05/12/2010 02:11 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2014

Obama, the Gulf Spill, and Jimmy Carter

Picture the jumble of pipes lying on the sea floor after BP's leased drilling platform Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, and imagine the pipes as tea leaves settling on the bottom of a cup.

Picture a wizened old lady gazing into the cup and prophesying Barak Obama's future:

"You are approaching a crisis, Mr. President. But perhaps not the crisis you think."

Obama would be well advised to pay attention, if not to a soothsaying crone then to the facts arrayed before him. With the failure of BP's effort to contain the gusher by lowering a huge containment vessel over it, the hemorrhaging continues unabated. The daily volume of oil spewing from the leak is greater than the daily output from the Republic of Chad - 210,000 gallons, compared to 170,000.

Yes, the most pressing crisis is huge: Can BP contain the leak?

But make no mistake: the crises being postponed are worse.

For starters, the chemicals now being used to make the crude oil sink instead of floating ashore pose a longer-term threat to an aquatic environment already stressed by human-caused pollution and over-fishing.

And there is the immediate political crisis to which Obama is now responding, with calls for reexamining oversight of offshore drilling. But let's hope the president sees the crisis beyond.

If the black cloud of pollution now spreading up the East Coast has any silver lining it's that BP's debacle cannot but prompt ordinary Americans to look seriously at the future. And that could spell trouble for any administration that fails to deal with the cost of our addiction to fossil fuels at this point in time.

Not everyone reads the tea leaves this way, to be sure. There is widespread denial, from the ejaculations of self-interest voiced by Louisiana elected officials - who don't want to lose the revenues - to the shrill cries emanating from the "Drill baby drill!" crowd led by Sarah Palin, whose only complaint is that BP isn't American.

But all this begs the question. What is any company doing drilling in a challenging and fragile environment without adequate safeguards, without paying fees adequate to cover such contingencies, and without fines appropriate to the scale of their profiteering. Shouldn't a portion of the fees be set aside to fund sustainable energy technologies?

Candidate Obama opposed the "Drill baby drill!" clamor, but flip-flopped earlier this year with his proposal to extend offshore drilling, presumably in a bid to win bipartisan support for his energy policy. He bears some responsibility for the continued weak oversight of coal-mining and offshore drilling.

Typically, The New York Times minimizes the import of the Gulf event in "The Spill vs. a Need to Drill," by Jad Mouawad, who observes that whatever the magnitude of the spill, "it is unlikely to seriously impede offshore drilling in the Gulf. The country needs the oil - and the jobs." The author goes on to suggest that drilling and mining have always entailed risk, and that a "fossil-fuel free future" is decades away.

But how long can the chorus of denial stand against common sense, if the underwater gusher continues much longer at this magnitude?

The situation argues for fundamental changes in energy policy of the sort President Jimmy Carter advocated more than three decades ago.

Carter's call for energy austerity was of course stunningly unpopular in his day. He was ahead of his time. The Carter reforms were rolled back by Ronald Reagan, following the watershed 1980 election, whose tragic significance is described by Andrew J. Bacevich in The Limits of Power. (See Bill Moyers interview.) The decision not to restrain our appetite for fossil fuel sent the U.S. into lockstep imperial mode, at great cost to our democracy, and at great cost abroad - as we see in Iraq.

Reagan was a faux-conservative, in Bacevich's eyes. One of Reagan's first acts as president was to remove Carter's solar collectors from the White House roof. From the Oval Office, the Great Communicator told Americans what they wanted to hear: they didn't have to change their ways; they could go on spending their energy capital as if there were no tomorrow. Since then, every occupant of the White House has followed Reagan's lead, fearing the example of Jimmy Carter.

It is that collective failure of will that has led us to the place we are today. Tomorrow has arrived. We now import a third of our oil. Yet we remain profligate - wedded to our automobiles and McMansions, infatuated with the notion of American exceptionalism - with no vision of the future or even the simple realization that alternative energy technologies will create jobs.

Forget the tea leaves. What the Gulf spill may conceivably bring is public outrage, an explosion of common sense sufficient to move our nation decisively onto the path of sustainable energy.
If an all-wise God ever sent us a sign of our own hubris - that we need to alter our habits, stop allowing oil companies to dictate public policy, and plan for a sustainable future - surely it is catastrophe erupting from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico.