Years ago Pogo said: "We have met the enemy and he is us."
No truer words could apply to the horrific oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. While British Petroleum and U.S. government regulatory agencies have, deservedly, been criticized for their actions, or inactions, the cornerstone blame lies with individual Americans.
Many Americans felt sorrow or anger upon learning of the harm being done to the Gulf environment and coastal communities, but we wonder how many also experienced a feeling of guilt. Because the compulsion to drill for oil in dangerous places, or in treasures such as a pristine Ecuadorian rain forest, ultimately stems from the profligate consumption of oil by those who use internal combustion vehicles -- in other words, by virtually all of us.
There are over 240 million gas and diesel-burning vehicles in the U.S.; the vast majority were designed with power (not efficiency) in mind and their size is often grossly out of proportion to the task for which they are employed.
The pump price of oil does not include numerous external costs, for example:
Researchers have mapped out where cancer victims live; along freeways and downwind of refineries, cancer rates spike. World Health Organization studies conclude that pollution from internal combustion engines contributes to deaths of tens of thousands of Americans every year.
A recent RAND study concluded that $75 billion to $85 billion are spent annually for military costs of protecting access to oil, exclusive of the war in Iraq. It's clear that Iraq's oil reserves provided some of the initial motivation for the Iraq war, whose negative legacies -- including care of physically and mentally wounded soldiers -- will last for decades.
Oil spills kill fish, turtles, marine mammals, shellfish and birds. The bluefin tuna, one of the most majestic creatures ever to swim the oceans, and already being driven to extinction by over-fishing, is being hammered in its Gulf spawning grounds by the British Petroleum oil spill. Should the bluefin go extinct, all of us will own some of the blame, even if we've never eaten sushi or sashimi.
There is no "American right" to cheap energy that causes such harm. It's time to level the playing field. Dirty energy from fossil fuels should be priced according to its true costs to society and the environment so that market forces can work their magic to decrease waste and increase efficiency. Taxes should be levied so that external costs are internalized in the cost of a gallon of fuel thus encouraging people to purchase vehicles that run on domestic electricity rather than on dangerous offshore or on foreign oil.
Within a year, moderately priced plug-in electric vehicles are coming to market.
In the future, such vehicles can be powered by 100 percent clean, renewable electricity from the sun and the wind, while their rate of adoption will be determined by the relative costs of internal combustion vs. electric.
It is unrealistic to expect government alone to engender needed changes. Numerous Americans are financially comfortable and should consider purchasing and using electric vehicles even if their price fails to drop to quite the level of a conventional car. We should buy electric because it is the right thing to do. The ample personal reward will be to feel good; just ask anyone who owns a Toyota Prius.
Continued under pricing of oil will encourage more waste and delay the inevitable while exacerbating the harm to our country and the world's environment. It's up to us all to pay the price for a clean environment and clean energy.
Isn't now a good time to see if we can prove Pogo wrong?
Dr. Ben Zuckerman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy, and vice president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in Los Angeles. Paul Scott (www.pluginamerica.org) is vice president of Plug In America in Santa Monica, Calif.