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Alternative Power

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As part of a national day of action, hundreds of people marched in downtown Washington, D.C. this morning to protest five years of the Iraq war and occupation. They blocked traffic and sought to highlight the Washington institutions that have enabled the long-running, criminal and disastrous war.

A group of protesters gathered outside of the American Petroleum Institute (API), for what was called a celebration of an expected announcement that API will change its name to the Alternative Power Institute.

Said a mocking release from the protesters: "Its first act as the new API is anticipated to be the notification of every member of the United States House and Senate whom it has legally bribed in recent years that, in light of API's just announced transition to promotion of renewable energy technologies, there is no further requirement to fund the occupation of Iraq."

This is parody with a purpose.

What if in fact the United States was no longer addicted to oil? Can anyone seriously believe the United States would have invaded Iraq? Alan Greenspan among others has acknowledged that guaranteeing the Middle Eastern supply of oil was the underlying rationale for the war.

What if in fact the oil industry -- and that of other fossil fuel industries -- ceded its political power (or if that power was taken away)?

Suddenly, the transition to a sustainable energy future would be much more achievable.

The United States, and the world, needs a massive infusion of resources into energy efficiency, renewable energy technology deployment, and research into new efficiency and renewable technologies.

We face financial and technological challenges of an enormous scale.

But the threshold problem is political. Governments are not doing what they can -- and that which scientists say must be done immediately -- because of the balance of power. Too much power for Big Oil, the auto companies, the utilities and coal companies. Too little power mobilized by the people in order to save the planet.

Since publication of Ron Suskind's 2004 New York Times magazine article, it has been commonplace to ridicule the Bush administration for not living in the "reality-based" world. I confess to having engaged in this guilty pleasure myself.

But in fact the famous Bush aide quote mocking "the reality-based community" deserves at least as much emulation as ridicule. It wasn't a comment about faith versus reality, it was a statement of a political philosophy and commitment: not to be constrained by apparent political or other restraints, but to act decisively to make history. There is a lesson to be learned here.

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

OK, there is a degree to which this quote suggests that maybe even the laws of nature can be overcome with enough willpower, but essentially the Bush adviser was saying that the administration's mission is not to accept reality, but to make it. There is something to learned here.

One lesson that can be drawn from the fifth anniversary of the shameful Iraq war, as well as from the recent Federal Reserve actions to uphold the financial system, is that the United States can find the money to do things it believes important. There are real fiscal limits, but the spectacular wealth of the United States gives it the power to find astounding resources for top priorities.

The federal government has spent $700 billion to kill hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq, on a mission leading to the deaths of 4,000 U.S. soldiers and the maiming of thousands more. The Federal Reserve has conjured $200 billion to keep Wall Street functioning.

Can there be any doubt that the United States could, tomorrow, begin spending $100 billion a year -- or much more -- to address global warming?

We can only hope that today's demonstration at API is an early, small step, taking us to alternative power -- a new political balance of power and a new and urgently felt commitment to alternative energy investment and deployment.