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Daniel Goldin Headshot

My Luddite Fantasy

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According to polls conducted by Democracy Corps, a strategy group run by James Carville and Stan Greenberg, Americans view dependence on foreign oil as the number one national security priority. Given the current news obsession with Foley, this is both welcome and surprising. The current wisdom on both sides of the Democratic/Republican divide is that voters fixate on moral questions, getting red or blue in the face over issues like gay marriage, leaving politicians free to serve their corporate task-masters. But it turns out voters are looking away from their neighbors' bedrooms into the future.

We've been hearing doomsday predictions about energy since the oil embargo of the 1970s. By the most optimistic reserve estimates, we have 32 years of oil production in the ground. And yet we depend on oil for 75% of our energy needs. The irony is that corporate America, so obsessed with its shiny logos and new technologies, secretly runs on decayed animal and plant matter that is hundreds of millions of years old, a life-blood that comes largely, as we all know, from the Middle East, and is dwindling.

When considering the end of oil, two fantasies come to mind. The first is a Jetsons fantasy of "freedom cars" powered by hydrogen cells, of biodiesal converted from bio mass, of satellites mining helium-three in the outer reaches of the solar system. I've sat in a Prius. You press a button and don't hear anything. The Jetsons' fantasy is of a silent future, clean and very cool.

Then there is the Luddite fantasy, where everything falls apart. I have heard it said that by 2050 cars will be a luxury for the very rich. The suburbs and the exurbs will die off like diabetic extremities as the oil stops circulating. Cities will grow vertically again. Local will be the new global.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, my brother and his friends met me at the airport. Despite being jet-lagged, I let them convince me to go straight to a club in Alhambra to dance to a salsa band. I drove for an hour and a half only to discover I was exactly where I had started. The same concrete, 3-tiered, cantilevered parking-lot, the same Arco station, the same 7-11. Los Angeles is a city designed to be experienced through the periphery of your vision as you drive: the man-made landscape is simple, repetitive and easy to read. I can be lulled into a fantasy of a more intimate Los Angeles, with parks and businesses pitched at eye-level and natural pedestrian traffic -- even though I know this is probably not what will happen when the oil runs out.

I think I fantasize because I feel helpless. Like most Americans, I look to the market to solve our fossil-fuel dependency. As the supply of oil drops, prices will go up, and renewable energy sources will become attractive alternatives. But after 9-11, it has become clear that the market is out of sync with reality. The climate is warming, our buildings are burning, soldiers are dying -- and Adam Smith's "unseen hand" just keeps pumping oil.

Carville's catch-phrase "The economy, stupid" should be revised to "Not just the economy, stupid." At last we've begun to look past the market, away from the so-called "wisdom of crowds," to question what we can do ourselves to get out of this mess.