U.S. can't ignore economic choices

Tempers are running high in America, and it's not just the summer heat. Energy prices spiral out of control and we angrily look for somebody to blame. Favorite targets of some people's ire are “the environmentalists” - who, right-wing pundits tell us, are to blame for America's energy woes.

Recent correspondents to the Observer have also suggested that all we have to do to be free of dependence on foreign oil is to drill across Alaska and all around our shores. One letter writer especially praised Rep. Sue Myrick for promoting the speedy use of our own “God-given resources.”

Unfortunately God (if indeed it was He) only “gave” America 5 percent of the world's oil reserves. Yet we greedily gobble up 25 percent of the world's energy. Daily consumption of oil is about 82 million barrels a day worldwide, and the U.S. Department of Energy reported in 2006 that Americans used over 20 million of these each day, of which 70 percent were imported.

This puts America's reserves into context. The amount of oil beneath the controversial Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is estimated at somewhere between 3 billion to 16 billion barrels. At the most optimistic estimate, 16 billion barrels would supply USA's needs at today's rates of consumption for 800 whole days. Yes, that's right folks: We'd destroy one of the most precious natural areas on the planet to feed our guzzling appetites for just over two years! And then it's empty. Gone. What piece of the earth do we rip up next? And how long would that last?

Reserves insufficient

The environmentalists are correct: America does not have enough oil to support our current lifestyle, even if we drilled every square mile of the nation's land and seas.

What's driving this fanatical quest for every drop of black gold is the national desire to hold on to the “American way of life,” predicated on two generations of cheap energy. Inexpensive fuel has supported an increasingly spread-out pattern of low-density living where every task of our daily lives requires driving.

Liberal commentators point us enviously towards Europe, where, by comparison, France, Britain and Spain, for example, each use well under 2 million barrels of oil a day, and people live and work in much more compact and energy-efficient cities. Conservatives, however, recoil in horror at the thought of living like Europeans, with all their suspicious “socialist” tendencies.

Political rhetoric aside, it's a fact that in the short- to medium-term at least, European nations have a far better chance than America of adapting successfully to an economy with high fuel costs. While much of America's effort has gone towards promoting private wealth with very limited investment in public infrastructure, Europe's higher taxes have funded continuous improvements in roads, high-tech trains and other public transportation, along with more sophisticated planning of compact cities. This now enables most Europeans, especially those in urban centers, to live well with only a single fuel-efficient vehicle per household. Some, through choice, don't even own a car.

Europe's fuel advantage

While many Americans might view this high-density lifestyle with distaste, it does mean that European nations are poised to take a lead in the never-ending economic struggle of globalization. European cities on average consume less than half the resources of American cities per capita, and are connected with a transportation system most Americans can only dream about. This economy and efficiency translates into considerable economic advantage in tough, uncertain times. America needs to take note.

Indeed, Americans are very resourceful, and even in a city such as Charlotte that has been wedded to the automobile for generations, there are signs of change and hope. People here are overcoming their prejudices about public transportation and are riding trains and buses in ever increasing numbers. The neighborhoods in highest demand are those more compact, walkable areas close to the city center. Some new suburban developments are becoming more focused on these same urban qualities, and are designed in more self-sufficient ways.

But old habits die hard. SUVs still dominate our streets, and the urge to live in the distant, car-dependent pastures of Union County and elsewhere continues as people, lemming-like, drive heedlessly into the future. However, we won't be able to ignore this future's tough choices for much longer.

As America's favorite Brit, Winston Churchill, once said:

“You can always rely on America to do the right thing. Once it has exhausted the alternatives.”

The question is: By then, will it be too late?