A New Grip on 'Reality'
By Thomas L. Friedman
The New York Times
One of the most important laws of political debate is this: To name something is to own it. If you can name something, get that name to stick and therefore define how people think about an issue, your opponents don't stand a chance. One of the most pernicious things that Vice President Dick Cheney and Big Oil have done for years is to define "realism" when it comes to U.S. energy policy — and therefore they have owned the debate.
If you listen to them, they always offer this patronizing, pat-you-on-the-head view about alternative energy — hybrids, wind, solar, ethanol — which goes like this: "Yes, yes, those are all very cute and virtuous, but not realistic. Real men know that oil and fossil fuels are going to dominate our energy usage for a long time, so get used to it."
Well, here's what's encouraging today. There is a split emerging among conservatives on this issue. Not all conservatives are in the pocket of Big Oil. Many evangelicals, led by people like Gary Bauer, are going green — both because they believe that we need to be better stewards of God's green earth and because they don't like being dependent for energy on countries that nurse a deep hostility toward the United States.
One of the best speeches I've ever read about the necessity of breaking America's oil addiction now, and redefining "realism," was delivered by Senator Richard Lugar, the Republican who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at the Brookings Institution on March 13. Drop what you are doing and read it at www.brookings.edu.
Mr. Lugar states: "Vice President Cheney, who oversaw Bush administration energy policy, stated on April 30, 2001, ... 'Years down the road, alternative fuels may become a great deal more plentiful than they are today. But we are not yet in any position to stake our economy and our way of life on that possibility. For now, we must take the facts as they are. Whatever our hopes for developing alternative sources and for conserving energy — and that's part of our plan — the reality is that fossil fuels provide virtually 100 percent of our transportation needs and an overwhelming share of our electricity requirements. For years down the road, this will continue to be true.' "
Mr. Lugar then says: "For decades, the energy debate in this country has pitted so-called pro-oil realists against idealistic advocates of alternative energy. The pro-oil commentators have attempted to discredit alternatives by saying they make up a tiny share of energy consumed and that dependence on oil is a choice of the marketplace.
"They assert that our government can and should do little to change this. They have implied that those who have bemoaned oil dependency do not understand that every energy alternative comes with its own problems and limitations."
While acknowledging that the oil alternatives still require a huge amount of work in order to achieve the necessary scale, Mr. Lugar insists that with a big strategic push we can, and must, get there: "My message is that the balance of realism has passed from those who argue on behalf of oil and a laissez-faire energy policy that relies on market evolution, to those who recognize that in the absence of a major reorientation in the way we get our energy, life in America is going to be much more difficult in the coming decades. ... No one who is honestly assessing the decline of American leverage around the world due to our energy dependence can fail to see that energy is the albatross of U.S. national security.
"We have entered a different energy era that requires a much different response than in past decades. What is needed is an urgent national campaign led by a succession of presidents and Congresses who will ensure that American ingenuity and resources are fully committed to this problem."
Dick Cheney regularly dismisses liberals for having a "pre-9/11" mind-set, as opposed to tough guys like him, who have a "post-9/11" mind-set. Hogwash! When it comes to energy, there is no one more pre-9/11, no one more stuck in keeping America addicted to foreign oil, than Dick Cheney.
A deep pessimist, Mr. Cheney has an utterly impoverished view of what American technologists can do when asked to do the impossible and an utterly impoverished view of what the American people would do — post-9/11 — if summoned to the great national cause of energy independence.
While I would push for even tougher steps than Mr. Lugar, I draw great hope from seeing that smart conservatives like him are no longer willing to let Dick Cheney and Big Oil tell them what is "realistic" when it comes to America's energy future.
Photo credit: Thomas L. Friedman (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)