11/10/2006 03:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"The Road to Nowhere Is Closed."

That was Congressman-elect Heath Shuler's summation after the election, and it could serve as a slogan for the new Congress. (The road Shuler referred to, a $600 million boondoggle project of the Congressman he beat, Charles Taylor, would have invaded and devastated Great Smoky Mountains National Park simply because the federal government once promised to build it.) Taylor's boondoggle was a close relative of Don Young's "Bridges to Nowhere," exposed by the Sierra Club and cited by some as one of the key ingredients in turning moderate voters against the Republicans.

Simply refusing to pursue blatantly bad ideas that were sacred cows because they had powerful backers would be a very nice starting note for the new Congress.

I've been heartened during the past few days, as I called friends to congratulate them, and as I ran into folks on the road, to see how many people viewed Tuesday's victory as an opportunity, not a mandate. There seems to be a new seriousness, an absence of the giddy overreaching that was, for me, best characterized by Bill Clinton's first inaugural address, when he essentially proclaimed, "You want a revolution; you'll get one." We didn't, and we haven't -- but that kind of cockiness undid our last chance at serious progress.

What we need to do, more than anything, is set the table for solutions to come. The agenda is, indeed, ours to shape. But agenda shaping is as much a matter of listening as it is one of prescribing. I was being interviewed for public radio's "Living on Earth" program, and my sparring partner was Steven Hayward, an environmental expert for conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute. I was struck by how serious he was about getting rid of subsidies for "the wrong things," as he put it, which included oil and coal; his openness to a carbon tax as a mechanism for sending the signal to capital markets and investors that efficiency and renewables are the future; and his abandonment of the "global warming is not a big problem" mantra. Getting rid of oil and coal subsidies is also part of the Democrats' "Six for '06" plan. How to define these subsidies is, of course, critical. But if we really want this to happen, it's also critical that we find a way to enlist some Republicans who are not in hock to the oil patch and the carbon lobby. Would AEI help us? It's an interesting question.

The American public is hungering for progress. Bush may not let it happen -- or the Neanderthals in the Republican minority in the Senate might use the filibuster, as they did in 2003. But if environmentalists put forward attractive, visionary, commonsense solutions to curbing global warming, addressing our impending water crisis, restoring forests and parks, and cleaning up toxic waste sites -- we can create a climate in which both parties and all Presidential candidates have to follow the Arnold Schwarzenegger strategy -- if you can't deny the problem, you might as well solve it and take the credit.

After all, while Barbara Boxer is now, fabulously, the Chair of the Senate Environment Committee, her counterpart on the House side is John Dingell, with whom environmentalists have crossed swords far too often. On the other hand, Dingell does care about the American auto companies -- and environmental leadership could hardly make their plight worse than it already is -- we should try to persuade Dingell to rescue them from them their own shortsightedness.

Meanwhile, cities and states keep leading. After a year-long campaign by the Sierra Club San Diego Chapter, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders got his city commit to cleaning up its greenhouse pollution. Salt Lake City just passed new mass transit funding. And Washington State established a renewable energy standard. If this freshet of real innovation bubbling up from the states in the past two years continues to grow, the ice floes that currently paralyze Washington may break in the spring of 2009. One of my favorite lines of poetry in college ran, "And not by eastern windows only, / When daylight comes, comes in the light, / In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly, / But westward, look, the land is bright."

Westward lie the cities and states; if they brighten up, even in our nation's capital some sunshine is on the way.