America held hostage to foreign oil

Solution: We can break the chains that bind us to the religious fanatics and megalomaniacs of the oil-producing world, but are we willing to sacrifice our SUVs?

September 30, 2001|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

GENERAL MOTORS announced last week that it would stop manufacturing the Chevrolet Camaro and the Pontiac Firebird. That's good news. The so-called "muscle cars" attract drivers who think every roadway in America is the Indy 500.

The bad news is that GM's not going to fill the void with a sensible car. The auto manufacturer hopes to sell more SUVs. They attract drivers who think the vehicles really can climb mountains off-road and who don't care how much gasoline it takes to prove it. Or to get from Owings Mills to downtown Baltimore, for that matter.

This news brought to mind Charles E. Wilson, former president of General Motors, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of defense from 1953 to 1957.

Wilson is often misquoted as having said: "What's good for General Motors is good for the USA."

What he actually said, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1953, was: "For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa. The difference did not exist."

Reporters didn't have tape recorders in those days. Quotes sometimes came out a little differently from the notebook than from the speaker's mouth. (This would enable the speaker to declare he had never said such a thing if it was badly received.)

But my guess is that whoever first misquoted Charlie Wilson probably reflected the man's true sentiments.

Which brings us back to the SUV and what's good for the USA.

General Motors, of course, is not the only manufacturer of SUVs. Any car manufacturer that wants to turn a profit has to feed the American passion for the biggest, heaviest vehicle. Lincoln used to mean Continental, now it's Navigator. Ford used to mean Thunderbird, now it's Explorer, or, worse, Excursion. Toyota and Honda gave us sensible cars. Now they've added SUVs. Even Lexus and Mercedes have joined the mob.

The SUV has become a symbol of American excess. It's also a symbol of American gluttony for oil, and the appetite ought to be reversed. The Middle Eastern terrorists who struck America on Sept. 11 may have given us the incentive to do that.

The immense power of the greatest power on earth is being girded to search out and destroy the culprits and their accomplices. But America is not only powerful because of its huge arsenal, its mighty navy and air forces, its capacity to destroy the world. It is powerful because of its vast natural resources, its industry, and the ingenuity, enterprise, imagination and sheer energy of its people. Those are the cornerstones of a great nation.

They are also the foundation of great solutions, which have the potential to extricate us from the politics of a region that has been steeped in hatred and bloodletting since the beginning of time.

While the armed forces prepare for war, could the nation, led by the government, not seize the opportunity offered by a population's willingness to make sacrifices, and begin the weaning of America from its dependence on oil?

America is the largest consumer of oil in the world. If it weren't, it would not be held hostage to the madness of religious fanatics like Osama bin Laden, megalomaniacs like Saddam Hussein, or the menacing mullahs of Iran. Nor, for that matter, would we have to keep pretending that the intolerant Saudis and the indolent Kuwaitis are worth the sacrifice of American lives.

What if the government were to state immediately that while we go to war abroad, we are beginning a war at home to change the mindset of Americans on energy?

Enormous ingenuity and enterprise could be devoted to the development of alternative energy sources. Fund that from big taxes on any automobile that gets less than 35 miles to the gallon, any vehicle that weighs more than a ton. Trucks would be called trucks and they'd be restricted to carrying cargo, not people. Slap another $1 or $2 onto the cost of a gallon of gas - still less than Europeans are paying - and put the proceeds into research and development of everything from corn-source fuel to solar energy and battery-driven vehicles. Invest more money in the development of mass transit and national railway systems.

But what about the American oil companies, one might ask. What about them? They got us into this region in the first place. Let them eat coal; we've got plenty of it. America has enough coal to keep the country going for centuries, and it can be clean.

All of this would require a great amount of sacrifice and time, but that pales in the face of the sacrifice that American families already have made and will undoubtedly be asked to make more of in the mountains and deserts of Central Asia and elsewhere.

The sacrifice could begin with getting rid of SUVs. Visit a foreign country that manufactures SUVs and see how few they drive. They're exported to America. No more buyers here would put a stop to those exports.

As for the American manufacturers, they might heed what Charlie Wilson actually said, whether he meant it or not: ". . . what was good for our country was good for General Motors."

Gas-guzzling behemoths are not good for the country.

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