Almost 20 years ago, the journalist William Greider wrote Who Will Tell the People, his account of dysfunctional decision-making in Washington. Greider's thesis was that Washington officials were preoccupied with perpetuating their own power, with scant regard for the interests of the people they were supposed to represent.
On Earth Day 2011, energy policy and energy use is beset by the very same problem Greider described in 1992.
In the United States today, the political establishment and the mainstream media are focusing attention on exactly the wrong question: rising gasoline prices in the United States. The headlines on CNN, for example, scream "Pain at the Pump." President Obama, who came into office pledging to take a long-term look at our energy system, focused his attention this week on unnamed speculators as the villains causing American households to spend more on gasoline. On the political right, the Tea Party movement has been crusading to eliminate what they see as a torrent of wasteful government spending.
In some ways, this is understandable. The American economy continues to sputter along, with employment levels improving only marginally. Many people continue to feel a sense of economic insecurity.
The problem is that media and the political establishments are feeding a false narrative that only reinforces the problem. Let's put aside for a moment the question of combating climate change. Even if we think only about the economics of energy use in the United States, our leaders are failing us. Americans by and large have little understanding of how energy markets work, or that World Bank data show that U.S. energy use per capita is three times the global average.
On Earth Day, we should realize that economic security and energy security actually go hand in hand. The New York Times, citing the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, reported in 2008 that 56 percent of all energy in the United States is wasted. The reasons for this are complex, and include inefficiencies in production, storage and transmission, as well as inattention to waste in building construction and codes.
The very American impulse to blame the "other" for our problems is counterproductive. Who will tell the people how the United States can be on the path to more sustainable -- and economical -- energy use? We have to do it ourselves. It's a crime that our institutions are failing us. But the good news is that we have it within our power to change our habits and provide the leadership our institutions are failing to provide -- and save money in the bargain. We can all commit to reducing waste in energy use, and reducing food waste from the unconscionable level of 30 percent we have "achieved." A pledge to do these things is precisely the Earth Day gift every American should give themselves.
The good news is that the world has changed immensely since Greider wrote his book. The people, armed with Google Earth, GoodGuide, and various means of measuring our own footprint, now have more of the tools we need to do the job.
My hope for Earth Day 2011 is that we all commit to ending waste in our lives, and consuming more wisely. If that happens, then by Earth Day 2012, in the midst of a presidential election year in the United States, we will also begin a more honest and useful debate over the future of energy in America.