I recently stood on the windy coast of North Carolina where Orville and Wilbur Wright made their maiden flight in 1903. That motorized glider, constructed with bicycle parts, lifted off and flew nearly 900 feet in 59 seconds. Americans, astonishingly, were walking on the moon 66 years later.
The miracle of U.S. air and space travel, achieved in an eye blink, is something we should keep in mind as we once again turn to our coastlines for answers. The same windy Atlantic shore that gave rise to human flight now offers a new fork in the road with two profoundly different technological and moral visions awaiting our national decision.
One vision involves turning thousands of miles of our shoreline - on both coasts - into new havens for oil drilling. Never mind rapid global warming. Never mind our reckless addiction to oil. Never mind federal government data showing it would do little for gas prices. The new drumbeat, even among many Democrats, is, "We gotta get more - offshore, onshore, wherever."
That's certainly one vision for our coastlines for the 21st century.
Thankfully, there's another, entirely different, vision out there. It embraces the pioneering spirit of the Wright brothers. It promises positive, transformative, sky's-the-limit change. It's a vision that says: Let's build along our coastlines, but instead of oil platforms, let's put up wind farms. And let's tap the power of ocean waves and ocean tides for energy, rather than climate-wrecking crude oil. In the process, let's make history so that schoolchildren remember 2008 they way they now remember 1903.
A single offshore wind farm under development in neighboring Delaware will create enough electricity for hundreds of thousands of homes, and at a competitive price. A similar wind farm, only barely visible from shore, is now under discussion for Maryland's coast. (Another option that hasn't been mentioned locally yet is wave-action turbines of the type being deployed off the coasts of England and Northern Ireland, which are able to convert daily tides into electricity.) Offshore wind power in America alone - using thousands of turbines properly sited to protect birds and marine life - could provide 100 percent of the electricity Americans currently use, according to a 2005 report sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and General Electric.
Given the clean-energy potential of our coastlines, it's a tragedy that President Bush and other leaders still promote the radically false solution of more oil drilling. Not only would it take decades to explore for, discover and then extract more offshore oil, but it wouldn't even make a difference to our economy.
Total undiscovered oil resources below the U.S. Atlantic seabed would, at best, supply just six months' worth of American oil demand. The U.S. Energy Department reports that even adding new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Pacific coast "would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas prices before 2030."
Meanwhile, drastic climate change is happening right now. Federal scientists announced last month that the Arctic North Pole could thaw and turn to open water as early as this summer for the first time in human history. Meanwhile, extreme drought, floods and wildfires continue to plague a nation simultaneously reeling from $4-a-gallon gasoline.
Why in the world, under such conditions, would we want to deepen our addiction to oil? More drilling now would be like watching the Wright brothers' flight in 1903 and, as a nation, promptly committing our country's transportation infrastructure to a system of horse-drawn wagons. There's no future in it. None.
President Bush is right in one sense: We need to maximize our offshore assets. He just has the wrong energy source in mind. Instead of endless oil derricks that bring polluted beaches and rising seas, it's time to move to wind and wave power. These proven technologies, combined with money-saving efficiency gains nationwide, will finally free us from the twin tyrannies of oil and climate change.
That's a vision worth getting excited about - one that will revolutionize our lives on a scale equal to the Wright brothers.
So let's choose it now. Let's spread our wings and take to the wind.
Mike Tidwell, a writer and filmmaker, is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network in Takoma Park. His e-mail is email@example.com.