Our Dangerous Addiction to Immediacy

04/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A sad fact of modern life is that our ability to plan for long-term energy independence is stymied by fluctuating oil prices. At $150 per barrel and $4.00 per gallon, gas-guzzling SUVs were being dropped faster than quarters at a slot convention in Las Vegas. Panic selling of large cars was fueled by punditry calling for permanently high fuel prices, with some talking heads ruminating about $200 per barrel. Politicians were falling over each other to demand a switch to renewable energies. We wondered with pious regret why the country had not invested more heavily in solar and wind power.

How quickly we forget. At $40 per barrel, we have developed an intense case of amnesia and have quickly mortgaged our future for more immediate gratification. We learned exactly nothing from the oil crisis of the 1970s or from any subsequent spike in oil prices. With every peak we express regret at our shortsightedness and promise to reform, never to drink again, and then with every valley we forget our commitment to a better future, and pick up the bottle once more.

We are behaving like alcoholics oscillating between bouts of sobriety and weakness because that is precisely what we are: oil addicts. Exhibit A is the precipitous decline in hybrid values, which are down almost 24% from the peak last summer simply because fuel is now cheaper. That rational market response is a rather pathetic reflection of our collective obsession with the short-term at the expense of a healthy future.

We need an intervention. We need to change our ways. We need help. Like all addicts, we will not get sober alone. Market forces alone will not come to our rescue. Ronald Reagan famously said that government is the problem, not the solution. He could not have been more wrong.

The immediate demands of the market cannot properly anticipate our longer-term future needs. The current price of oil, for example, does not incorporate the value of energy independence, and with that the commensurate benefits to national security. The cost of gasoline fails to include the future costs of climate change. Refineries do not consider the costs of protecting sources of oil in the Middle East in their price structure. The temporal gap between market forces and societal goals cannot be bridged by appealing to the magic of free enterprise. Government must play a catalytic role.

The time has come for society to pay the true environmental and national security price tag of burning fossil fuels. Even during these times of economic crises, gasoline must be taxed so that the actual costs to society are recovered and properly reflected in the price of fuel. The revenue generated from such a carbon tax must then be used to fund renewable energy infrastructure development and research.

Reliance on foreign oil from the world's most unstable regions is one of our greatest national security threats. Dumping six billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year is one of our greatest environmental threats. We can solve both problems with an aggressive move to renewable energies. To do so, we must not fall prey to the bad habits of our addiction every time a bottle of our poison comes down in price.

We have a moral obligation to bequeath to our children a world that is at least as good as the one we inherited from our parents. We will not meet that obligation if we cannot see past the next fiscal quarter. Our government policies and personal actions must look toward a more distant horizon. We have to move beyond our ridiculous propensity to abandon our quest for energy independence with every dip in the price of oil. We can do better than this.