U.S. should lead on conservation

November 19, 2007|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- The mythology of the Old West is replete with tales of dry land and drought, of parched landscapes and prayers for rain. Hollywood has told many a story of rainmakers - men, and occasionally women, who wandered the prairie with promises of a magic that could cause the heavens to open up and pour water down upon the earth.

Suddenly, the desperation that drove such claims doesn't seem so far-fetched in the Southeastern United States, where severe drought is drying up wells and emptying reservoirs. Humanity has progressed mightily since the days of Conestoga wagons, but we still can't make rain.

Nor fossil fuels. Our technological breakthroughs are indeed miraculous, but mankind still cannot create one of the essentials of life - water - or one of the great luxuries of life: petroleum. There are limits.

Oddly, we seem to have hardly noticed. In the industrialized world, especially in the United States, we consume precious resources as if abundance were our birthright. And we're angered by anyone who suggests otherwise.

When President Jimmy Carter was faced with an embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, he responded by ordering conservation. Americans complied, but only grudgingly. And we despised him for insisting that we make do with less.

That's why no president has dared suggest since then that Americans make sacrifices, that we learn to live with limits. We want to drive Hummers to work and plant rice in the desert. Somehow, the American Dream has become identified with excess: bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger bathrooms.

Meanwhile, fast-developing countries, especially India and China, admire our consumption patterns and copy our habits. They, too, want automobiles, air-conditioning, golf courses and shopping malls. Americans are hardly in a position to lecture them about conservation when we've set such a poor example.

So when the oil-rich sheikhs of the desert kingdom of Dubai build the world's biggest indoor ski resort, who are we to criticize? The sorry truth is that Americans are actually paying for that ski resort, and all the other fabulous excesses of Dubai, through our addiction to oil.

If there is any good news, it is this: We're becoming aware of the cost of our petroleum profligacy. Not only are we enriching jihadists in oil-rich countries, but our consumption is also fueling climate change. The environmental agenda is gaining adherents. Besides, price tends to get our attention. With petroleum hovering near $100 a barrel, motorists are bound to use less. Congress may finally demand more fuel efficiency from automobiles and perhaps even get serious about investments in alternative fuels.

But a limited water supply is not something we've been forced to think about, especially in greener areas of the United States, like Georgia. We believe drought is cyclical.

Many climatologists have warned, however, that one consequence of global warming is more frequent and more severe droughts. Maybe we should learn to live with fewer golf courses and swimming pools, with lawns that demand less pampering and cars that still look just fine with less washing.

We ought to set an example of conservation in a world with an expanding population and limited resources. Already, scientists predict that wars in the near future will be waged over water. Instead of modeling excess, perhaps the United States can be a model of temperance, of living within nature's bounds.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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