Beyond Petroleum

As oil spills into the Gulf of Mexico and violence into the streets of failing states, one wonders who can clean up this mess. We tell our children to clean up after themselves, but can we muster the same self-discipline?  On a planet careening towards nine billion people, can we find the introspection to envision a world that is truly – as the BP slogan once went – beyond petroleum?

Do we, for instance, have the introspection to understand that drilling for oil, mining for coal, and supporting the oppression of petroleum regimes should all go the way of the Dodo? Do we understand that extraction is tantamount to extinction?

Do we have the self-awareness to understand that when a liberal dynasty like the Kennedy family fights a wind farm in their own view shed, it’s an invitation for Sarah Palin to tell us to “drill, baby, drill?”

And when we drill, do we have the introspection to understand that we fuel all the craven instincts most Americans hold dear, like driving a minivan to get a quart of milk, or tearing down a 2,000-square-foot house to build a 6,000-square-foot monstrosity?

As goes our land use, so goes our economy. As our bodies grow horizontally with our cities, we spend more money per capita on health care then any nation on earth. And as we feed our cravings by pouring money into roads instead of rails, care instead of prevention, and oil wars instead of renewable resources, we finally arrive at the gaping sprawl of our deficit.

Introspection demands that we ask ourselves – as our children who pay our debts shall – are we a BRIC or are we PIIGS? The BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China) are projected to have a larger combined GDP than that of the G7 by 2050. By contrast, the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain), could plunge the world into deep economic chaos due to their profligate social spending.

The future of the West is resolved for some. Mike Geoghegan, chief executive of HSBC, the world’s largest banking group and its eighth largest company, recently announced: “In a few years time, who’ll remember the G7?  We’ll remember the E7 – China, India, Brazil, Russia, Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey. These are the ones which will matter.”

Yet the West does matter.  We matter to those who would blow up a gas-guzzling Pathfinder in Times Square, those whose days are spent devising explosive underwear, those who are financed by the spoils of our SUVs, our regional air travel, and our belief that highways alone somehow constitute infrastructure.

In the end the real question is whether we matter to ourselves.   Do we really care about our coastlines, our safety, and our civilization? Do we have the strength to reject the threat that is oil, both foreign and domestic? Do we have the vision to recognize that we have seen the enemy, and it is the suburban house?  Do we have the will to embrace high-density living as the only solution, the only land use that limits our energy use, our health care costs, our vulnerability to petro-dictators, and our free fall into a sprawling national deficit?

Let us cry over this spilled oil, but let us then find some introspection in the tragedy. Let us rebuild this nation by being the America that built Grand Central Terminal and Park Avenue, by being the America that built the inter-continental railroad, by being the America that once welcomed striving immigrants to the shores of her cities, by being the America that invented the Internet and alternative energy. Let us build a new America that desires density and shuns suburbs.

Let us not be babies who drill and spill. Let us build a Country of Cities.