We have become a nation of second-guessing Hamlets. Shakespeare
warned us about the dangers of "thinking too precisely." His poor
Danish prince lost "the name of action," as he dithered and sighed that
"conscience does make cowards of us all."
With gas over $4 a gallon, the public is finally waking up to the fact that for decades the United States
has not been developing known petroleum reserves in Alaska, in our
coastal waters or off the Continental Shelf. Jittery Hamlets apparently
forgot that gas comes from oil - and that before you can fill your
tank, you must take risks to fill a tanker.
Building things is a good indication of the relative confidence of a
society. But the last American gasoline refinery was built almost three
decades ago. As "cowards of our conscious," we've come up with
countless mitigating reasons not to build a new one. Our inaction has
meant our nation's gasoline facilities have grown old, out of date and
Maybe Americans can instead substitute plug-in, next-generation
electric cars that can be charged at night on the nation's grid powered
by nuclear power plants? Wrong again. We haven't issued a single new
license that actually led to the building of a nuclear power plant in
more than 30 years.
Shakespeare's Hamlet again would warn second-guessing Americans
that, "A thought, which, quarter'd, hath but one part wisdom/And ever
three parts coward."
But the problem of inaction extends far beyond the present energy crisis.
Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of a border fence with Mexico,
President Bush signed into law a bill passed by both houses of Congress
authorizing more than 700 miles of fencing at key junctures. This was
back in 2006.
Environmentalists and private property owners tried to legally
challenge the fence. And the Mexican government - the same government
that publishes comic books instructing its citizens on how to sneak
across illegally into the United States - cried foul. As a result,
nearly two years later, the fence is barely half-finished.
We are nearing the seventh anniversary of the destruction of the
World Trade Center. Its replacement - the Freedom Tower - should have
been a sign of our determination and grit right after Sept. 11, 2001.
But it is only now reaching street level. Owners, renters, builders and
government have all fought endlessly over the design, the cost and the
In contrast, in the midst of the Great Depression, our far poorer
grandparents built the Empire State Building in 410 days - not a
perfect design, but one good enough to withstand a fuel-laden World War
II-era bomber that once crashed into it.
Despite unsophisticated 19th-century architectural and engineering
science, not to mention legions of snooty French art critics, the
Eiffel Tower in Paris was finished in a little more than two years and
is as popular as ever well over a century later.
In my home state of California, we spent a decade arguing over the
replacement for portions of the aging and earthquake-susceptible San
Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Now that the design has finally been
agreed to, it will be several years before it is finished. That's quite
a contrast to the original bridge that was completed in just over three
California is also in yet another predictable drought and ensuing
water shortage. Despite strict conservation and new water-saving
technology, we simply don't have enough water for households,
recreation, industry and agriculture. Building new dams, reservoirs and
canals, you see, would apparently be considered unimaginative and
relics of the 20th century.
The causes of this paralysis are clear. Action entails risks and
consequences. Mere thinking doesn't. In our litigious society, as soon
as someone finally does something, someone else can become wealthy by
finding some fault in it. Meanwhile a less fussy, more confident world
abroad drills, and builds nuclear plants, refineries, dams and canals
to feed and fuel millions who want what we take for granted.
In our present comfort, Americans don't seem to understand nature.
We believe our climate-controlled homes, comfortable offices and easy
air and car travel are just like grass or trees; apparently they should
sprout up on their own for our benefit.
Americans also harp about the faults of prior generations. We would
never make their blunders - even as we don't seem to mind using the
power plants, bridges and buildings that they handed down to us.
Finally, high technology and the good life have turned us into
utopians, fussy perfectionists who demand heaven on Earth. Anytime a
sound proposal seems short of perfect, we consider it not good, rather
than good enough.
Hamlet asked, "To be, or not to be: that is the question." In our
growing shortages of infrastructure, food, fuel and water, we've
already answered that: "Not to be!"