It's easy being green: a fossil fuel story

The more I surveyed my new car, the happier I got. "New car" is one of those phrases that make Americans unreasonably happy to begin with. And this one well, it was a particularly shiny metallic blue.

Better yet, it was the first Honda Civic hybrid electric sold in my state. I'd traded in my old Civic (40 miles to the gallon), and now the little screen behind the steering wheel was telling me that I was getting 50, 51, 52 miles to the gallon.

Better yet, I was doing nothing strange or difficult or conspicuously ecological. If you didn't know there was an electric motor assisting the small gas engine well, you'd never know. The owner's manual devoted far more space to the air bags and the heating system.

It didn't look as goofily Jetsonish as had Honda's first hybrid, the two-seater Insight introduced in 2000. Instead, it looked like a Civic, the most vanilla car ever produced.

"Our goal," explained Kevin Bynoe, spokesman for American Honda, "was to make it look, for lack of a better word, normal."

And the happier I got, the angrier I got. Because, as the Honda and a raft of other recent developments powerfully proved, energy efficiency, energy conservation, and renewable energy are ready for prime time.

No longer the niche province of incredibly noble backyard tinkerers distilling biodiesel from used vegetable oil [See sidebar on Britain's problem with that.–ed.], or building homes from earth rammed into tires, the equipment and attitudes necessary to radically transform our energy system are now mainstream enough for those of us too lazy or too busy to try anything that seems hard.

And yet the switch toward sensible energy still isn't happening. A few weeks before I picked up my car, an overwhelming bipartisan vote in the Senate had rejected calls to increase the mileage of the nation's new car fleet by 2015– to increase it to 36 mpg, not even as good as the Civic I'd traded in to buy this hybrid. The Administration was pressing ahead with its plan for more drilling and refining. The world was suffering the warmest winter in history, as more carbon dioxide pushed global temperatures ever higher. And people were dying in conflicts across wide swaths of the world, the casualties at least in some measure of America's insatiable demand for energy.

In other words, the gap between what we could be doing and what we are doing has never been wider. Consider:

* The Honda I was driving was the third hybrid model easily available in this country, following in the tire tracks of the Insight and the Toyota Prius. They take regular gas, they require nothing in the way of special service, and they boast waiting lists. And yet Detroit, despite a nearly a decade of massive funding from the Clinton administration, can't always sell you one. After September 11, the automakers launched a massive campaign (zero financing, red-white-and-blue ads) to sell existing stock, particularly the gas-sucking SUVs that should by all rights come with their own little Saudi flags to fly from the hood.

* Greater boosts in efficiency can come when you build or renovate a home. Alex Wilson, editor of Environmental Building News, says the average American house may be 20 percent more energy efficient than it was two decades ago, but simple tweaks like better windows and bulkier insulation could save 30 to 50 percent more energy with "very little cost implication." And yet building codes do almost nothing to boost such technologies, and the Bush administration is fighting to roll back efficiency gains for some appliances that Clinton managed to push through. For instance, air-conditioner manufacturers recently won a battle in the Senate to let them get away with making their machines only 20 percent more efficient, not the 30 percent current law demands. The difference in real terms? Sixty new power plants across the country by 2030.

* Consider electric generation. For a decade or two, environmentalists had their fingers crossed when they talked about renewables. It was hard to imagine most Americans really trading in their grid connection for backyard solar panels with their finicky batteries. But such trade-offs are less necessary by the day. Around the world, wind power is growing more quickly than any other form of energy Denmark, Germany, Spain, and India all generate big amounts of their power from ultramodern wind turbines. But in this country, where the never-ending breeze across the High Plains could generate twice as much electricity as the country uses, progress has been extraordinarily slow. (North Dakota, the windiest state in the union, has exactly four turbines.) Wind power is finally beginning to get some serious attention from the energy industry, but the technology won't live up to its potential until politicians stop subsidizing fossil fuels and give serious boosts to the alternatives.

And not all those politicians are conservative, either. In Massachusetts, even some true progressives, like ousted gubernatorial candidate Robert Reich, can't bring themselves to endorse a big wind installation proposed for six miles off Cape Cod. They have lots of arguments, most of which boil down to NIVOMD (Not in View of My Deck), a position particularly incongruous since Cape Cod will sink quickly beneath the Atlantic unless every weapon in the fight against global warming is employed as rapidly as possible.

What really haunts energy experts is the sense that, for the first time since the oil shocks of the early 1970s, the nation could have rallied around the cause of energy conservation and renewable alternatives last fall. In the wake of September 11, they agree, the president could have announced a pair of national goals capture Osama, and free ourselves from the oil addiction that leaves us endlessly vulnerable.

"President Bush's failure will haunt me for decades," says Alan Durning, president of Northwest Environment Watch. "Bush had a chance to advance, in a single blow, three pressing national priorities: national security, economic recovery, and environmental protection. All the stars were aligned."

If only, says Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth, Bush had set a goal, like JFK and the space program. "We could totally get off oil in three decades." Instead, the president used the crisis to push for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a present to campaign contributors that would yield a statistically insignificant new supply 10 years down the road.

