservation. We can no longer pretend the problem doesn’t exist. We need some creative and innovative thinking at this hour, and I fear we are not getting it.
For the past century, America — representing less than 6% of the world’s population — has consistently consumed roughly half the world’s available natural resources. That scenario is about to change. While it may cause us some consternation, I believe that in the long run we will all be the better for it.
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Harrington is senior pastor of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, Apple Valley, Minnesota. He is an occasional contributor to this section.