Monday, November 21, 2011

Listen to Wimpy: America needs to lean up its crude oil diet

One of my favorite quotes is Wimpy's: "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."

It's an insightful commentary by the writers of the Popeye cartoon that reminds me of today's rampant energy consumption. That hot greasy crude burger, sweet Saudi fixins, a side of bite-sized anthracite and bubbly fracked soda. Nothing better. Good solid American meal. Comfort food.

J. Wellington Wimpy, however, has had enough. The rather rotund, balding sidekick of this analogy needs to go on a diet.

Fat and happy public

Wimpy serves as a stand-in for the American public. For too long this nation has put off dealing with the inevitable. U.S. energy policy relies heavily on the fossil fuel spectrum that until recently made us all fat and happy.

However, the oil of the future is more expensive to recover physically and environmentally. And, we've put off paying the price on emissions. Those are coming due. We simply need to stop the influx of carbon, ozone and other noxious emissions from burned fuel.

Failing to adopt more sustainable energy sources means continuing to pass the bill down to our kids and grandkids. I'd rather give future generations something besides the massive economic burden of cleaning up our swirling cesspool of an atmosphere and costly options for energy.

Inaction could cost big

"If we do nothing, the hardworking American population is going to be paying more to turn on lights, air conditioning, and their cars -- potentially much more than if those clean energy projects are built," says Joshua Freed, vice president of the Clean Energy Initiative at Third Way, on Huffington Post.

Freed says China, India and other emerging powers want to secure all the oil, coal, and natural gas they can "because that's where the economic growth is."

Competition for limited resources means price increases. Big ones.

So sure, solar and wind are somewhat costly. But they're getting cheaper and they don't foul the nest. There's got to be huge future value in that.

No help from D.C.

Political solutions are not likely.

Brian Keane, president of nonprofit Smart Power, paints a bleak picture of the clean energy future from a policy standpoint. Republicans and Democrats can agree on little, especially anything identified by the word "green."

Keane says in a piece in Huffington Post that this divide is enhanced by Republicans' efforts to oppose anything related to solar, wind or hydrogen, especially in light of the Solyndra failiure.

Media coverage of that divide isn't helping, Keane contends. "The media's focus on the politicization of clean energy in America is cutting this growing industry off at the pass," he says.

Clean energy: hot investment

However, on a grassroots level, clean energy's stock couldn't be better. The Average Joe, regardless of political affiliation, appears interested in making the world a better place.

Sometimes these are bizarre. I stumbled across "Are We Doomed?" by It's a movie about a road trip in which three people try to find others intent on saving the planet.

Mark Dixon and Ben and Julie Evans dig into things like replicas of Native American mud huts in Nebraska. In doing so, they unfold a tale of many people on many levels fighting a pitched battle to bring back a little of what's been lost.

Spinach or hamburgers?

Doubtless Wimpy would be one of them. He's the creation of newspaper cartoonist E.C. Segar and began as a more three-dimensional character than the one I grew up with in the 1960s. Wikipedia defines him as "soft-spoken, very intelligent, and well educated, but also cowardly, very lazy, overly parsimonious and utterly gluttonous."

In some ways, he's just like the United States. We're a smart country that walks softly but, decidedly unlike Wimpy, carries a big stick. We have a huge appetite and we've gotten a bit lazy.

That could change. There are any number of viable concepts that taken separately or together could offer a world of options for an oil-dependent economy. We don't even need to completely lay off the burgers (oil), just pop a can of spinach.

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