The superb New York Times reporter John Broder recently filed a front page story noting that the U.S. government would be tightening the regulation of offshore drilling operations. According to Broder:
"The more stringent environmental reviews are part of a wave of new regulation and legislation that promises to fundamentally remake an industry that has operated hand-in-glove with its government overseers for decades....Many oil industry officials worry that the new environmental, safety, technical and financial requirements will drive some companies out of business, discourage future exploration and worsen the nation's dependence on imported oil."
The story also quotes industry concern that the BP explosion would do for the oil industry what Three Mile Island did for the nuclear power industry. The federal response is a reasonable reaction to America's worst environmental catastrophe since the Dust Bowl of the 1930's. The industry reaction is equally reasonable and understandable from their perspective, but fails to state the obvious. There is an alternative to drilling for more oil or importing more oil--it's called renewable energy. Why is the issue framed as one of domestic vs. foreign oil? This is a talking point driven effort to control the agenda and spin the dialogue.
The end of nuclear power plant siting in the United States increased our reliance on coal to fuel our electric plants. We traded one environmental risk for another. What is the likely impact of reduced oil drilling? Higher oil prices and some increases in imported oil. But let's focus for a moment on the impact of higher oil prices. As damaging as the increased costs of oil will be to the economy and to American families, it could also stimulate investment in technology that could bring down the price of renewable energy. Short term pain could buy us a long term gain. The difference between the Gulf disaster and Three Mile Island is the energy options available to us now include wind and solar power. With increased federal funding for research and development, and some tax incentives for investment in renewable energy (how about a reduced capital gains tax for renewables?), we might finally be able to jump-start the green energy economy.
The current energy policy debate in Washington D.C. is based on an exchange of propaganda and talking points, as well as a preoccupation with symbolic and substance-free ideologically grounded positions. This is a symptom of a breakdown in informal dialogue. This type of dialogue was epitomized by the late House Speaker Tip O'Neil and his generation who would fight ferociously during the workday, and then break bread, smoke cigars and share (too much) drink at day's end.
This erosion of informal community can be seen throughout our society. I found an example of this in my summer beach read October Men, Roger Kahn's wonderful 2003 volume about the New York Yankee's teams of the late 1970's. At the end of the book, he observed how accessible baseball teams were during spring training in the late '70s. The ball players were finally making decent salaries but were not the millionaires of today's game. They all stayed in the same team-sponsored hotel, ate at the same restaurants, hung around the pool on off days and patronized the same bars. Kahn and the other sportswriters of the time had lots of informal access to the team, but of equal importance, the team practically lived together and got to know each other before the season started. Kahn observes that today the millionaire stars of the team rent their own homes during spring training and don't get that intense informal time they used to get when they stayed in one hotel. Now they send each other text messages.
Kahn's baseball tale got me thinking about our national legislature. There was once a time when many of our Senators and Representatives moved their families to the Washington D.C. metropolitan region, and they and their families developed informal social ties that often cut across regional and political boundaries. Today, members of Congress are reluctant to bring their families to Washington for fear they will be contaminated by Potomac Fever or the corrupting influence of the federal bureaucracy. Modern air travel has made it possible for legislators to spend their time in both places and keep their families where their constituencies live. In the old days, slower travel made this impossible and the result was a Congress that worked and lived in the same town. While sometimes that resulted in fistfights on the floor of the House, and it is true that Joe McCarthy and other legislators demonstrated the possibility of overheated rhetoric, intense personal conflict was muted by informal friendships and family ties. While I do not advocate a return to the sexist, homophobic and racist good old days and those good old boys, we need to develop new informal ways of interacting.
In addition to these changing social norms, changes in information technology has resulted in the 24-7 web based, satellite linked communication system. The impact of this technology has been an onslaught of unmediated, unverified, and poorly documented messages that hit us on our TVs, computers and smart phones. This is exacerbated by the collapse of the business model that supported broadcast and print journalism. Today our media is increasingly composed of messages such as the piece you are reading. There is no fact checking in the blogosphere and no peer review; how can a reader distinguish fact from fiction? While we try not to pretend these messages are objective and factual, some people think that if it "appears on the web it must be true." The potential for mischief is considerable.
In July U.S. Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod was fired for a video, posted by Andrew Breitbart, of a March 27 speech Ms. Sherrod gave to the NAACP. The edited version made Ms. Sherrod appear to be a racist, but the full version demonstrated the opposite. In a horrifying example of the potential impact of disinformation on public policy, the Obama Administration fired her before the real story caught up with the apology. Or if you don't like that example, how about the "Mosque at Ground Zero." You know the one, the building that is not a mosque and is not at Ground Zero. I guess the "Islamic Community Center at the site of the former Burlington Coat Factory" doesn't pack the same emotional punch.
How can we craft a meaningful response to the challenge of global sustainability in an environment as poisonous as this? How can we achieve the sophisticated degree of management we need to both use and protect the resources this planet provides? My hope is that as the communication technology develops, the next generation of web-based tools will facilitate information flow, dialogue and informal social bonds. Perhaps we will need to wait for a generation that has grown up with the internet to teach the rest of us how to make it our servant rather than our master.