It's not just new technologies that Bush could have pushed, of course. Americans were, at least for a little while, in the mood to do something, to make some sacrifice, to rally around some cause. In the words of Charles Komanoff, a New York energy analyst, "the choice is between love of oil and love of country," and at least "in the initial weeks after September 11, it seemed that Americans were awakening at last to the true cost of their addiction to oil." In an effort to take advantage of that political window, Komanoff published a booklet showing just how simple it would be to cut America's oil use by 5 or 10 percent not over the years it will take for the new technologies to really kick in, but over the course of a few weeks, and with only minor modifications to our way of life.

For instance, he calculated, we could save seven percent of the gasoline we use simply by eliminating one car trip in 14. The little bit of advance planning required to make sure you visit the grocery store three times a week instead of four would leave us with endlessly more oil than sucking oil from the Arctic will provide.

Indeed, Americans are so energy-profligate that even minor switches save significant sums. If half the drivers in two-car households switched just one-tenth of their travel to their more efficient vehicle, we'd instantly save one percent of our oil. Keep the damn Explorer; just leave it in the driveway once a week and drive the Camry.

A similar menu of small changes cutting back on one airplane trip in seven, turning down the thermostat two degrees, screwing in a few compact fluorescent bulbs and all of a sudden our endlessly climbing energy use begins to decline.

Impossible? Americans won't do it? Look at California. With the threat of power shortages looming, and with some clever incentives provided by government and utilities, Californians last year found an awful lot of small ways to save energy that really added up: 79 percent reported taking some steps, and a third of households managed to cut their electric use by more than 20 percent. Not by becoming a Third World nation (the state's economy continued to grow), not by living in caves, not by suffering but by turning off the lights when they left the room. In just the first six months of 2001, Colorado energy guru Amory Lovins pointed out, "Customers wiped out California's previous five to 10 years of demand growth." Now the same companies that were scrambling to build new plants for the Golden State a year ago are backing away from their proposals, spooked by the possibility of an energy glut.

It's only in Washington, in fact, that nobody gets it. If you go to Europe or Asia, you'll find nations increasingly involved in planning for a different energy future. Every industrialized country but the United States signed on to the Kyoto agreement at the last international conference on global warming, and some of those nations may actually meet their targets for CO2 reductions. The Dutch consumer demand for green power outstrips even the capacity of their growing wind farms, while the Germans have taken the logical step of raising taxes on carbon-based fuels and eliminating them on renewable sources. Reducing fossil fuel use is an accepted, inevitable part of the political process on the Continent, the same way that "fighting crime" is in this country, and Europeans look with growing disgust at the depth of our addiction only the events of September 11 saved America from a wave of universal scorn when Bush backed away from the Kyoto pact.

And in state capitols and city halls around this country, local leaders are beginning to act as well. Voters in San Francisco last year overwhelmingly approved an initiative to require municipal purchases of solar and wind power; in Seattle, the mayor's office announced an ambitious plan to meet or beat the Kyoto targets within the confines of the city and four suburbs.

Perhaps such actions might be expected in San Francisco and Seattle. But in June of 2001, the Chicago city government signed a contract with Commonwealth Edison to buy 10 percent of its power from renewables, a figure due to increase to 20 percent in five years. And in Salt Lake City, of all places, Mayor Rocky Anderson announced on the opening day of the Winter Olympics that his city, too, was going to meet the Kyoto standards while crews were at work changing light bulbs in street lamps and planning new mass transit.

Even many big American corporations have gone much further than the Bush administration. As Alex Wilson, the green building expert, points out, "Corporations are pretty good at looking at the bottom line, which is directly affected by operating costs. They're good with numbers." If you can make your product with half the energy, well, that's just as good as increasing sales and if you can put a windmill on the cover of your annual report, that's gravy.

In short, what pretty much everyone outside of the White House has realized is this: The great economic shift of this century will be away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. That shift will happen with or without George W. Bush there are too many reasons, from environmental to economic to geopolitical necessity, for it not to. But American policy can slow down the transition, perhaps by decades, and that is precisely what the administration would like to see. They have two reasons: One is the enormous debt they owe to the backers of their political careers, those coal-and-oil-and-gas guys who dictated large sections of the new energy policy. Those industries want to wring every last penny from their mines, their drill rigs, and their refineries and if those extra decades mean that the planet's temperature rises a few degrees, well, that's business.

The other reason is just as powerful, though it's the fear that Americans will blame their leaders if prices for gas go up too quickly. It's not an idle fear certainly it was shared by Bill Clinton, who did nothing to stem the nation's love affair with SUVs, and by Al Gore, who, during his presidential campaign, demanded that the Strategic Petroleum Reserve be opened to drive down prices at the pump. But that's what makes Bush's post-September silence on this issue so sad. For once a U.S. president had the chance to turn it all around to say that this was a sacrifice we needed to make and one that any patriot would support. It's tragically likely he will have the same opportunity again in the years ahead, and tragically unlikely that he will take it.

In the meantime, there's work to be done in statehouses and city halls. And at the car lot at least the ones with the Honda and Toyota signs out front.

"This Civic has a slightly different front end and a roof-mounted antenna," says Honda's Bynoe. "But other than that, it looks like a regular Civic, and it drives like one too. It's not necessarily for hard-core enviros. You don't have to scream about it at the top of your lungs. It's just a car." But a very shiny blue. And I just came back from a trip to Boston: 59 miles to the gallon.

Vermonter Bill McKibben, a former staff writer at The New Yorker, is the author of the best-selling book The End of Nature. This story originally appeared in the July/August issue of Mother Jones.