Tuesday was Earth Day, and it reminded us how environmentalism has
helped to preserve the natural habitat of the United States — reducing
the manmade pollution of our soils, air and water that is a byproduct
of comfortable modern industrial life.
But now we are in a
new phase of global environmental challenges, as billions of people
across an interconnected and resource-scarce world seek an affluent
lifestyle once confined to Europe and the United States.
longer are the old environmental questions of pollution versus
conservation so simply framed. Instead, the choices facing us, at least
for the next few decades, are not between bad and good, but between bad
and far worse — and involve wider questions of global security,
fairness and growing scarcity.
One example of where these
diverse and often complex concerns meet is the debate over
transportation. Until hydrogen fuel cells or electric batteries can
power cars economically and safely, we will continue relying on
gasoline or similar combustible fuels. But none of our current ways of
addressing the problem of transportation fuel are without some sort of
We can, for example, keep importing a growing share
of our petroleum needs. That will ensure the global oil supply remains
tight and expensive. Less-developed, authoritarian countries like
Russia, Sudan and Venezuela will welcome the financial windfall, and
keep polluting their tundra, coasts, deserts and lakes to pump as much
as they can.
Rising world oil prices ensure that Vladimir
Putin, or his handpicked successor, can continue to bully Europe; that
Venezuela's Hugo Chavez can intimidate his neighbors; that Iran's
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can promise Israel's destruction; and that al Qaeda
and its affiliates can be funded by sympathetic Middle East sheiks.
Such regional strongmen and terrorists cease being mere thugs and
evolve into strategic threats once they have billions of petrodollars.
United States, in taking advantage of a cheap dollar, may set records
in exporting American goods and services this year. But we will still
end up with massive trade deficits, given that we import every day more
than 12 million barrels of oil, now at a cost of over $100 each on the
world market. It takes a lot of American wheat, machinery and computer
software to pay a nearly half-trillion-dollar annual tab for imported
An alternative is to concentrate more on biofuels.
American farmers now are planting the largest acreage of corn in more
than 60 years. But the result is that fuel now competes with food
production — and not just here, as Europe and South America likewise
turn to ethanols.
One result is higher corn prices, which means climbing food bills
for cattle, pigs and poultry, and thus skyrocketing meat, pork, chicken
and turkey prices. Plus, with more acreage devoted to corn, there is
less for other crops like cotton, wheat, rice and soy — and the prices
of those commodities are soaring as well.
increasing use of homegrown ethanol seems to be raising the price of
food for the world's poor, just as our importation of oil enriches the
world's already wealthy and dangerous.
What, then, is the least pernicious alternative — and the most environmentally, financially and ethically sound?
for a while longer it is not just to trust in promising new
technologies like wind and solar power. For decades to come, these will
only provide a fraction of our energy needs.
from greater conservation, we must develop more traditional energy
resources at home. That would mean building more nuclear power plants,
intensifying efforts at mining and burning coal more cleanly — and
developing more domestic oil, while retooling our vehicles to be even
lighter and more fuel-efficient.
Nuclear power poses risks of
proper disposal of radioactive wastes. Coal heats the atmosphere. But
both can also cut our need to import fossil fuels to run our
generators, while offering electrical energy to charge efficient and
clean cars of the not-too-distant future.
No one wants a
nuclear plant in his county. But, then, no one wants to leave the
country bankrupt paying for imported fuel, or vulnerable by empowering
hostile foreign oil producers, or insensitive to the price of food for
It is also time to re-evaluate domestic oil
production in environmental — and moral — terms. The question is no
longer simply whether we want to drill in the Alaskan wilderness or off
the Florida or California coasts. Rather, the dilemma is whether by
doing so, we can mitigate the world's ecological risks beyond our
shores, deny dictators financial clout, get America out of debt and
help the poor afford food.
We may not like oil platforms off
the beach or mega-tankers in Arctic waters, but the alternatives for
now are far worse — in both environmental and ethical terms.